Learn to identify emotional eating

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Culinary writer and autobiographer, M.F.K. Fisher once wrote: “People ask me, ‘Why do you write about food, and eating, and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way the others do.’ The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry.”

The rich fruity sweetness of a freshly-baked pie, the strong, savory garlic of a simmering stew, the gentle yeasty warmth of bread rising in the oven: Who can resist the pleasure of eating good food? Beyond merely keeping us alive, however, food is no simple matter. Look closely at almost any scene and you’ll probably see food there, too.

Food expresses our ideas about relaxation, pleasure, and generosity. It can demonstrate the measure of our love or the extent of our unhappiness. It mirrors our politics, our ethics, and is central to how we understand the world, even showing up in language, in the form of metaphors or clichés, such as “Life is sweet,” “Truth is a bitter pill to swallow,” “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” or, “You are what you eat.”

Most importantly, however, food, and the way we eat it, also mirrors the state of our inner lives. Accordingly to the American Diabetes Association, more than 33 percent of Americans are overweight and twice as many believe that they are overweight. Conservative estimates indicate that after puberty, 5-10 million girls and women and one million boys and men are struggling with eating disorders including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or borderline conditions. The growing national aversion to fat is reflected in the insidious power of the diet culture and in the growth of the weight loss industry. Figures from the late 1990s showed that Americans spent $50 billion annually on diet products, a figure equivalent to the gross national product of Ireland! At a cost of roughly $180 per pound, it’s astonishing as well as disappointing that, in fact, dieting seldom results in significant or lasting weight loss, and that the majority of people who begin diets will fail.

Why do most diets fail? Popular wisdom blames the lack of will power, but the answer has more to do with why we eat in the first place. And, if food is being used as a chemotherapeutic solution to a painful state of being, then it’s less useful, at least at the outset, to speak of willpower in trying to understand why most diets fail.

Rather, we might speak of competing needs—the need to eat reasonably versus the need to anaesthetize a painful inner state such as loneliness or sadness or emptiness. Kim Chernin, author of “The Obsession; Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness,” wrote tellingly about eating to compensate for what she lacked.

She wrote: “What I wanted from food was companionship, comfort, reassurance, a sense of warmth and well-being that was hard for me to find in my own life, even in my own home.” It’s easy to understand how food, and the pleasure associated with satisfying hunger, can be used to temporarily fill inner emptiness.

Emotional eating—eating in response to emotional triggers such as anxiety, stress, boredom, anger, loneliness, fatigue or depression, rather than in response to real physical hunger—clearly poses true challenges to the dieter and may, in fact, be a cry for help. From within the safety of therapy, the unconscious meaning of eating can be explored. The longings to be filled up can be understood and worked through and resolved so that there is less of an emotional need for food. As the emotional need for food is resolved, the ability to self-monitor is improved. Now we can speak about success rates and will power! Here are some tips.

It’s no secret that monitoring food intake is an important component of successful weight loss for anyone. Studies show that those who regularly monitored intake lost more weight than those who did not. Monitoring means:

- Eating only when seated

- Eating only from a plate

- Taking medium-sized portions

- Leaving some food on the plate

- Using hunger cues as a reminder that you’re on track

- Not eating in front of the television

It’s also no secret that exercise reduces stress, helps control appetite, gives you energy, and improves sleep. Dig out that bicycle!

Finally, new research shows that while the average upper-middle class consumer has some 20 contacts with food a day (the grazing phenomenon), the amount of time spent eating with others is actually falling. That’s true even within families. Three-quarters of Americans don’t eat breakfast together, and sit-down dinners have fallen to just three a week. But contact, companionship, interaction—these do more than just make self-monitoring easier. They help to fill inner emptiness, reduce stress, and generate a sense of well-being, so that one can say without guilt and without emotional motivation: ”I’m hungry!”

Lisa Lempel-Sander is a psychotherapist in Douglaston. She can be reached at 225-0552.

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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