There are a myriad of reasons why a person struggles with their weight and yo-yo diets. Health experts tell us weight problems are due to the amount of energy we consume not equalling the amount of energy we expend, and the excess is stored as fat. Really, the answer is quite simple – eat less, exercise more, and you’ll lose weight. And then there’ll be no need for all this fuss about obesity epidemics.
But as dieters know only too well - it’s not that simple. The reasons why we eat too much are extremely complex. They include: eating too fast, non-hungry eating, eating because we’ve smelled or seen something delicious, eating because we’re thirsty, eating because other people are eating, eating junk because we’re time poor, and emotional eating.
Emotional eating may be at the end of the list but it probably deserves to be in bold and underlined. EMOTIONAL EATING. Let’s take a peek into this can of worms.
Some people overeat to avoid or distract themselves from overwhelming feelings of loneliness, abandonment, feeling ignored or neglected. For these people a sensation of emptiness creeps up on them when they’re alone or feel let down, and they eat to fill the vacant space inside. But of course, food can’t fill that empty space, and although it’s comforting for a while, the empty feeling soon returns.
Some people overeat to bury their anger. Perhaps the message they received when they were growing up was anger wasn’t tolerated, it’s somehow bad and needs to be repressed. Others secretly acknowledge their anger but are very good at repressing it. Of course, anger’s just an emotion like any other emotion, and still needs to be expressed (in appropriate ways). But without the skills to do this, and the ability to process their overwhelming feelings, these people turn to food to literally bury or choke back anger.
Others stumble under an enormous burden of guilt. They feel guilty about everything they’re not doing, and they also take it upon themselves to feel guilt for others as well. Dealing with guilt is hard work, and they may turn to food to lighten the burden or make it more bearable. Of course, this doesn’t work, but it might help for a while.
Some people suffer enormous shame. They’re not as good, successful, or clever as everyone else seems to be, and there’s something in their lives that leaves them feeling very very ashamed. Sometimes, something bad happened to these people, but instead of blaming the appropriate person, they’ve hoisted the blame and the shame onto their own shoulders. Shame is a one of the very prickly and difficult-to-process emotions. It can be unbearable, but food can sometimes give the sufferer solace, for a time...
Sometimes a person hasn’t received the love and attention they needed growing up. Busy or distracted parents, or parents struggling with their own demons may have been unable to give them the nurturing they required to feel loved and lovable. These people may internalise this important lack in their lives as their fault – they feel unlovable or unworthy of love. These very painful feelings are unbearable, so they turn to food to comfort and nurture themselves.
For some people, something happens and they struggle to cope. It may be the breakdown of an important relationship, a problem at work, or family problems. One day they turn to chocolate, for example, in an attempt to comfort themselves. It works, and they feel better, so snacking on chocolate every time they feel distressed quickly becomes a habit.
So what do you do if you’re an emotional yo-yo dieter? There are many ways to approach this, and for some people, the first step is to work out why you’re binge or comfort eating. Identify the emotions around your eating – are you sad, confused, lonely, bored, fearful, or feeling something different? To do this, you first need to recognise that you’re binge or overeating, and slow down to identify your feelings and your thoughts.
Make a list of the times and kinds of food you comfort eat with, then make a list of the feelings and thoughts that occur just before, during and after you comfort eat. You may be surprised with what comes up, and you may need to talk to someone you trust about it.
Next, make a list of alternative ways you can behave when you have those feelings, and other ways of thinking. For example, if you identify that you feel lonely just before you binge on chocolate, and your thought is, I’ll feel better if I eat all that chocolate, write this down. Then next to it, put some alternatives. Such as: when I feel lonely I will phone a friend or go on Facebook instead. When I think I’ll feel better if I eat chocolate, I can instead think, I actually won’t feel better, I’ll feel worse because I’ll feel disgusted with myself and I’ll get the low after the sugar high. So instead I’m going to think: I might think I’ll feel better if I eat chocolate, but I know I actually won’t. I’ll feel better if I reach out to someone and don’t feel so alone.
Now this stuff is hard to identify and work on by yourself, but it is doable. Give yourself the time you need to have a good look at what you’re feeling and thinking, and plan some alternatives. Strategies like this can work well for some, others find issues around weight loss tumultuous and almost impossible to embark upon alone. If this is you, seek some professional help.