When I was a clinical intern in the last year of my doctoral program, I worked in a hospital outpatient clinic that specialized in the treatment of eating disorders. Among the patients I had treated in that program were many young women who suffered from bulimia. Each had unique issues and different histories leading up to the problem, but when they described how they experienced their episodes of compulsive bingeing and purging, they did so in almost identical terms. I wasn’t surprised to hear them describe purging as a very negative experience, but if I was asked to guess how they would describe the food binges that preceded them, I would have expected them to say that they were in some way positive or enjoyable. But that was rarely if ever the case.

Instead, they depicted their emotional state during a binge as, at best, emotional numbness. They would turn off the thinking and feeling parts of the experience, and almost mechanically, would proceed to stuff themselves with a large amount of food. They described a sense of disconnection from the behavior, not enjoying it and barely even tasting it. It was as if the outcome was so inevitable they might as well just turn on the autopilot and quickly get it over with. If they were aware of any feelings at all they were negative: self-loathing, guilt, disgust. When I heard this same theme repeated by many of these young women, I recalled something I had learned in one of my undergraduate psychology classes that should have contradicted their accounts, and I couldn’t make sense of it.

In 1905, one of the earliest American psychologists, Edward Thorndike, discovered a principle of behavior that he called the law of effect. We now consider the idea so basic and intuitive that it seems surprising anyone even had to “discover” it. In simple terms, the law of effect states that if a behavior produces a satisfying effect in a particular situation it is more likely to occur again under similar circumstances, and if it produces a negative or uncomfortable effect it is less likely to be repeated.

The problem that bothered me may by now be obvious to you. According to Thorndike, even a puppy can be trained to be housebroken if  some negative experience follows the behavior. So why did my patients with bulimia continue to engage in a behavior that left them feeling physically ill, depressed, guilty, and out of control? Not only were they willing to repeat the behavior in spite of the known consequences, but they felt compelled to do it! This was troubling to me, and I was given a variety of unsatisfying explanations by people more experienced than I. But as a trainee I figured I must be missing something that was obvious to everyone else so I put the question aside.

A few years later, I began a clinical practice treating patients with a wide range of psychological problems. After about ten years in practice, I became interested in the area of health psychology, and narrowed the focus of my practice to work with people who wished to improve their health behaviors and lower their risk of chronic illness. Since obesity is the primary preventable cause of heart disease and diabetes, I began to specialize in helping people who had difficulty managing their weight and eating behavior. Most of these patients struggled with emotional eating.

As I have always done when I meet and evaluate patients with a behavioral problem, I would ask them to describe their thoughts and feelings while they engaged in the unwanted behavior. Almost all of them conveyed their experience in negative terms, or like the bulimic patients I had treated as an intern, as emotional numbness. It wasn’t long before I recalled the puzzle I had set aside years before: Why would anyone repeat a behavior that makes them feel worse? This time, however, I was not going to let go of it. If there was one thing I had learned by then, it was that many experienced people tend to take things for granted and fail to ask the most obvious questions. And often, it is the obvious questions that are most important. The answer to my question took a while longer to find, but I finally solved it with the unintentional help one of my patients.

Lauren was a very successful and driven sales manager. She was able to lose more than 15 pounds over a six month period. Around the time that she lost the weight, she was in the process of changing jobs in a very high pressure industry because she was feeling under utilized. She had started a new job, but with less time flexibility and increased responsibility, she became quite busy and was soon no longer able to continue coming in for therapy. Although she had not yet reached her desired weight, she was happy with her progress and felt she had a good sense of what she needed to do to continue on her own.

After about eight months without hearing from Lauren, I received a call from her asking to set up an appointment. She explained that she had gained back all of the weight she had lost, plus six more pounds. Although she loved her new job, she was very stressed, traveling four days a week. With a husband and two young children, along with many social and volunteer responsibilities, Lauren was pulled in so many directions that she felt she was not fully meeting any of her obligations, especially in her personal and family relationships.

She knew that her overeating was not about enjoying the food itself. As with virtually all of the other patients I was seeing for binge eating, she did not enjoy any part of the eating itself. This behavior was also not directly a result of her frequent travel and lunch meetings in restaurants. In fact, she was always very careful about what she ate when she was with other people because she was self-conscious about what they would think.

She explained that several times a week she would binge when she was alone in her hotel room and needed to take a break from her tightly-packed schedule and responsibilities and just let go. As she described it, “Eating without thinking about it is like taking a mini-vacation or going to a spa whenever I need it. I’m not enjoying what I eat; I just need to let go every once in a while.”

As I listened to her describe her experience, I realized that I had the answer to my question about what triggered her behavior and what maintained it. The reinforcement was powerful; it was just not as obvious a reward as enjoying a snack or giving a treat to a puppy. Call it defiance, rebellion, or self-determination; people have a need to abandon restraint when they feel controlled. Even though the experience was always brief and had a bad outcome, it allowed her to satisfy a much stronger need: to feel free. Thorndike’s law of effect had not, after all, been repealed.

My approach to treating emotional eating had shifted from that point forward. I realized that it was not about food, eating, or even loss of control; it was about gaining autonomy. Instead of viewing it as a passive breakdown of resistance, I see it as an active need to let go by abandoning control and relieving the pressure of restraint.

Why do we have such a strong need to be free of control? Coming up.

From the original forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden to the simplistic advice to “just say no” to drugs, it has been accepted wisdom that self-control is best exercised by an exertion of willpower. However, despite the time-honored history and intuitive appeal of this concept no one has been able to define exactly what willpower is or how it works. What allows one person to pass up dessert while another person can’t resist the temptation? In fact, why can the same person resist temptation one moment but give in to it the next? Various suggestions have been offered to answer this question.

One idea is that the ability to restrain behavior is a cognitive process in which certain information is necessary to help you decide the best choice to make. Think of it as Mr. Spock’s approach to self-control: you choose whatever you decide will work best and is therefore the most logical. Another explanation is that self-control is a skill that improves with practice, which might explain why adults are (usually) less impulsive than children. A third possibility is that self-control is a resource like muscle strength. Some people just have more of it than others, and it can even vary at different times in the same individual. According to this view, it requires a strong “willpower muscle” to overcome temptation.

About twenty years ago, a group of social psychologists, led by Roy Baumeister, tested these ideas. They did some experiments to determine which of these theories is correct by examining the behavior of volunteers in a series of laboratory studies using a dual task paradigm. This simply means that the research volunteers (college students getting class credit, so I use the term “volunteers” loosely) were asked to perform two different tasks, one after the other, both requiring the research subject to use self-restraint.

According to the idea that it is a logical process, the thoughts that are necessary to make a good decision and exercise restraint can be primed or prepared by the first task to improve performance on another self-control task that follows. The idea is that the first task gets them in the state of mind to use self-control, so their performance on the second task should improve. A different prediction would be made if it was a skill that improves with practice. Since one or two practice trials would not be enough to have a measurable effect, performance on the second task should not change. If, on the other hand, self-control is a resource or strength, then restraint should worsen as each attempt to use that “muscle” would weaken it.

Each of the three theories predicts a different outcome, so only one of the three competing explanations could remain standing. The studies showed that when the subjects had to restrain themselves on the first task, their performance was worse on the second one. These findings support the idea that self-control is a limited resource that gets depleted with use. This effect, often referred to as “ego depletion,” was seen whether or not the second task was related to the one that preceded it, as long as they both required self-control.

This basic research design has been repeated frequently in different ways and has consistently shown that self-control gets worse after it has been used. The conclusion that the researchers came to was that there is a supply of willpower that we have at any given time, and it gets weaker the more it’s used. Presumably, just like muscle strength, this supply is restored with rest, so you should be good to go the next day. A second question, though, has the real practical pay-off because it’s the one most non-scientists really want to know: how can self-control be strengthened? The researchers’ answer to that question also follows the logic of the muscle metaphor. If willpower works like a muscle, it should be strengthened with exercise.

Well, as scientists like to say, that’s an empirical question. So to test this hypothesis, the researchers used the same protocol from the original study, consecutive self-control tasks, but this time the same two tasks were repeated two weeks later. In-between these sessions the subjects were given exercises to do, as a kind of home workout to build willpower strength. This study found some improvement in how long it took to deplete self-control for the second task, but, as the authors acknowledge, it did not improve the ability to actually exert self-control. “Following the muscle analogy, our results did not show that the muscle (i.e., self-control) had any greater power after two weeks of exercise, although the results did indicate that it had greater stamina and was less prone to suffer from rapid fatigue after the exercise.”

The results of other studies that examined this question were, at best, mixed. A detailed critique of this research is beyond the scope of this summary, but it is clear that the results do not offer convincing support for the idea that a “willpower workout” can improve self-control. At best, it improves a very limited aspect of control. Unfortunately, this is of little comfort to those who want some practical advice on how to gain some control over their unwanted behavior.

Before I learned about this research about six years ago, I had been treating many patients who had difficulty with self-control. Most of the people that I saw were struggling with their weight due to emotional eating, but there were also many among them who had other behavior control problems as well, such as compulsive shopping, binge drinking, and gambling. My clinical experience was consistent with the laboratory findings that behavioral control does get worse when people had to restrain themselves in other ways. The behaviors often occurred in the context of increased work stress, marital stress, and very commonly, the stress of feeling obligated to take care of other peoples’ needs without complaint. I know that last one sounds very specific, but it was surprisingly common among the emotional eaters.

I did eventually figure out a connection between these stressful experiences and the behaviors that accompanied them, but I had come to a very different conclusion than Baumeister and his colleagues as to why this happens. Most importantly, my understanding of this effect has very concrete and practical implications that led me to a conclusion about how to treat these patients that is the opposite of the one he came to. Rather than improving self-control by practicing more of it, I tell my patients to figure out where they’re experiencing a lot of self-restraint and do less of it. I have been using this approach with very good outcomes over the past six years.

When I eventually discovered this body of research, I read it carefully to understand why our explanations of why this happens were so different if we’re seeing the same thing, and I think I figured it out: the difference is in how we view the concept of self-control. My way of understanding it also helped me solve a mystery that had first bothered me more than twenty years ago. I’ll describe that in more detail, as well as the implications for change, in future posts.

What do we mean when we refer to emotional eating, and how does it differ, if at all, from compulsive overeating, binge eating disorder, and bulimia?

It may surprise you but there is still, as of this writing, no official diagnosis for binge eating disorder, much less emotional eating. This is in spite of the fact that it is the most common of all eating disorders. It affects almost half of all adult women who have any type of eating disorder, and one-third of all people who diet. For the time being, it’s officially categorized in the diagnostic manual as Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. It may not be necessary to stick a label on every problem, but it is useful to have a widely agreed upon and accepted way to define a common syndrome so we’ll know if a treatment that has been found effective for some people can be expected to help many others with the same symptoms.

There is a behaviorally-based definition for binge eating disorder that has been proposed for inclusion in a future edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The central features of this diagnosis include eating an excessive quantity of food “that is definitely larger than most people would eat…under similar circumstances” and consumed within a “discrete time period,” accompanied by feeling a loss of control and followed by marked distress. There are a few other associated behaviors like eating quickly and feeling uncomfortably full that are added, but the basic definition is virtually identical to that of bulimia but without compensatory behavior, such as purging.

This similarity to bulimia, plus the vagueness of the supposedly objective criteria in the definition may be an indication of why there is not yet an official diagnosis for such a common syndrome. That’s because this behavior is not only a mental disorder, but it’s also a very common though maladaptive coping mechanism that virtually everyone has experienced at one point or another. In other words, it includes a very broad gray area that gets darker and darker until everyone would agree that it is no longer grey. The problem that the DSM people seem to be struggling with is agreeing on how to define the point that it turns black.

This reflects a larger problem with defining many disorders that are dimensional or based on frequency and severity. When does daydreaming or restlessness become attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity? At what point does apprehension become anxiety? Where do we draw the line between a burst of creative exuberance and hypomania? These are easy to identify as pathological at the extreme end of symptom frequency and severity, but defining that boundary can be very subjective. It’s different than a diagnosis that’s defined by categorical symptoms, such as many that accompany psychosis, which are either present or they’re not.

Emotional eating is an example of a dimensional behavior. Rather than viewing bulimia, binge eating disorder, and compulsive overeating as unique disorders, they can be seen as a subset of emotional eating. The difference between them is that the behavior may differ in frequency and quantity, and people vary in how they deal with the anxiety caused by it – some try to compensate by trying to undo it while others don’t – but the emotional eating may really be just one very common coping mechanism to ease stress. If that’s the case, how does this coping mechanism help?

To explain that will require a separate post (or several). But it’s helpful to first understand the current thinking about self-control and what causes it to break down. In a nutshell, this theory proposes that self-control, or willpower, is a limited resource like muscle strength that gets weaker each time we use it. That means that the more you have to restrain your behavior, the worse your self-control will be. The theory is well summarized in David McRaney’s blog post and it offers a very compelling explanation that’s based on a slew of studies. Keep an open mind while reading it though, because there are a lot of problems that this theory does not address and there are other ways of interpreting the research.

Meanwhile, ponder this: why would anyone try to cope with distress by doing something that will make them feel worse? Rather than solving the problem it just adds to it! Even if it happens once or twice, don’t we learn from doing something that turns out badly and try to avoid repeating it? Stay tuned.

Now that we have discussed the positive or healthy reasons to eat, let’s look at what I think are the main motives for unhealthy eating. Before talking about what they are it may be helpful to consider three ways to classify motivations behind overeating. Just as healthy eating can be categorized according to bio-psycho-social motives, as discussed in the previous post, unhealthy eating might also be thought of as falling into three general categories: the head, the hands, and the heart. These correspond to rational or intellectually motivated eating (the head); habitual eating behaviors that we engage in without any real awareness of the thoughts or feelings that motivate them (the hands); and eating that’s motivated by an  emotional state (the heart). Obviously, the “head” is behind all of these, but it’s an easy way for me to describe (and for you to think about) what they are.

Overeating that is related to the Head category would include being ignorant of basic information; that is, eating that’s due to a lack of knowledge or awareness about fundamental principles of nutrition. This can happen when such information is not available, accessible, or interesting enough for that person to pay attention to it. Not knowing how to understand the information on nutrition labels is an example of this. Similarly, someone who doesn’t realize that ordering a twenty-ounce steak and eating it in one sitting is not a healthy choice and perhaps assumes that the restaurant must know what it’s doing if it’s on the menu, is, let’s just say, misinformed.

Another type of poor eating that falls under this category is when someone makes a seemingly rational but poor decision. For example, when you go to an all-you-can-eat buffet the cost is fixed, usually prepaid, and the food is virtually unlimited. Does eating more simply because you paid for it and it’s available provide a good value for the money? Or when someone goes to a fast-food place and the sales person offers a “value” meal with a larger burger and fries for just a little more, or when you go to a movie theater and ask for a small popcorn and before getting it for you they’ll offer you a silo of popcorn for an extra fifty cents; is it really a good value? It may seem so, but if the extra amount doesn’t fit into the categories of biological needs, social obligation, or desire, it makes no more sense than buying dog food that’s on sale even though you don’t own a dog. I know – good deal, right?

This kind of thinking applies to how people deal with ingrained messages that they grew up with as well. Even small children usually realize that finishing everything on their plate is not going to help children who are starving elsewhere in the world, but the message that “we paid for it, now eat it and be grateful” is hard for a child to argue with. It may even seem rational to adults too. But once you really stop and think about it, what happens to the excess food that’s eaten? I’ll pause here and let you think about that. Got it? That’s right; it goes into the municipal waste system. Why would you let yourself be a human garbage disposal? It would make a lot more sense to put the food straight into the trash without going through you first.

The Hands represent the kind of mindless habits that have become so routine that we can’t recall making a decision to eat. You may at times have found yourself holding an empty snack bag while watching TV and don’t remember eating what was in it. Of course your body recorded all the calories consumed, but you didn’t even get a chance to enjoy them. Charles Duhigg talks about these routines in his excellent book, The Power of Habit. He describes how the habit loop develops after behaviors are repeated so frequently that it would feel like something is missing if the routine was not performed when the cue that usually triggers it appears. This is what we experience as a craving.

When eating is the routine in that habit loop, it’s not about the enjoyment of or the physical need for the food as it is the satisfaction of that craving. There’s a useful place for mindless routines in life, such as driving, where habits can allow you to focus on and respond to unexpected events instead of expending time and mental energy on deciding whether to move your foot to the brake or accelerator. But with eating, you need to be mindful in order to enjoy the food and know when you have satisfied your hunger or desire so you can stop without overdoing it.

The third category of unhealthy eating, the Heart, is the real subject of this blog, emotional eating. I’ll discuss that in detail in the next post.

Why do we eat?

I doubt you’ve ever stood in front of the refrigerator at night thinking, “Let’s see…which micronutrients do I need right about now?” But of course, as with all living things, we need nutrition to keep our organs functioning and, well, stayin’ alive.  So the first and most obvious reason to eat is for the basic fuel to keep going, even though we’re not actively thinking about it. What we do experience and are frequently conscious of is the other biological reason to eat which is hunger.

Hunger can be seen as a sort of bridge between biological needs and psychological needs. It is at once a physiological response to the stomach being empty, as well as a motivational state to get you to eat; and these two aspects of hunger work together adaptively. It may seem self-evident but the reason we experience the hunger response when we do is not so obvious. Think about it: Why do we have a signal of discomfort after only about four hours of not eating even though our health is not substantially affected by it for at least seventy-two hours? Even then the effects are reversible. Hunger strikers have survived up to two months or more without food. There is a very long way to go from hunger to malnutrition and then to starvation and death. So why is having an urgent early warning system a useful advantage for species survival?

It is probably not news to you that our bodies were not adapted for grocery shopping. We have the same bodies that were well-adapted for an environment where food was usually scarce and hard-won. In order to do the work necessary to score a meal in a pre-modern hunter-gatherer society, one had to be fairly strong and highly motivated. Someone who was well-nourished and satisfied may not have felt especially driven to risk his life on a hunt or have had the foresight to put forth the physical effort to plan for the week’s food supply. If, however, he experienced a hunger signal that was sufficiently intense and uncomfortable, the motivation to obtain nutrition will motivate him while he’s still strong, even long before the need for food becomes critical to survival, making success and survival more likely.

This is also consistent with the fact that, paradoxically, as food deprivation continues, the hunger signal eventually shuts off completely. Once the body recognizes that the calorie deficit it’s experiencing isn’t due to a lack of motivation to hunt but rather the absence of food to eat, the painful hunger signal is unnecessary.

The second good reason to eat is social convention. Throughout human history and continuing to this day, food has been the center of cultural and religious ceremonies, festivals, and family gatherings. Historically, people would make a feast as a way of giving thanks, and even today we have many social rituals that involve particular foods, like eating cake at a birthday party, popcorn at a movie, or a hot dog at a July Fourth picnic or baseball game.

These traditions and religious rituals often determine when, what, and even how much to eat. Of course, it serves the purpose of satisfying hunger, but even when hunger is not a primary motivation, it is often considered socially unacceptable not to eat. Just think about turning down a serving of turkey, mashed potatoes or candied yams at Grandma’s Thanksgiving dinner to get a sense of what I mean. It’s all part of belonging to a social group, and it usually doesn’t take much to fulfill your obligation.

The third healthy reason to eat is simply the desire to experience the satisfaction of enjoying a favorite food. Eating something you desire for no other reason than the pure pleasure of the experience is a perfectly valid motivation to eat. It is the only reason to end a meal with dessert, which almost by definition is not intended to satisfy hunger or nutritional needs.

Not only is desire an acceptable reason to eat, but fighting against the natural impulse to eat for pleasure sets up a psychological process that could lead to a counter-reaction of eating to satisfy the sense of deprivation rather than genuine desire for the food. This rebound effect is a theme that I will return to as a central point in my approach to treating emotional eating. The key is to be aware of the point at which the original desire is satisfied and eating beyond that is simply a mindless force of habit.

The pleasure we get from eating is just as much of an adaptive mechanism as hunger, since it provides a positive motivation to seek out food (as opposed to the negative motive of avoiding hunger). The problem occurs when, in the context of food abundance, this once adaptive response is seen instead as an indulgence and a weakness that must be controlled by sheer self-discipline, which makes no more sense than using willpower to ignore the hunger signal itself.

You may know with some precision how many calories you consume in a given meal and how many you burn in a half-hour of exercise. You probably know how many Weight Watchers points you’re allowed, and you’re aware that there are nine calories in a gram of fat and fifteen calories in a teaspoon of sugar. But do you need to know all that information in order to eat a healthy diet? After two-hundred-thousand years of human evolution, and only about a century of modern science, not to mention a mere decade of having that information literally at our fingertips, we’ve done pretty well surviving as a species without knowing these things. So does it really make sense that simply because we now have this information available, we have to use it in order to guide our bodies toward staying healthy?

Even if you agree that it isn’t really necessary to have all this information in order to eat well, you might think that since we do have it, we must be benefiting from it by eating better. Sadly, you would be wrong. Instead of eating better, obesity rates in this country have risen at an alarming rate. As recently as nineteen eighty-five, no American state had an obesity rate greater than fifteen percent. Today, just twenty-five years later, not one state has an obesity rate of less than twenty percent. One-third of adults and twenty percent of children and adolescents in the United States are classified as obese. It is the number one risk factor for chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes, which have also risen dramatically over the past twenty-five years. So in reality, it seems we’re somehow doing a worse job managing our diets and health now than we did before we had all of this detailed nutritional information available!

You may wonder, what’s the harm on an individual level? Why should I be concerned if some people choose to be more precise in measuring what they eat or obsessively count calories in their efforts to lose weight? The problem is that relying on a belief that scientific precision is required to do something as basic to human nature as eating makes it very easy to find yourself doing something “wrong” on a regular basis. And when one takes a hard line approach to dieting, or doing anything that requires self-discipline, a recurrent sense of failure can soon convince you that you are trying to accomplish the impossible. Then it becomes too easy to feel hopeless, to say “what’s the use?” and just give up making any effort at all.

So it does not seem coincidental to me that alongside these statistics about what have now become the new norms for diet and health, emotional eating has also become the coping mechanism of choice for dealing with stress. It is the most common of all eating disorders. It affects almost half of all adult women who have any type of eating disorder, and one-third of all people who diet describe themselves as compulsive eaters. That’s because when not dieting feels like you’re giving up on the effort to lose weight, then eating in a more healthy way is not the alternative to dieting; instead, eating in an unhealthy way is the alternative. How to find that middle way is, in this sense, the real focus of this blog.

For this and other reasons that I will explain in more detail, there is only one rule concerning eating that I feel very strongly about: namely, that we shouldn’t have to follow strict rules of eating in order to be healthy. That doesn’t mean that you discard all of your common-sense caution. On the contrary, I believe that common sense should be your main guide that determines your choices and behavior.

My concern is with tendency to be overly cautious about everything you put in your mouth, which in our culture is determined by anything but common sense. Relying on the collective wisdom of diet “experts” leads us to question the kind of sensible decision-making process that has guided human food consumption forever. This has been replaced with the notion that in order to eat in a healthy way, we must count calories, weigh servings, and banish entire food groups, whether it’s sugar, fat, or carbohydrates. This does not qualify as common sense.

Lori is a very energetic and hard-working administrative assistant in a busy accounting firm. When she first applied for the job, she felt under-qualified. But in spite of her doubts, she was able to project a sense of confidence and won over the hiring executives. She had been an excellent student at a public college, but had not finished her degree. She had left home right after graduating high school, supporting herself entirely, and after two years had to put her degree on hold to work full-time. Soon after she was hired, her energy and exceptional work ethic were recognized by the partners and associates and before long she was promoted to be the managing partner’s assistant. She is now also in charge of the admin group, and a major part of her new responsibilities is to assign work to the other assistants and monitor the work flow. Although the only work she herself is responsible for is that of her boss, she routinely does work that she could have assigned to others. Since the professional staff goes through her with these requests, she feels responsible to make sure the work is done well, and she could only be sure of that if she does it herself. On a level that she is only dimly aware of, she is still afraid that anything she does that is less than perfect will reveal to everyone that she really isn’t qualified for this job.

Today was one of those days. She ate a salad from the cafeteria at her desk while she worked on organizing account files and preparing paperwork that her boss and other partners will need to have for meetings with clients the next day. Now, after staying late to finish all of the work, she begins to think about what she’ll eat when she gets home. Her thoughts are not about dinner, however, they’re about a food binge, and that’s all she can think about. She already has the food items at home, where she lives by herself. She has a boyfriend, but when they have meals together they never eat at her apartment. Usually they’ll go to a restaurant where she’ll order chicken or fish with a salad; never dessert. But now she’s thinking about the package of doughnuts that she bought the other day, the unopened box of cookies, and a box of a sugar cereal that she’ll consume in its entirety with a quart of skim milk.

If you identify at all with this vignette, this blog may be helpful to you. It is not about dieting; it is about how we often relate to and utilize food in ways that are unhealthy, both physically and psychologically. It is intended especially for people who struggle with the most common form of eating disorder: emotional eating. This doesn’t mean that it won’t help you lose weight. To the extent that emotional eating may be a significant factor in your total calorie consumption, overcoming this problem can be very effective for achieving substantial, permanent weight loss.

Binge eating disorder is a recognized type of eating disorder defined as consuming an unusually large amount of food in one sitting and experiencing a sense of loss of control. Emotional eating, as I am using the term, is a broader pattern of eating that includes binge eating but refers to a more general tendency to use food as a way of coping with psychological or emotional distress, regardless of quantity (although it is typically excessive), but always with a sense of no longer being in control of the behavior. The feeling is often described as inevitable once the idea takes hold, like feeling forced to act on the urge as if on auto-pilot. If you believe that describes you, you may also identify with much of the following description:

You are probably an experienced though frustrated dieter, well-educated and well-informed about nutrition and what constitutes a healthy diet. In spite of this, you have been frustrated in your efforts to keep off the weight you have lost and are still looking for The Diet that will work for you. In your dieting experience, you have been able to lose a substantial amount of weight on many of the programs. You may have found one that was particularly successful, although unfortunately, your definition of “success” does not take into account the fact that each time you have lost weight you’ve gained it all back, and most likely, then some. It’s more in the spirit of Mark Twain who famously said, “It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it hundreds of times.”