You may have noticed that restaurant portion sizes are inversely proportional to the prices on the menu. High-end restaurants with famous chefs tend to serve small portions with entrees that look like more like appetizers, while casual dining restaurants will often serve entrees on enormous serving platters that could feed a family of four and still have enough left over to fill a doggy bag.

There are good reasons for that. Think about a meal you had at a casual dining restaurant, or even better, an all-you-can-eat buffet. The emphasis there is not on the quality of the food, although it’s usually pretty decent. The real appeal of these places is getting the most value for your money. From a business point of view, that’s also the expectation in that market segment so if they cut back on portions they risk losing market share. They make their profit by standardizing the whole process and through economy of scale. As the overnight TV ads for retail stores that sell at wholesale prices say, “How do we do it? Volume!”

From the consumer’s point of view, the idea of getting a boatload of food for $6.99 challenges you to get your money’s worth. Some places actually dare you to eat a gi-normous serving of something, like a four-pound steak, by offering it for free if you can polish it off. One patient of mine described a memorable – she called it “horrifying” – experience she observed at an all-you-can-eat restaurant when a very obese father and son sat down to consume a mountain of meat loaf, fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy over everything. When they finished, they both paused and let out a heavy sigh, the father pulled out a handkerchief to wipe off his forehead, and they went back to the buffet to load up their trays again. Hey, it’s hard work, but think of the savings!

This experience has become increasingly frequent for most consumers because of the low expense and as a result has contributed to significant changes in how we eat. For one thing, the idea of a “normal” portion has expanded considerably over a short period of time. As the Obesity Education Initiative of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute points out on its enlightening yet rather frightening online presentation, called “Portion Distortion,” the portion sizes – and thus the calorie content – of most food items have gone through a period of hyperinflation over the past twenty to thirty years.

For example, a typical restaurant serving of chicken ceasar salad was 1.5 cups or 390 calories in 1980, and more than doubled to 3.5 cups or 790 calories by 2000. In that same period of time, a typical box of movie theater popcorn grew from 5 cups or 270 calories to 11 cups or 630 calories. A chocolate chip cookie that was 1.5 inches in diameter and only 55 calories is now 3.5 inches across and 275 calories. The list goes on. It should come as no surprise that the average weight of American adults has also increased by about 20 pounds over that time span.

What is perhaps even more disconcerting is that the visual image that we have of what a typical portion size looks like in a restaurant has carried over to how we eat at home and has become the new normal. On some level we’re probably thinking, “Hey, these guys are experts; they must know what a serving of mashed potatoes should look like.” Then we replicate that image at home and it becomes the new standard.

Ultimately, though, what counts is not how much you put on your plate, but how much you actually eat. That’s where expanding portion size becomes a real problem, because we don’t rely on knowing what we need or what we want to limit our eating, we rely on what’s in front of us in addition to countless other environmental cues.

As Brian Wansink points out in his book, Mindless Eating, his research has demonstrated that how much people eat is determined to a large degree by the context that the food is in. We eat more from a large bag of chips than a small one and we put more on a 12-inch dinner plate than a 9-inch one. People will eat more if they are using a larger serving spoon to dish the food onto their plates, or if the bowl that the food is served in is larger.

Barbara Rolls, in her book Volumetrics, has similarly demonstrated in her research that people eat as much as 50 percent more when they are with friends than when they are alone or eating with people they don’t know. The solution, of course, is not to eat alone, but to be more aware of what you are eating, how much you are eating, and when it’s time to stop eating.

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“Everything I like is either illegal, immoral, or fattening.”

Alexander Woollcott, critic and member of the Algonquin Round Table

As you can see from the story in the previous post, of Rebel’s response to Domination, binge eating is an act of defiance, not of weakness. This is a fundamental point that must be understood in order to overcome emotional eating.

The diet culture encourages us to believe that there are good foods and bad foods. Roughly speaking, good foods are those that are bland and unsatisfying, and bad foods are sinfully self-indulgent and delicious.

There are two ways in which the meaning that one attaches to food impacts the urge to overeat for emotional reasons. One is the experience of feeling controlled by a powerful source, namely, the pressure one feels to lose weight by avoiding “bad” foods. Is anyone really forcing you to diet?

The other is the degree to which you feel that the defiance against that perceived pressure has some power; namely, the “hell-with-you-I’ll-eat-whatever-I-want” response. An act of defiance is only effective if the behavior is really prohibited. It’s not very subversive to say, “I’ll show you – I’ll eat my vegetables and ignore the dessert! What do you think about that?”

If emotional eating is an act of defiance against control, it is only effective if that control and the way you respond to it have real meaning. The key here is that the strength of the power food has over you depends on your perception of it. As long as you consider certain foods as “bad,” the pressure to avoid them is great and eating them will continue to feel like an effective expression of defiance. However, if you view food as having no intrinsic good or bad qualities, but instead are things you either do or don’t want to eat, you effectively neutralize the power that it has both as a source of control and as a response to it.

Understanding emotional eating in this way is very different from seeing food as an overpowering force against which you must expend a limited resource of energy to resist, a strategy that can succeed only with consistent determination and self-restraint. Eventually, according to this limited resource view, as this energy to resist becomes depleted, your desire will get the better of you and, exhausted from the battle, you’ll surrender.

The reality is, the desire for these blacklisted foods is not something you always have to fight against. Even though you enjoy them, you’re not always in the mood for them. However, when you believe you may never legitimately eat these foods, you always wish you can. That’s where the sense of constant craving comes from: the belief that they are always forbidden.

If you can overcome this sense of prohibition, then you can  assess your desire for that treat on its own merits. As with anything, too much of a good thing can ruin the experience. So it’s best to know what you want to eat, whether you want it at that moment, and, if so, at what point you’ve gratified that desire. That would be the time to stop. If you do that you can walk away guilt-free, satisfied, and, since it doesn’t take that much to indulge a taste for something, with a minimal amount of calories consumed. Win-win-win.

Let’s say you’re in the break room at work and someone has left a box of doughnuts for anyone to have. If eating doughnuts doesn’t feel like an act of rebellion, you have the luxury to simply decide whether or not you want one.  Since you know that you can have one whenever you want it, and that the world is not going to suddenly run out of chocolate-glazed doughnuts, the fact that opportunity knocks is no longer a relevant factor in your decision to eat. The only issue to decide is whether you’re in the mood to get the most enjoyment from it. Otherwise, skip it and wait until you are. And if you do have a real desire for the doughnut, only have enough to satisfy that desire. Why spoil a good experience by overdoing it?

By changing your view of food’s power you accomplish for yourself what Toto did for Dorothy when he pulled the curtain aside to expose the Wizard of Oz. The Great and Powerful Pastry is not so scary anymore. You defuse the power that food had over you and take back the control. Once those foods are neutralized and powerless, then it actually feels kind of silly to rebel against them. What’s the point?

The focus of this step is how to make eating an unnecessary and therefore ineffective act of rebellion by viewing all food as permissible and on the menu every day. As you would in a restaurant, you just order what you really want. That means that since the “diet imperative” is less of a controlling force in your life, the cause of the stress and the reaction to it are both less powerful.

However, it’s not always a sense of control by the Diet Tyrant in your head that drives you to rebel, it’s often the actual tyrant in the office or any other area of your life that you feel is controlling you and makes you want to turn to food.

So it still leaves open the question of how to deal with a controlling force that’s not diet-related, such as a person who is either in a position of power or acts as if they are, so that you feel like your freedom is limited and want to prove – to yourself, anyway – that no one else is the boss of you.

To answer that question ask yourself another one: are you sure that what you’re experiencing as an attempt to control you is really what you think it is? Could there be another way to view it? Remember what Hamlet said, “There’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

We’ll talk about that in the next step.

You already know that emotional eating, as the term implies, is caused by emotional stress. What you may not know is that it’s not just any emotional stress that can trigger a binge episode; it’s a very specific type of stress that is most likely to cause it.

The first thing to learn, even before you try to identify the stressors that might be causing the emotional eating, is what to look for. There are two important concepts that are essential to understand before you can identify the stressors that drive the eating behavior: homeostasis and autonomy.

Homeostasis is an idea that has been around for about 150 years that explains how the body regulates its internal functions by maintaining a comfortable balance between opposing forces, thereby reducing fluctuations. If you get too hot there are processes to cool you off and if you get too cold the processes reverse and warm you up. That’s how you’re able to maintain a stable temp of 98.6. The same process applies to many of the body’s automatic functions such as regulating hormonal activity, blood pressure, respiration, and so on. Although we can’t yet observe its activity, I believe that the same process helps us regulate our emotions; specifically, for the purposes of our topic, by helping us maintain a consistent sense of control over our lives.

One critical influence on our emotions and a central force in motivation is our sense of autonomy, or the ability to control our own lives. We each have a sense of our personal domain of authority and responsibility, and within that domain we want to call the shots. At the same time, we recognize the need to accept and tolerate a certain degree of control that comes from the outside. In fact, that external control is what we call Structure, and we can appreciate that it can be very helpful in staying organized and being more productive.

However, sometimes Structure becomes a little too pushy (micromanaging boss, controlling parent, bossy spouse, etc.) and it turns into a toxic type of control. Think of it as Structure’s evil twin, Domination, or Dom, for short. They are the extreme ends of a continuum called extrinsic control. When Structure goes too far in making you stay on a very restrictive diet, for example, he limits your sense of autonomy and eventually morphs into Dom. Kind of how Dr. Banner becomes The Hulk.  That’s what you experience as emotional distress and you feel the need to fix it.

This is where the concept of balance or homeostasis is key to understanding the connection between stress and eating. Because on the opposite side of the scale, there’s another continuum; we’ll call it the autonomous control side. The good end of that continuum is Independence. Think of Structure (the red cylinder) co-existing peacefully with Independence (the blue box), as illustrated below. Both sides are serving an important function in maintaining emotional balance by offsetting each other and keeping you feeling stable. This is the normal state of affairs when you’re happy, life and work are going smoothly, and your stress level is low.

Now Independence has a difficult-to-manage (but not evil) twin as well, called Rebel (accent on the first syllable). Rebel comes into the picture when Dom starts to bully you and knocks your equilibrium out of balance. Rebel means well; he’s just trying to help you defend your autonomous control. The problem is he’s impulsive. He’s also not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Rebel’s idea of restoring balance is to become just as extreme as Dom. In a process that parallels what happens on the extrinsic control side of the scale, Independence morphs into Rebel on the autonomous control side of things. (I imagine Vinnie Barbarino from “Welcome Back Kotter,” but feel free to come up with your own image.) So what does Rebel do? He finds a way to prove that no one can push you around like that and demonstrates it by, say, eating a dozen doughnuts. Hah! That’ll show who’s the diet boss!

The problems created by Rebel’s methods to prove who’s boss are less of a concern to him at that point than the fact that he gets you back in balance. Consequences like feeling sick, guilty and out of control, not to mention what the behavior will do to your weight, are problems to worry about later, not now. The good news is, you’re back in balance. The thing he’s slow to pick up on is the bad news: you’re still dealing with Domination’s bullying ways, and now you’re having trouble controlling the well-intended behavior of simple-minded Rebel.

When you think about this little parable, you can see that it makes no sense to just focus on reigning in Rebel by, say, going on a diet. He wouldn’t even be around if wasn’t for Dom; besides it would just make Dom want to clamp down even harder on the control. Instead, the focus needs to be on getting Dom to turn back into mild-mannered (if perhaps a bit rigid) Structure. I’ll describe how to do that in Part 2.

I am a clinical health psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in downtown Chicago. My primary expertise is helping people who struggle with emotional and binge eating behavior. During my clinical internship over 20 years ago, I received intensive training in the treatment of eating disorders. I later worked as a health psychologist in a hospital-based outpatient program that specialized in the treatment of obesity, and over the years I have seen hundreds of patients who were struggling with emotional eating and binge eating disorder. As a result of this experience, I developed an approach to treatment that is based on my understanding of the psychological motives that underlie emotional eating, but could be applied as well as to other types of behavioral control problems, such as compulsive shopping, gambling, and alcohol abuse. This approach has been very effective with the population of patients that I treat and I have begun teaching it to other therapists who have also reported success in using it with patients who present with these problems.

My main purpose in writing this blog  is to use it as a public draft for an eventual book, and I’m hoping this will keep me motivated to write something on a regular basis while I receive feedback on the ideas. But I’m also hoping that this blog will serve as a forum for readers to contribute by sharing their own experiences about their struggles with emotional eating. So feel free to read over my shoulder as I grind through the process. I welcome  constructive criticism on the ideas and my writing as I post and encourage you to share your personal experiences on the topic.