Whether you record what you eat every day or not, it’s useful to do an eating self-assessment before deciding what needs to change in your current eating routine. The first step in this process is to apply the five W’s of journalism: What, When, Why, Where and Who. That will help you get a more thorough understanding of your eating patterns so you’ll know where to focus your change goals.

What: When you try to recall your usual eating patterns, it may be easiest to go through your daily routine, and write down (with brutal honesty, if necessary) the types of meals and snacks that you tend to prefer and are most likely to eat throughout the day. What do you have for breakfast, if at anything at all? What choices do you make and what portion sizes do you take? Do you prefer to prepare your own meals, like cooked or raw salads, or do you go for convenience? If it’s the latter, is it usually frozen meals, diet plan trays, or take-out? Another important ‘What’ question is, what are you doing while you eat? Are you reading, watching TV, working at the computer? Or are you simply focused on the experience of eating whether alone or with others?

When: Once you think about what you usually eat and how much, you can think about your daily pattern of when you get the cues to eat and respond to them. Do you eat at scheduled mealtimes, or do you graze throughout the day? When do you usually eat the first meal of the day? At what point do you stop eating at individual meals? When in the day do you stop eating? Are you a late night snacker? Think about whether your total calorie intake is spread throughout the day, or is it more packed into the one part of the day or another. Is your pattern to eat a lot but infrequently or less and more frequently?

Why: Next, take note of what typically prompts you to eat at each of those opportunities. Of course, I have been talking about emotional eating throughout this book and how feeling controlled tends to trigger an episode of emotional eating. So identifying what the experience is that made you respond by eating is one example of how to answer the Why question. When it’s not a response to an emotional trigger, you can track the timing of your eating. Is it mainly the time of day that makes you think about having a meal, or do you respond mostly to hunger cues? Or do you eat simply because food is in your line of vision and available? (My father, a master of lame dad humor, used to call that his see-food diet.) If your eating has no discernible pattern, then that’s your pattern. Make note of the cues that prompt you to eat when you do.

Where: Now think about where you are at each of those occasions. Are you standing or sitting? Are you at a kitchen or dining room table or at a coffee table or TV tray? Do you eat in the company cafeteria, at your office desk, or in a restaurant – fast-food or other? Do you eat in the car? (Here’s a hint: don’t!)

Who: Do you usually eat with others or by yourself? When you eat around other people do you tend to make better choices and limit how much you eat or are you influenced in one way or another by the choices of others?

This self-assessment is the first step in behavior change. Understanding your eating patterns can help you identify obvious problems. In the next few posts, I’ll go over some of the less obvious patterns that research has shown to increase calorie consumption and where making some changes can be especially helpful. But first I’ll start with some of the more irrational mental habits that may not be obvious but really should be. As you’ll see, you don’t need a researcher to tell you that they add calories, just a little common sense.

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This step is the take-away, bottom line, upshot, payoff, etc. for everything we’ve discussed up to this point. So pay close attention. Once you have identified the reason (or reasons) you feel controlled, the next step is to take a good look at the situation that is causing the stress to see if you can change how it impacts you.

The key to doing this successfully involves the effective use of coping mechanisms. In psychology, coping with stress is broken down into three basic strategies. Depending on the nature of the stressor, each of these can be used to reduce or eliminate the impact of the problem that is making you feel controlled. These are:

  1. problem-focused coping
  2. appraisal-focused coping
  3. emotion-focused coping

Problem-focused strategies are simply solution-oriented approaches to dealing with a situation that causes stress. If the problem is due to something that can be changed, you can solve it by reducing or eliminating the source of the stress. Let’s say you’re tense and anxious due to your hectic schedule. You feel like you’re running from one meeting to another, while always being afraid that you’ll be late to the next one. You would look at how you are managing your appointments to see how you can reduce the problem.

A patient of mine was dealing with an extremely stressful work situation. He is a doctor working in a busy outpatient clinic where there tends to be a lot of patients who don’t show for their appointments. As a result, the clinic administrators looked for a way to balance patient flow without causing too many gaps for the doctors or delays for the patients. They found a good balance by looking at the average number of no-shows for the clinic and developed a practice of triple-booking each appointment slot to manage the patient flow.

This worked well for the most part. The problem was that cancellations and no-shows varied according to specialty and my patient’s specialty area had fewer missed appointments than the others. As a result, he was constantly overbooked, running late for each appointment and working late every day. The simple fix was to show the administrator how his cancellations and no-shows differed from the others, and that his appointments should therefore not be triple-booked. Problem solved.

This simple approach is the best way to deal with problems that are causing stress, so it should be the first thing to look for when you identify the situation that is causing you to feel controlled. If you’re overwhelmed with work, hire an assistant or delegate responsibilities to others. If your office desk has developed geological strata and finding things you need requires the skills of a trained archeologist, enlist the help of an organized person to help you come up with a better system.

These are fairly straightforward solutions to problems that can really end up controlling your life. In reality, though, it’s usually not so simple. Most of the time, the problem you’re dealing with is not so readily solvable but is rather an ongoing situation that does not lend itself to a simple fix. That leaves you with the next option: appraisal-focused coping strategies.  This means reappraising and challenging your assumptions – or in plain English, turning on your mental crap detector.

Without getting too philosophical about it, when we respond to any event, we feel and believe that we are responding to the plain reality that’s out there. That’s a reasonable and common shortcut that we use to unclutter our brains and streamline how we think. Unfortunately, it’s not true. The idea that we see things as they really are is a simplified but wrong view of the cognitive process we go through when we respond to events. The truth is that we’re really responding to our interpretation of the experience, which can be very different from the reality. So it’s essential to challenge the assumptions we make about how we first view the event.

Everything we see and experience first has to pass through a process of perception and interpretation before we respond to it. That interpretation of what we perceive is our own addition to the experience and it colors or even completely distorts our understanding of the event. It’s like a filter that we use on the camera lens of our mind. It distorts the picture we take of reality in a way that is unique to us. Often, we may apply the same filter to many different experiences. We don’t give too much thought to it when we do this, because it occurs at a level beyond our conscious awareness, and besides, most of the time it has no practical impact.

However, when we respond emotionally to our experience of an event, and then behave in some way that is in turn triggered by that emotional response, how we filter reality can make a huge difference. For the purposes of our discussion, it can determine whether or not an event will trigger an episode of binge eating or not.

It’s too easy to accept the sense of being controlled as the reality and to respond to that perception by eating. But what if your perception is not the reality? It is very possible that your filter tends to allow perceptions of external control to pass through more easily than alternative interpretations. So the most important question to ask is, “Am I really being controlled or are there ways that I can look at this situation differently?”

Appraisal-focused strategies are appropriate when there is no straight-forward solution to a problem. Instead of changing the cause, you modify how you think. This is what I wrote about in some detail concerning Hamlet’s prison. Whether you feel trapped or not may depend entirely on how you look at things.

Another patient of mine grew up as the oldest of six children. Her parents, whether by their nature or necessity, were very rigid about expectations of behavior and fairness. Among those rules were that the older children had to be responsible for their younger siblings. This wasn’t just a matter of watching out for their safety, but also making sure they were happy.

As a consequence, my patient had to do things like include her younger sister whenever she went out with friends, give up her right to an extra piece of pizza if her sister wanted it, and so on. Now, as adults, she doesn’t particularly enjoy the company of her younger sister, but feels incredibly guilty about not wanting to spend more time with her. Unlike the other person’s work schedule problem, this is not a situation that lends itself to an easy solution. So what does she do about the overwhelming stress that comes from the guilt she feels about not liking her sister? She had to reappraise the situation.

First, she had to recognize that perhaps her parents’ expectations were not fair to her. True, she was the oldest, but she was still just a little girl herself and had her own need to be a kid, not a nanny. So a lot of her resentment toward her sister was probably redirected from feelings she had toward her parents that were unacceptable for her to acknowledge. Second, she and her sister are very different people as adults, with different interests and personalities. Sometimes people who are members of the same family wouldn’t choose to be friends with each other if they weren’t related and they don’t have to feel guilty about that.

For this patient, of course, that was not an acceptable option growing up, and she never got the memo as an adult that this rule had ever been repealed. Allowing herself to admit that she would probably not choose her sister as a friend if they met as adults was a revelation to her. That doesn’t mean that she can ignore her as if they had no connection, but including her in her life her as one would any family member is not what was stressful to her. Essentially, she had to give herself permission to disregard rules that were at best obsolete and probably were never a good idea to begin with. This, not surprisingly, was a pattern that repeated itself in her relationships with friends, co-workers, and the men she dated.

This process of reassessing how one interprets and responds to reality is in fact the majority of what goes on in therapy. It’s what most of the talk in talk therapy is about. It’s a process that requires examining patterns of events and relationships and noting how you tend to respond to them until there are enough data points to connect the dots and see a consistent picture emerge.

Since the process relies on no one but you to accomplish, together with a therapist who supports your budding independence, it is a very good example of how to develop a sense of autonomous control in your life. If you commit to it and put what you discover into practice, it is usually a very effective and powerful way of implementing change. But even then, there will be lifelong habits of thinking and behaving that slip through, no matter how effective therapy is. That’s where the third coping technique, emotion-focused coping, can be very helpful.

Emotion-focused strategies involve dealing with the feelings that are stirred up as a consequence of the stressor. This can include managing hostile feelings by counting to ten, or reducing anxiety by meditating or using relaxation techniques. Unlike the first two strategies, which are directed at reducing the source of stress, emotion-focused coping is more tactical than strategic, since it is aimed at the effects of the stress. Distracting oneself from the urge to binge would be an example that is most relevant to emotional eating. This is what many therapists who work with emotional eating recommend when they encourage people to “surf the urge,” meaning, distract yourself from the urge to binge until it passes.

Other useful responses could include any type of pleasant activity that serves as a distraction and occupies your attention, preferably while occupying your hands as well. Any kind of needlework, doing crossword puzzles or taking a hot bath, might be some examples of emotional-coping behaviors. Going for a walk, exercise or reading could also work well. Watching TV might be an effective way to divert your attention, but it could also allow for having a snack while you watch, and the opportunity for habitual eating could defeat the purpose of distracting yourself from emotional eating.

Surfing the urge, and any other response that you might choose to take the place of emotional eating, can be helpful advice when you feel like bingeing and have no other way of dealing with it. However, I see this as a last resort, after the attempts to address the source of the stress has failed. That’s because emotional eating is the effect; the stressor, whether it is a problem that can be fixed or a perception that can be changed, is the cause. Whenever there is a cause and effect relationship, the most effective way to minimize the effect is to first address the cause.

With most of my patients, even those who have binged on a daily basis for years, I don’t begin treatment by getting them to change their behavior. If anything, that would just introduce a new form of external control that sooner or later would have the exact opposite effect of what we are trying to accomplish. Instead, I help them defuse the power of food by encouraging them to view all food as on the menu. Then we’ll look at their experience of external control and discuss the coping techniques I describe here. Often, after only a few weeks of therapy with someone who has been struggling daily, I’ll ask them how their eating has been. They’ll usually think about it for a few seconds and look up with an expression of puzzlement when they realize that it’s been a week or more since the last time they binged.

When it comes to emotional eating, perceived control is the cause; rejection of control is the effect. First try to solve the problem that causes the experience of feeling controlled; if that’s not possible, change your perception of that control. When that’s not enough, find better ways to respond to those feelings. The unwanted behavior will often take care of itself.

“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.

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.