As a psychologist who works with people struggling with weight issues, I spend a lot of time thinking about the relationship between emotions and food. If you have gained some extra pounds during the COVID pandemic, I have some suggestions about how to deal with weight gain based on your thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. Some ways we think about our weight and ourselves are helpful, but others can work against you.
Patients often tell me that they don’t see themselves as emotional eaters, but I’m not sure that I always agree. My logic goes like this. We are aware that there are some obvious health risks for people who are overweight or obese, and most of us are highly motivated to lose those extra pounds. I would also argue that most of us have a general idea of the mechanics of how to lose weight. Despite these factors, the failure rate for short-term diets is between 95% – 99% depending on what studies you read. Therefore, if you want to lose excess weight and know how to, what’s getting in your way? For me, the answer is emotions.
Food has several functions beyond providing essential nutrition. For example, we use food to celebrate. It’s a challenge to think of any holiday or special event where food doesn’t play a significant role. It is also quite common for people to gain weight when things are stressful. The COVID pandemic’s unique combination of stress and boredom has lead to widespread weight gain. We eat because, in that moment, food makes us feel better. That good feeling may stop 30 seconds after your last bite, but you feel comfort while eating.
If you want to remove food as a source of pleasure or comfort, you will need to replace it with something else that comforts you. Give this some thought. What healthy source of joy do I need to put in my life if I am going to replace eating? If you enjoy exercising, that’s wonderful, but it can also be a non-active hobby like photography or knitting. The bottom line is, if you don’t replace the source of comfort you received from food, you are likely to feel deprived. When people feel like they have lost something rather than gained something, they usually are not successful.
Our society’s attitude towards extra weight is so unreasonably negative that it is hard not to absorb some of that into your thinking. We are bombarded with cruel and hostile remarks directed towards people who are overweight or obese. You can unwittingly become your own worst enemy if you let the negative comments become your internal reality.
People aren’t overweight because they are weak-willed or lazy. I see proof of this every day in my work. I meet with patients who are accomplishing great things in almost every aspect of their lives. Calling yourself names is a poor way to motivate yourself. Instead, follow this simple rule for self-talk. Ask yourself, “Would I talk to anyone else in the same way I am talking to myself?” If the answer is no, then it’s time to see if you could try some of the same techniques you use to motivate others on yourself. Think about what you would say to a friend, and start by trying to be more positive and encouraging in your self-talk.
When you are trying to change what might be a long-term pattern of eating, there are going to be some ups and downs. Telling yourself that you will NEVER eat in a way that is not consistent with your goals sets you up for failure. Expect that there will be setbacks as well as successes when you are trying to make a significant change. You want to look for progress, not perfection. If you anticipate that there will be some slip-ups, you are much more likely to be able to get back on track. “All-or-nothing” thinking is one of the biggest reasons diets fail. Don’t become a victim of misplaced perfectionism.
Self-acceptance doesn’t come easily when you are not happy with the way that you look or feel. Sometimes people see this as defeatist, but acknowledging the present situation doesn’t mean that you need to keep things the same. Self-acceptance is more like an acknowledgment of your current reality. Doing this helps avoid other traps in your thinking and outlook. Beating yourself up for what you may have done in the past is seldom, if ever, beneficial. Thinking about what you wish had not happened isn’t going to get you anywhere – it is just a denial of reality.
Conversely, thinking about how long it will take to get to your goal can be overwhelming. Taking a “one day at a time” approach to weight loss makes it more achievable. If you start to think about how you need to lose 20, 50, or 100 pounds, you will be beaten before you start. All you need to do is eat better today. That is an achievable goal.
When things don’t go well on a particular day, try to figure out what happened. To do this, you will need to avoid the previous traps in thinking. Rather than negative self-talk such as, “I did this because I am bad or lazy or weak,” begin to look at what happened like a scientist. If you search for a cause and effect, you are more likely to develop a solution.
People sometimes think that emotional eating occurs immediately before the overeating episode. However, recent research has indicated that a slip-up is usually related to something that happened earlier in the day. Any strong emotion that you experienced during the day can result in a binge hours later. If you take the time to figure out what happened, you are much more likely to determine what you could do differently. If you had a strong emotional reaction during the day, try to develop a coping strategy other than food. Doing this can lead to improvements in your ability to manage your emotions. If it was stress-related, look into stress management techniques such as meditation or yoga. If it was anger or frustration, perhaps assertiveness techniques might be helpful.
We are fortunate to have many professionals at Atrius Health who have the training and expertise to help you develop a healthy plan to lose weight. These include our nutritionists, the many professionals and clinicians in the Center for Weight Management at Kenmore, behavioral health, and internal medicine. Reach out to your primary care provider to get started.