Lose Weight, Get Healthy and Battle Your Diet Devils

Whether it's happy, sad, depressed, elated, your mood can often affect your food choices. In an exclusive excerpt from my new book, I'll give you a peek into eliminating emotional eating altogether.
01/22/2012 10:58 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2012

I bet you've been plagued by emotional eating. I certainly have, and I'm a nutritionist. You know what I mean -- stressed out at work and taking that out on a box of cupcakes. Excited and happy that you have a niece along the way and celebrating that by eating six different varieties of cheese. Whether it's happy, sad, depressed, elated, your mood can often affect your food choices. In an exclusive excerpt from my new book, Bread is the Devil, I'll give you a peek into eliminating emotional eating altogether.

Most people recognize their Devils fairly easily. But there's one Devil that can lurk quietly and unobtrusively in the background, undermining your best efforts at weight loss. This Devil is emotional eating. Almost everyone who has struggled with weight has experienced episodes of emotional eating. In fact, it's so common and destructive that I believe it's the major, largely unrecognized, cause of weight gain.

How do you differentiate emotional eating from normal, healthy eating? Emotional eating is eating that's not prompted by hunger or social pressure. Rather it's eating that's prompted by feelings: sadness, anger, frustration or stress, to name a few. Complications in relationships with spouses, family, friends, children and coworkers can all cause emotional eating. Many of my clients describe emotional eating as a sort of out-of-body experience. "I was so angry after the fight with my husband that I finished the whole pint of Ben & Jerry's. I don't think I even tasted it," said one woman. "I was so upset that I then tore into the bag of chips and finished it off." It's distracted, mindless eating and it's utterly unsatisfying. When you're physically hungry, you can delay a meal for a while and make a reasonable choice about what to eat. emotional eating, on the other hand, is compulsive and often focused on a particular food (Hello chips! Bring on the ice cream!). Healthy eating makes you feel satisfied; emotional eating makes you feel guilty.

Comfort foods are like crack for emotional eaters, and carbs are usually their food of choice. Because what's really at the heart of most emotional eating is a search for comfort and a longing to be soothed. Unfortunately the price of soothing yourself with a casserole of mac 'n' cheese is high, and failing to recognize emotional eating can make reaching your weight loss goals extremely difficult.

Emotional eaters typically eat when they're sad, depressed, angry, worried, frustrated, ashamed or guilty. But any kind of change can stimulate feelings that prompt emotional eating. Divorce, death of a loved one, health issues, a problem with a child, a move... these events throw us off kilter and for many of us the response is to self-medicate with food. I recently had a client who gained over 20 pounds when her husband was diagnosed with a critical illness. Up until his diagnosis, she had always been slim. But it doesn't take a major life change like a life-threatening disease or divorce to prompt emotional eating. The stress of raising children, work, financial worries, an argument with a coworker, even holidays or planning a vacation can push us over the edge and into a bag of chips or a big tub of hummus.

Loss of control is this Devil's best friend. Almost any situation that feels out of your control can prompt you to eat. Many of my clients have told me that the very fact of being overweight causes them so much anxiety that they overeat. How frustrating is that? Here's how one of my longtime clients, Suzanne, describes it:

"When I first met with Heather and she began to discuss emotional eating with me it was all I could do not to cry. I'd been struggling with my weight for a few years and it's almost impossible to describe how depressed it made me. When my clothes were tight or I had to shop for new clothes for an occasion, I got so upset that I'd wind up just having some ice cream or pizza. It was almost as if I ate so I wouldn't cry. But once I could step back and recognize how emotions were making me eat, the picture in my head changed and I regained some control. Just naming this issue -- emotional eating -- made a huge difference. Finally I could tell myself that I wasn't hungry and didn't want to eat and that I was just feeling bad or anxious about something. Only then did I begin to lose."

You do not have to be victimized by emotional eating. The key words here are recognition and control. I'm going to help you recognize what's going on in your mind that's making you eat more than you want. We'll take a look at some issues that plague emotional eaters. And then I'm going to give you some foolproof strategies that will help you gain control of your situation so the pounds will begin to disappear.

What Emotional Eaters Need to Know

THE EMOTIONAL EATER'S FOOD JOURNAL If you haven't completed a few weeks of a food journal, now's the time to work on it. Follow the suggestions there: Write down everything you eat and the time of day. In addition, you should add two notes to your journal:

  • Make sure you make a note of how you're feeling when you eat. Were you angry when you had that snack? Depressed at dinner? Lonely at bedtime? Here's a list of emotions you might want to refer to throughout your week when identifying feelings that make you eat:









Scan through your journal to determine if there's a connection between negative feelings and overeating. If you're an emotional eater you'll probably discover that your moods have a big effect on what and how much you eat.

  • Don't forget to note the triumphs in your food journal. Emotional eaters sometimes find it too easy to denigrate themselves. So pause and record anything you've done that's been a positive step forward to your weight goal. This might be walking to the store instead of driving; passing up on the breadbasket while out to dinner or reaching your daily water goal. Give yourself a break and a pat on the back.
  • TAKE A STEP BACK What's stressing you? What are you anxious about? Sometimes there's nothing you can actually do about a stress but simply by recognizing it you'll reduce the pressure. Take a minute right now and make a quick list of the things that are stressing you. One client came to me after she started a new job and within four months gained fi fteen pounds. She couldn't figure out why this was happening, and her weight gain was making her feel more and more anxious and helpless. In the course of our conversation it quickly became apparent that she was an emotional eater who was overwhelmed by the demands of her new boss. She was snacking constantly and just couldn't find a way to stop. She told me that her "willpower had evaporated."

    The first thing I helped her understand was that she wasn't suffering from a failure of "willpower" but rather from unremitting stress that made her turn to food for distraction and comfort. It was a tremendous help for her to make the connection between her anxiety about her new position and her eating. She had come to feel that her life was completely out of control. By our second session she was taking active mea sures to change her eating habits and soon felt calmer and more positive. While she couldn't control her boss, she could control her reaction to her situation and her food intake. As she began to lose weight she also began to think about switching to another position within the same company that would be less stressful. She told me at our third session that she'd made the job move and now could remind herself, "You don't want to eat; you want to relax." This helped her to redirect her energies and avoid the snacking that had been tempting her.

    Whether or not you can change the sources of stress in your life, it's important to keep in mind that the one thing you always have control over is what you eat. This should be your mantra when it comes to emotional eating: I can't control everything in my life, but I can control what I put in my mouth.

    SET A GOAL AND REACH IT Nothing makes you feel more in control than reaching a goal, even if it's a simple one. I suggest that clients start each day with one or two -- you might even jot them down in your food journal. It may be food related, such as, "Today I'm going to have my healthy snack at 4 p.m. and then nothing until dinner." Or maybe it's work related, like, "Today I'm going to spend an hour working on that report that's due on Friday." Or it could be a family goal: "Today I'll spend an hour with my toddler at the park." Plan to succeed. When you do, you'll boost your sense of confidence and you'll find that everything in your life will seem more achievable.

    Excerpt adapted from Bread Is the Devil by Heather Bauer and Kathy Matthews

    For more by Heather Bauer, RD, CDN, click here.

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