Do You engage in Emotional Eating?
by Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.
Jul 6th 2009

Most of us fall into the emotional eating category. If you feel like saying, "no, not me," think again. From the time we are born, we gain comfort and sustenance by feeding at the breast of our mother. From then, onward, there are few things that feel as good as food. Remember, too, that, unlike alcohol, drugs, gambling, spending money, and smoking cigarettes, we cannot give up food.

The term "comfort food" expresses the dilemma that people face in their struggles with their waist lines. There is a natural tendency, when under duress, to reach for something to eat. Tension, aggravation, anxiety, stress and many other difficult factors become the catalysts for reaching for that spaghetti, bad of potato chips, chocolate bar, cake, pie and ice cream. It is especially while we are eating that we can feel a sense of relief. Of course, soon afterward, many people start to feel regret and even self hatred for having stuffed themselves.

So, what can be done to prevent all the weight and health problems that result from over eating or binge eating?

One thing is now very clear and it is that dieting does not work. Oprah Winfrey, Kirsti Alley and others are living examples of people who tried valiantly to lose excess weight and maintain themselves through exercise and limited caloric intake. The results were that they ultimately failed in their efforts. It is not that these otherwise successful people were failures or that they are "gluttons," but that they exemplify the problems associated with diet.

What seems to happen when people begin dieting is that the brain, feeling as though the body is starving, sets in motion a series of efforts to restore the body to its former equilibrium. In other words, sooner or later, brain and stomach, in collusion with one another, reverse the process of dieting so that weight is regained. In fact, what happens to most people is that they gain more weight than they initially lost. It may be the reason for this is that the body is attempting to store extra reserves in order to protect itself against "starvation" or what we called the diet.

A common bit of wisdom in medical practice is that if you leave a disease intact and simply treat the symptoms, the patient will ultimately die. Sometimes, as in dealing with terminal cancer, medical doctors are left with no other choice than to treat symptoms to comfort the patient. However, in most cases, the goal is to cure the disease, even while helping the patient gain relief from the symptoms.

In a similar way, by constantly trying to lose weight by eating less, all we seem to be doing is treat the symptom and not the disease. In this case, the disease is the depression, anxiety, stress, worry, loneliness, or other life crisis with which we are wrestling. These cause so many of us to reach for food. Until we identify and treat these underlying problems, there will continue to be the impulse to over eat.

How does one deal with underlying stresses?
Following are a partial list of things people can do to help themselves while trying to lose excess weight while maintaining a healthy body.

  1. Yoga is an excellent way to tune up the body and get in touch with what one is attempting to cope with.
  2. If you are not ready for yoga, for any reason, learning and practicing meditation is an excellent way to relieve stress and escape from obsessing about insolvable issues.
  3. Exercise is always an excellent way to keep the body in good health, while releasing tensions and burning calories. It is always a good idea to see your medical doctor, have a thorough examination and get approval before starting an exercise program.
  4. Psychotherapy is the method that helps a person learn how to deal with the issues that underlay their over eating issues. This can be either Cognitive behavioral or psychodynamic therapy.
  5. In addition to psychotherapy, self help support groups are valuable because people with the same problems meet with one another and gain a sense of affirmation and emotional support while learning to deal with eating problems.