Are you an emotional overeater?

Cindy reaches for the last potato chip in the bag and she wonders not only how she could have finished the whole bag but also why she started to eat the chips when she wasn't even hungry. Worse, she repeats this same scenario every week. Does this happen to you? Do you find yourself munching your way through a whole heap of snacks when you weren't even hungry? Could there be other reasons aside from hunger that cause you to overeat?

Physical versus emotional hunger.
Everyone knows the perception of physical hunger. We get light-headed, our stomachs start to gurgle and have that empty feeling. However, many people can no longer differentiate between the physical hunger in their stomachs and emotional hunger in their psyches. Food is used as a cover-up for emotions like boredom, loneliness, anger or sadness.

According to Nan Kathryn Francis, author of "Overcoming the Legacy of Overeating", many people overeat because they confuse hunger for food with their hunger for emotional fulfillment.

Psychotherapist Gloria Arenson, says in her book, "A Substance Called Food", that people are not aware that they are using food as a coping mechanism for underlying feelings. "The more we abuse food and use it as a tranquilizer, the more we learn to live in a state of denial," says Arenson. "We tune out, turn away, avoid and forget the underlying problem. Finally we forget we have forgotten and blame our weight and eating habits for everything that's gone wrong in our lives."

Different types of emotional hunger.
In her book, Arenson describes the different ways food can be used to mask painful feelings. Some people have what she calls food anger or feelings of frustration, anger and deprivation because of long-term dieting. The dieter "snaps" one day and just gobbles up everything in sight.

Other people have emotional anger. Rather than confront an unpleasant situation or person, they "swallow" their anger by overeating.

Others are "people-pleasers" with low self-worth who think they have to have the approval of other people to be liked. These are the people who give in when a host at a party says "have another slice of my chocolate cake" or when a friend asks "is that all you're going to have?"

Perfectionists are the people who binge after eating one bite of food that is not on their diet. Their mentality is that since they have broken their diet they may as well go all the way and start again tomorrow.

Sexually traumatized women may overeat in an unconscious effort to make themselves unattractive. Adults who were molested as children usually fall into this category.

Oprah Winfrey was an emotional overeater.
Most of us are familiar with famous talk show host Oprah Winfrey's lifelong personal battle against obesity. After years of fad dieting, Oprah has finally been able to not only overcome her weight problems but also maintain her new lighter weight for a few years now.

The man responsible for this transformation was her personal trainer and exercise physiologist, Bob Greene. He did it by introducing her to a lifestyle of exercise and healthy eating but, most of all, by making her realize that food was her primary coping mechanism to deal with her emotions.

In the book "Making the Connection", Greene observed that Oprah "sought refuge in food whenever she felt unloved or bad about herself. Eating made her feel comforted and safe - even loved. She literally buried her problems under food. She ate to cushion herself from bad news and bad feelings. Food became a narcotic. It buffered her from pain, sadness, anxiety, any emotion she did not want to feel."

Greene wisely realized that "in order to make permanent changes in her life, Oprah had to deal with the underlying emotional issues she had been avoiding with food." Greene says that the reason why 95% of all dieters regain their weight in a few years is that they have not dealt with the emotional baggage in their life.

Do you use food as therapy?
Psychologist Stephen Gullo, author of "Thin Tastes Better", has developed a simple test to determine whether you are a "food therapist" - someone who instead of coping with painful or difficult emotions, uses food as a panacea.

To determine if, or how much, you are a food therapist, rate each statement on a scale of 1 to 5. A rating of 1 means the statement is rarely true of you, a rating of 5 means it is usually true. If you completely disagree with the statement, the score is 0.

  1. There is no problem that can't be solved with chocolate (or potato chips or whatever).
  2. I like to treat myself to a nice dinner (or some other food treat) to celebrate accomplishments or a job well done.
  3. On previous diets, I've sometimes cheated because I just felt I deserved a little treat.
  4. When I'm particularly stressed or upset, I usually feel better after I've eaten something.
  5. I have a favorite restaurant where my friends and I usually go to celebrate or just get together.
  6. I have a particular food that I always crave when I am under stress.
  7. I always gain weight when I'm under pressure.
  8. Whenever I've gone off a diet plan, there was something unpleasant going on in my life.
  9. I always overeat when I go home to visit my parents (or any other similar stressful relationship situation that applies to you).
  10. I always overeat after a fight with my boyfriend / girlfriend / husband / wife.

According to Dr. Gullo, if you scored 21 or less, you're doing well - you may occasionally turn to food for solace, but you're not a person who uses food for emotion control. If you scored 22 to 36, you turn to food to comfort you on a part-time basis. However, if you scored 37 or more, you are one of the legions of people who turn to food first to solve (or at least temporarily relieve) your distress.

Keep a food diary.
Another good way to see whether you are eating because of physical or emotional hunger is to keep a food diary according to Nan Kathryn Francis. Write down the time of day, the amount of food you eat, and how you are feeling. Note whether you are sad, lonely, angry, or just plain bored. The objective is to become aware of how often you eat due to emotional rather than physical hunger. In time, you'll begin to see a pattern between how you feel and the way that you eat.

Take a fifteen-minute cooldown.
Sometimes the most powerful way to beat a food craving is not to fight it, but to divert it. Dr. Gullo says that if you can take the focus off the craving for fifteen minutes or so, you'll often find that the craving is gone by the end of the cooldown period. He says cravings are like waves. They come in quickly and dissipate just as fast.

Develop alternatives to eating.
Food isn't the only rewarding thing in the universe, Dr. Gullo says. So take the time to list some of the other things in your life that give you pleasure and that can be done in fifteen minutes.

Some examples could be a warm tub bath, reading an interesting magazine, or playing your favorite computer game. Another list you could look at would be a "to do" list. We all have odds and ends in life that we are always meaning to get around to doing but somehow never quite do. Dr. Gullo says that the fifteen-minute cooldown period is a great time to finish those projects that have been falling by the wayside.

Call a friend.
"Human emotions and problems require human solutions", Dr. Gullo notes. Whenever you turn to food for emotional support, you miss the chance for human contact. He advises people not to let food occupy a place in their life that should be held by a friend. He says that we should find the person or persons in our lives who can be a support in times of stress, someone who understands us, someone who can make us laugh and feel better about life. He calls such people "911 friends".

Even a simple ten-minute walk around your block is a good anti-anxiety strategy. Research has shown that physical activity is a good stress-buster.

Disarm your cravings with the five "D's":
Delay at least 10 to 15 minutes before you eat so that your action is conscious, not impulsive, says Linda Crawford, an eating behavior specialist in Ludlow, Vermont. Distract yourself by engaging in an activity that requires concentration and is not compatible with eating. Distance yourself from the food. Determine how important it really is for you to eat the craved food and how much you really want it. Decide what amount is reasonable and appropriate, eat it slowly, and enjoy.

Seek professional help.
Finally, Nan Kathryn Francis suggests seeking professional help from a psychologist, psychiatrist or professional support group if you find you cannot control your emotional eating by yourself. You may have deep rooted emotional problems that need to be brought out into the open and explored before you can control your overeating habits.

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