Cris LaBossiere

Cris LaBossiere
Strength training and mountain biking. My two favorites

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Emotional Eating: Undermining Success In Weight Loss

We know significantly more about the connection between the brain, our emotions, and food than we did just five years ago.

The key to weight loss is consuming fewer calories than are burned off.  Success when doing so is 100%, there are no people in any population that could possibly fail.  That's a bold statement, since of course the failure rate for long term successful weight loss is near 90 - 95%.

So is it not true then?  Is there some other variable?  Metabolism?  "I can't lose weight because of my slow metabolism".  "I'm big boned."

No, no, and no.  It is a certainty; eat less than you burn off, and fat loss will occur.

The only way fat loss could not be successful is if a person does not consume less than they burn off.

That's it.. End of story.

Or is it?

My references so far are missing something.  I've been making fact based logically derived statements. I can admit to liking the Spock character from Star Trek.. And yes I have even been accused of being a little "Spock like" myself.. is that a compliment?

Like Spock this article has thus far missed the emotional component.  To torture the Vulcan analogy, everyone knows that Spock does have emotions, buried deep below his logic front, and similarly our emotions, deep, patterned emotions that we are not always completely cognizant of, guide our eating decisions.

It's said that many will eat when happy, sad, bored, frustrated etc.  Eating can be very gratifying, and that instant gratification can seem to placate feeling a little blue.

There's more to emotional eating to simply eating to sooth the way we feel.  Research has shown our self confidence can undermine our decisions between healthy food and unhealthy food.  Those who are less confident about their knowledge of food, and less secure in their ability to make good decisions choose unhealthy more than healthy.

There are also social pressures that we abide by, also anchored in emotions.  When you serve up dinner for guests you don't want to feel that you're letting anyone down, so you're more likely to go big or go home.

Ditto for eating as a guest.  Many will feel that if they don't eat a lot of food, their host might get the impression their food isn't good enough, and you don't want to hurt your hosts feelings, so you overeat, which means hurting yourself instead.

For men more than woman, there is often more "manliness" associated with eating more.  Eat light amongst the "guys" and you will likely face ridicule. How does that make you feel?  While men are pressured to eat more, woman are pressured to eat less.  There are emotions attached to these social norms.

Comfort food.  I know all about comfort food.  You eat food because it buries some emotion.  After you're done you feel guilty.  Might as well eat more then, since you've already overdone it, overdoing it a little more isn't going to be much worse.

And what the hell, there's always tomorrow to repent and eat less.

There is one key state of perception that can unwind all of this: how we view the reward and risk values associated with food.

No matter what environmental or historical circumstances, a large part of overcoming emotional eating is to first recognize how we value food now, and work cognitively on changing this for the better.

If we see an unhealthy serving size or unhealthy food as rewarding and satisfying, a diet that restricts this food will leave a person seeing the healthy "diet" food as something that interferes with the reward of the unhealthy food.  Chances are it won't be long before one returns to the old way of eating, since the new way is seen as punishment, or at least restrictive, and the old way of eating is very rewarding.

Turns out it could take around 20 weeks of practicing associating new values to food choices before our brain begins to normalize the modifided emotional response to food choices.

Two weeks on a diet?  Just enough time to get frustrated and give in to the old established and comfortable eating patterns.  Really what we need to do is work diligently for many, many weeks, with the idea that we are making a permanent change in the way we eat, and the way we feel about eating.

We need to recognize what triggers us to eat too much, then cognitively process that we have the power to put down (or not pick up) the food we don't need.  Succeeding at this makes us feel really good.

How our emotions affect our eating decisions is often a taboo subject and most focus on the numbers: calories in/ out.  If the underlying emotions that guide our eating decisions are not addressed and worked on, we'll always return to old eating habits.

Ask yourself this when you are about to eat:  Will this help me live? (is the food nutritious)

And this:  Am I wanting this food to satisfy and emotional need?

If we can change our unbalanced reward/ satisfaction associations with food we'll be in a better position to make permanent changes to our weight.

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