Feeding emotions

For many, it isn't always hunger that prompts eating

February 05, 2006|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN REPORTER

Nothing cures depression like a pint of mocha almond fudge ice cream.

If you believe that even though you know better, count yourself among the emotional eaters -- in other words, just about everybody at one time or other.

Jumping up to get a candy bar from the machine when you are bored at work falls into the same category. So does celebrating a promotion with a big steak dinner. Most often, though, people use food to cope with negative emotions such as loneliness, stress, sadness, anxiety and anger. To make matters worse, they follow the ice cream, candy bar or steak dinner with a large helping of guilt and self-reproach.

Geneen Roth, author of When Food Is Love (Plume, 1992, $15) and other books on emotional eating, defines it as eating when you aren't hungry and not stopping when you have had enough. That's simplistic but useful. Some of us eat for other reasons -- because it's time to feed the family, or in response to an external cue such as the smell of hot popcorn at the movies. But her point is that very few people think of food simply as fuel for the body. They are responding to patterns, researchers believe, that may be set up as early as infancy when a mother nurses a fussy baby or when a child gets a cookie as a reward for good behavior.

"When people eat for emotional reasons," Roth says, "it's usually a sign that something else is going on. They are using food basically as the drug of choice."

Kathryn Katz, a school nurse in her 50s who lives in Hampden, spent a large part of last winter driving to and from upstate New York to visit her mother, whose health was deteriorating.

"Every time I went up I would start eating more the week before," she says, "in anticipation of having to make the five-hour drive in the snow that I knew would be stressful. I would eat more at school and at night. I would snack. I would eat more sweets and carbos."

Two things, she says, helped her get through a difficult time. She kept her exercise level up, and even though she was snacking on foods that weren't good for her, she also ate plenty of healthful foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables.

Eventually her mother moved south into an assisted-living facility near Katz's brother. Since then, and without dieting, Katz has gradually lost the weight she gained.

Perhaps most important, Katz says, she realized "there are events in our lives we can't control. I didn't beat myself up about how I dealt with it."

But the problem for most of us isn't the occasional crisis that triggers unhealthy eating patterns. Some people graze at night because there's nothing much on TV. Others overeat because they are feeling lonely. They use food, says Elizabeth Josefsberg of Weight Watchers, as "a quick emotional fix."

"Emotional eating is a tough one," she says, "because it becomes a behavior we don't even notice. Addressing it is one of the largest keys to sustaining weight loss."

She recommends "journaling" food, keeping a record of when you eat when you aren't hungry. It's a good way to recognize behavior patterns of which you might not even be conscious. If you find you look forward to food as a reward for a long day at work, for instance, try a luxurious bath instead.

"Of course," Josefsberg says, "taking a bath will take longer. Food is so simple."

At the very least, she says, wait 10 minutes each time you are about to eat. "Do something else. Make a phone call to a friend. If you're still thinking about food, maybe you really are hungry."

Karen Codd, 25, readily acknowledges that she's an emotional eater. She knows that almost anything can trigger food cravings -- boy troubles, depression and especially boredom. "When I have a job where I'm doing things, I can go for hours without feeling a hunger pang," she says. "But when I'm just sitting..."

Codd, who lives in Mount Vernon and works as a massage therapist and a receptionist, says she tries to "satisfy her jaw" with water or crushed ice when she's bored and gets the munchies, although she craves crunchy foods such as peanuts.

"When I'm bored I'll eat anything," she says. "I try to use mind over matter. You have to learn to decipher true hunger from emotional hunger. You can't feed emotions. You have to deal with them in a different way."

Edward Abramson, a clinical psychologist and author of Body Intelligence (McGraw-Hill, 2005, $21.95), tells his patients that if they have a boring task, to do it in an environment that doesn't have food. Take the ironing to the garage if you have to, he says. "If they were really engaged in what they had to do, probably the urge to nibble would be less."

Abramson's book is about how to lose weight without dieting. "Unfortunately we focus so much on what diet to use like Atkins or South Beach and what special food to eat, but virtually no time on how we're using food," he says. "Until we get a handle on that, we won't have much luck in losing weight."

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