When we want to lose weight, we find an eating plan that makes sense for us. We learn the principles, commit to the strategies, eat according to plan, and lose weight. This should be the end of the story. But is not. For more than 99% of people, the story does not end there. What happens?

In short, LIFE happens. We receive additional pressure from work. We have a fight with our spouse. Our eight-year-old son is going through a “stage.” Our mother-in-law is coming to visit. Any one of a million possible scenarios happens that causes additional stress in our lives and makes us reach for a candy bar. Before we know it, we have regained the 5kg we lost and another 2kg have joined them.

This is the yoyo effect that emotional eating can have on our attempts to lose weight. Everyone has stress in their lives, problems to solve, and negative emotions to deal with, but not everyone eats in response to these common aspects of the human condition in the modern age. Emotional eating is a learned response, a learned way of dealing with unpleasant emotions. And as such, it can be unlearned.

First of all, what is emotional eating? The most useful definition is that it is when you eat to control your emotions and you do so in conflict with your true intentions. If your intention is to have fun at a party regardless of your weight or health and you eat and drink as you please, it is not emotional eating. But if you’re overweight, or have a health problem that you know is related to what you eat, and you want to lose weight and improve your health by eating healthy foods, but you eat foods that you know aren’t good for you because you’re bored, that’s emotional eating.

When people eat for emotional reasons, they often describe feelings of helplessness, both in relation to their eating and their lives. Although these feelings are completely wrong and false, people will believe them so much that they think they must eat to get rid of the feeling. There is a strong feeling of compulsion to eat certain foods because the feeling of helplessness is close to the source of the panic.

However, using food as a solution is temporary and illusory. It doesn’t help you deal with any of life’s problems. In reality, we are using food to avoid facing life’s problems. We have hooked ourselves on a shortcut to making ourselves feel better through food in the same way that an alcoholic or drug addict tries to make himself feel better through alcohol, drugs, or tobacco.

The problem is that the population is under increasing levels of stress in relation to the complexity of modern life, and therefore we see increasing levels of obesity and food-related diseases. This situation will not change in the short term. Therefore, we must find a way to break the habit of using food to feel better and learn new ways to deal with life’s problems.

We need to develop an attitude that is:

  • Problem resolution

  • Realistic

  • not too sensitive

  • Don’t judge yourself or others.

And we need to learn how to take a problem, break it down into its parts, and then find a successful solution. To do this, it can sometimes help to talk to other people: friends, family, or even a professional. Talking can help us put words to our feelings and problems, collect our thoughts, and (most importantly) come to some conclusions about the situation.

Take an example of a stressful situation where your boss is angry and yells at you. You could just go out and quell your feelings with a donut (or six), or you could process your problems on your own or with someone you trust by answering a series of questions like these:

  • What really happened?

  • Why did my boss yell?

  • Was it something I did?

  • Was he in a bad mood?

  • Is this something I need to settle with him?

  • Did he really yell, or was he being overly sensitive?

  • Is there something else in my life that could be causing me to misinterpret his behavior?

Approaching life’s problems in this way, rather than going straight to food, is likely to lead to real, lasting solutions. While food will stop your problem-solving conversations in the same way that alcohol does, while you forget about your problems with a temporary “high.” Unfortunately, instead of actually solving your problems, this way of behaving actually creates even more problems.

There will always be bumps in the road of life. But if we can develop a sense that we are the agent of our own life, and that if something happens, we can take care of it, there will be no need to turn to food as a method of coping. For those who don’t feel empowered in this area, using the services of a health therapist or coach can help us navigate our issues with emotional eating rather than letting ourselves control our weight, health, and life.

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