When people ask me what I “do”, I used to say that I was an emotional eating expert. As I thought about this, I smiled to myself because this statement could easily imply that I was an expert at eating emotionally! And this used to be true. My cravings would get the best of me and I would also eat for a variety of emotions – bored, overwhelmed, anxious, and lonely – you name it, I could eat for it. And my clients were the same way. I (and other practitioners and programs) could give them the best advice on the planet when it came to nutrition (and exercise), but in the end they always ended up asking the same question . . . “I know what I’m supposed to do so why can’t I do it?”
The answer to this question is simple, but the solution for permanent weight is SO much more than “eat right and exercise”. Our relationship with food is quite complex. At the very basic level, food provides the nutrients we need for life. However, from a very young age it becomes more than this. Some children are rewarded with food. Some kids don’t have enough. And, sadly, many times, we learn to use food to cope with the stressors and traumas of life.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs) showed that the more categories of trauma experienced as a child, the greater the likelihood of experiencing obesity as well as many other illnesses and diseases such as COPD, depression, alcoholism, liver disease, and poor health-related quality of life in general. The list of traumas included emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, physical neglect, witnessing their mothers being treated violently, having a mentally-ill person in the household, losing a parent due to separation or divorce, and having a household member in jail or prison.
In many cases, overeating becomes the solution to the problem(s). When we eat or drink “comfort foods” such as bread, cereal, pasta, candy, soda, pizza, chips, crackers, popcorn, cookies, cakes, donuts, etc., the levels of serotonin and dopamine in our brains are affected and we feel better. That’s nice – until the extra calories get stored as belly fat and we feel even worse about ourselves. That, combined with the guilt and shame, is a recipe for disaster. This makes it critical to address the emotions behind our cravings and overeating.