“Lyneè, I know what I have to do to lose weight. I just can’t seem to make myself do it!”
I was having a conversation with a friend about her frustrations with gaining back the sixty pounds she was able to lose a few years ago.
“I’ve done all the research, I have all the knowledge, I’ve lost the weight before. I know how to do it. But there’s like a disconnect between my brain and my actions.”
As a weight loss coach, I’ve had this conversation many times before. And as a former food addict, I’ve lived it.
What I quickly discovered is that for many people, weight issues are not diet and exercise issues. They’re emotional issues.
This means that some people can be handed on a silver platter a fool-proof diet and exercise strategy to lose weight and keep it off, but if they have emotional ties to food, then those ties will sabotage their efforts. Every. Single. Time.
So the purpose of this blog post is to share my personal experience with emotional eating, the science behind the ties between food and feelings, and three practical tips to break unhealthy ties to food to achieve your weight loss goals once and for all!
How I Became Addicted to Food
Growing up, I associated food with family. And as a kid, my happiest memories always revolved around being with my family and eating really good food.
This is pretty common in many family cultures and on the surface seems pretty harmless. But for me, the issue was that my growing brain began forming deep connections between food and positive emotions.
This means that by the time I was a teen, every celebration was incomplete without good food. It also meant that every heartache or sorrow could only be cured by good food.
Things took a turn for the worst when, right before going off to college, my parents got a divorce.
It was the combination of feeling homesick along with this belief that I no longer had a “home” to go back to that amplified my dependence on food for emotional stability.
Over time, my emotional eating transitioned to full blown food addiction that only seemed to intensify with diet and exercise.
The Science of Emotional Eating
Due to the heavy emphasis on calories in our current weight loss culture, many of us are not aware of the major impact hormones have on weight loss.
Our bodies operate through a series of hormones - a.k.a. Messengers - that essentially tell our brains what to think, how to feel, and how to behave.
There are two hormones in particular that have a major impact on how we feel, and these hormones are dopamine and serotonin.
When dopamine is released, we feel a sense of pleasure and euphoria as well as a numbing of -- or greater tolerance to -- pain.
When serotonin is released we feel a greater sense of happiness and satisfaction with ourselves and our place in the world.
Why is this important? Because there are certain food and certain behaviors with food that actually elevate dopamine and serotonin!
Sugar, salt, carbs, fat, and starch are some of the macronutrients that impact dopamine and serotonin.
And when you consume these macros in certain combinations, not only are you packing a lot of calories into one meal, but you’re also releasing mood-regulating hormones that can quickly establish an unhealthy connection between food and feelings.
For example, cheeseburgers and french fries are a very popular go-to American meal. Those who take a calories-in-calories-out approach to weight loss may treat burgers and fries as a cheat meal, or calories to be burned off at the gym.
But for emotional eaters, the combinations of fat, starch, and salt launch dopamine and serotonin levels like rocket ships, reinforcing the unhealthy emotional connection between food and emotions.
This is the reason why, in the face of stress, emotional triggers, or trauma, emotional eaters experience strong cravings for sweet, salty, or fatty foods.
My friend who previously lost sixty pounds was able to successfully maintain her weight loss for several months.
But as soon as she experienced an emotional trigger with her son, she ran back to her old comfort foods and eventually gained back every pound she lost.
How to Overcome Emotional Eating
When I finally decided to lose weight, I tried every diet and workout program under the sun. But no matter how much weight I lost, I always gained it back, plus a few extra pounds than what I started with.
I could not stay on a diet for more than three days before some sort of emotional trigger sent me on a month-long pizza and ice cream binge fest.
But once I discovered that my weight issues were actually emotional issues, I became very intentional about finding a strategy that would assist in my emotional recovery as well as transform my health!
As counterintuitive as this sounds in our current diet and exercise culture, the biggest mistake emotional eaters make is cutting out all of their comfort foods and snacks cold turkey. When there are severe connections between food and feelings, dopamine and serotonin become completely dependent on the consumption of these foods to stimulate pleasure and happiness.
This is the reason some people find themselves going through withdrawal-like symptoms or feelings of depression when they go on a diet.
Therefore in order to reduce the consumption of these foods without reinforcing unhealthy behaviors or falling into depression, here are my tips for overcoming emotional eating.
Replace Trigger Foods with Buffer Foods
Trigger foods are those meals you consume today that indirectly increase your cravings for more sweet, salty, fatty, starchy later on.
For example, if you have a bowl of ice cream at night, and the next morning wake up craving pancakes, it’s safe to say that ice cream is a trigger.
So the first step to overcoming emotional eating is to replace those trigger foods with buffer foods.
Buffer foods are nutrient-dense, lower-calorie foods that still elevate your mood-regulating hormones without triggering cravings.
Low-sugar fruits (like apples, pears, and berries) are great buffers because they’re packed with water and fiber to satisfy hunger, and natural sugar to satisfy sweet cravings.
My go-to buffer is unsweetened cocoa powder mixed in hot water. Cocoa contains chemicals that suppress cravings and elevate serotonin!
Rest and Relaxation
When trying to sever ties between food and feelings, buffer foods will help, but what you really need is a complete restoration of your emotional health.
Exercise is a great tool for physical health and stress relief. But emotional health is restored through rest and relaxation.
Activities such as leisure walks, meditation, prayer, and journaling have been proven to reduce stress hormones and increase serotonin.
Rest activities build emotional strength in the same way that exercise builds physical strength.
Keep Moving forward.
When emotional eaters slip on their diet, their typical reaction is, “Well I already messed up today so I might as well eat this entire gallon of ice cream.”
Emotional eaters tend to struggle with an all-or-nothing approach to diet and exercise. Guilt, shame, and defeat after one slip up can trigger strong cravings for foods that will provide comfort.
But the more they eat, the guiltier they feel, the more they crave comfort foods… and thus the cycle repeats itself.
One of the most important lessons I instill in my clients is that when it comes to weight loss, consistency beats perfection every time.
When you slip up and use that as license to go completely off plan, your brain reinforces this unhealthy cycle as “normal” behavior with food:
Eat healthy → have one cookie → binge on ice cream for two weeks.
But if you can immediately get back on plan after you slip up, then eventually you establish a brand new cycle of behavior:
Eat healthy → have one cookie → keep eating healthy → keep eating healthy → keep eating healthy
So instead of using one slip up as an excuse to eat everything you’ve been craving, don’t wait until tomorrow or Monday to “start over.” Use your next food choice as an opportunity to keep moving forward.
If you keep moving forward consistently, then the number of times you stay on plan will outweigh the number of times you slip up.
Not only will this type of consistency repair your emotional health, but it will always lead to sustainable weight loss in the long run!
Lyneè Urban is a Nutrition and Lifestyle coach dedicated to helping women eliminate stress, transform their health, and lose weight through rest-based living. Visit her website at www.operationfixmylife.com or follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/operationfixmylife