Anger in the Age of Entitlement

Cleaning up emotional pollution

Emotional Eating: All Diets are from Hell

The level of hell Dante edited out was diets.

We are the most weight-conscious society in the world and also the most obese and eating disordered. In deciding which started the other, keep in mind that the American obsession with weight predates the epidemic of obesity and eating disorders by at least a decade.

Although diets have been around since Adam and Eve had to restrict their choice of dessert, our national consciousness about weight control didn't swing into high gear until the 1960s. Within a couple of decades it grew to the present level of obsession. Americans think about food more than any other people in the world, including the hungry and starving. (The brain actually stops fantasizing about food in periods of starvation.) We digest more information about eating and diets and see more images of food in the media and the environment at large than all the rest of the people on the planet. This continual attention focused on food and weight can do nothing but increase the unconscious motivation to overeat.

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I first became interested in this topic in working with victims of abuse, who, in addition to the difficult recovery from abusive relationships, often began to overeat or under eat. The diets and weight management programs they undertook inadvertently devalued them and made their emotional recovery more difficult by commercializing certain myths about "emotional eating."

The Truth about Emotional Eating
Experts seem to agree that "emotional eating" is the nemesis of weight control, the number one reason it is so tough to lose weight and much harder to keep it off. The thousands of weight-management programs that have come and gone over recent years have created certain myths about weight control, particularly about emotional eating, which obscure the true nature of both emotion and the motivation to eat. The following are a few that we need to purge from our consciousness.

Myth #1: Emotional eating is different from other kinds of eating.
All eating is emotional, powered by a stream of unconscious emotions. Any attempt to take emotion out of eating will increase the unconscious motivation to eat foods that have more emotional charge with high sensory content. That's why substituting broccoli for chocolate always fails, although this strategy could work if truffles were invented to cover a shortage of vegetables.

Trying to take the emotion out of eating merely fills your stream of unconscious everyday emotions with "deprivation motivations," a desire to get all you can while you can, because the supply is limited or forbidden. Remember, Adam and Eve were forbidden only one little piece of fruit; compare that to the list of things we're not allowed to eat.

Because we cannot take the emotion out of eating, sustainable weight control depends on which groups of emotions motivate it. The choice is between core hurts and core value.

Core hurt eating tries to avoid feeling disregarded, unimportant, guilty, devalued, disrespected, rejected, powerless, inadequate, or unlovable. The connection between core hurts and high-energy, high-sensory food is irresistible. Core hurts cause pain and deplete energy; rapid eating of high sensory, high calorie food numbs pain and restores energy, for a few minutes.

Core hurt eating is always overeating; we know that as soon as we stop, core hurts will get worse and energy will vanish. So we don't stop, until our bodies make us. If core hurts are severe, and the skill to regulate them is underdeveloped, overeating turns into "attacks on food," making the food damaging rather than nourishing, an instrument of harm rather than a means of health and well being.

The habitual avoidance of core hurts inevitably breeds a sense of entitlement. If I become aware that I shouldn't be eating this whole cake (I'm not likely to, but that's another post), I'll resentfully conclude that it's so hard being me, I deserve a treat! Or I'm a screw-up anyway, so why not have a good taste? Entitlement eating is the purest form of core hurt eating.

Incidentally, no one eats a whole cake or a quart of ice cream or a box of chocolates. We eat moderate amounts of these things. Then just one or two bites more, then two or three more, and so on, usually faster and faster, ever trying to outrun the core hurts.

In contrast, core value eating is an expression of self-value. Instead of focusing on what you cannot have, you focus on building more value in your life. It helps you to stop thinking so much about weight and food and start looking at yourself and others with more compassion. As you value yourself more, you automatically value your health and well being and learn to motivate yourself with "acts of kindness."

Sounds great. So why don't we do more of it? Because we think we're not allowed to, due, in large part, to the other myths of emotional eating, which we'll explore in the next post.

Steven Stosny, Ph.D., treats people for anger and relationship problems. Recent books: How to Improve your Marriage without Talking about It, and Love Without Hurt.

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