Anger in the Age of Entitlement

Cleaning up emotional pollution

Emotional Eating II

Weight Management Myths

All eating is emotional. The tough part is choosing which group of emotions you want to motivate your eating. That was the argument of my previous post. This one reveals myths that make the choice unnecessarily difficult.

Myth #2: When I lose weight I will value myself more.

Weight loss programs reinforce this message, both directly, by asking you to "Think about how you don't like looking the in the mirror," and indirectly, with their emphasis on "goals" and "rules."

Oh they say, "You should accept yourself fat," and "Keep going, even if you relapse," and that sort of thing. But no amount of lip service can counteract the emotional effect of goals: You're a loser unless you achieve them.

When it comes to weight control, overeaters tend to feel like losers anyway. But just in case that's not enough to ensure failure, the goals and rules that characterize weight loss programs have a built-in failure mechanism, simply because all winners are also losers. In anything that continues for a long while, like the lifetime motivation to eat, we lose as much as we win. It's simple regression to the mean; if you get enough observations, say scores on a test, the mean score i. e., average score becomes more frequent while deviations from the mean become less so.

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If you "win" by reaching your weight-goal, statistics predict that at some point in your life (sooner rather than later) you will most likely "lose" by relapse. Thus the old joke, "I lost 200 pounds this year, but I gained 210." Goals and rules about eating are more likely to stimulate core hurts (guilty and inadequate) than core value, and thereby set you up to fail.

But the worst part of this myth - that you will value yourself more when you lose weight - is its sad distortion of a simple reality: You will not lose weight until you value yourself more. Who is more likely to overeat (or be a terrible spouse or an abusive person, for that matter) the valued self or the devalued self?

Myth #3: We overeat out of boredom.

The natural motivation of boredom is to find something of interest. If you want to avoid boredom, you don't eat, you get interested in something. Bored people overeat only if their boredom threatens them with core hurts. If my boredom means that I'm unimportant or inadequate, my brain mistakes the drop in energy and well being for hunger and makes it more likely that I'll want to overeat. Otherwise, I'll seek to engage my mind and body in something growth-oriented.

Myth #4: We eat for comfort.

This myth is so prevalent that many magazines have urged us to make lists of our "comfort foods," things like cake, oatmeal, chocolate, chicken and dumplings, ice cream, and so on. If we really ate for comfort, no one would overeat, as few common endeavors are as physically and mentally uncomfortable as overeating.

That some people feel comforted after eating certain foods has nothing to do with the food and everything to do with their core value. They feel like they are "taking care of themselves," and, significantly, do not overeat. If core value motivates eating - or anything else - the likely result will be comfort and general well being. But if core hurts motivate "eating for comfort," the result will be guilt and shame.

Myth #5: We eat for love (because our mothers expressed affection with food).

This is an especially damaging myth. The same people who espouse it, by the way, tell overeaters who had absent mothers that they eat for affection because their mothers didn't express love with food. Well guess what; expressing affection with food is pretty darn common. In general, most mothers use food to express affection to children, including those who grow up to be thin, though the parents who make an issue of what kind of food are a bit more likely to produce eating disorders.

Empirical facts aside, "eating for affection," like "eating for comfort," belies common sense. Overeating leads to self-recrimination and loathing but certainly not love. Has anyone actually felt love by eating too much? If we did, we would savor it, prolong it, drag it out as much as we could. Yet overeaters, particularly those who attack food, tend to eat at one pace: fast and furious. Some actually keep eating just to feel so bad about themselves afterwards that they will finally stick to their weight loss goal. Of course, there's only one thing self-loathing gets you to stick to and that's self-destructive behavior.

We do not eat for love because core hurt eating is not an attempt to feel valued, accepted, or loved. Quite the opposite, core hurts are about feeling unworthy of value, acceptance, and love. A sense of unworthiness causes severe decline in well being and energy, and thereby makes the impulse to eat stronger. But as long as we keep eating, we can at least accept ourselves as unworthy.

So much for the major myths about overeating. The next post deals with reality.

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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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