By Matthew Hutson, published on July 1, 2007 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015
When you're upset, do you get sudden urges to raid your fridge, with the vague hope of finding solace at the bottom of a pint of Haagen-Dazs? You may be at the mercy of emotional eating, which psychiatrist Roger Gould claims is the reason 95 percent of diets fail. In his book, Shrink Yourself, he argues that without understanding the mental triggers that flip on your hunger switch, exercise and diet won't be enough to help you keep off extra pounds.
For most of us, food equals comfort—and the association can go back as far as breastfeeding. "Food is more than nutrition," Gould says. "Kids get treats when they're good. Or they scrape their knee and they're given a piece of cake. It's an expression of nurturance." So if you're the kind of person who reaches for a doughnut when you feel bored or angry or tense, Gould says, "Ask yourself the question: What am I really hungry for? Because it's not food."
The real answer is different for everyone, and finding it may require some deep digging. But pausing to recognize the difference between your physical and emotional needs is the first step to a healthy relationship with grub.
Everybody is an emotional eater to some degree. The problem is when it becomes a habit. What surprised Gould most when he began his research was that people kept saying, "What else could I do, other than eat?" He realized that they were suffering from feelings of powerlessness in life. "But the patients we've worked with say once they learn how to regain their power, their hunger just goes away."
Gould's techniques for mastering anxiety were written with food in mind, but they're generalizable. His next target: alcoholism.