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Five Myths of Emotional Eating

Myths of emotional eating have no calories, just hot air.

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 our 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 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.

I first became interested in weight and eating issues while working with victims of abuse, who, in addition to the difficult recovery from abusive relationships, often began to overeat or undereat. 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.

Myth #1: Emotional eating is different from other kinds of eating.
All eating is emotional. Attempts to take emotion out of eating increase the unconscious motivation to eat foods that have more emotional charge with high sensory content (taste, smell, texture, sweet, salty, fat). That's why substituting broccoli for chocolate always fails.

Attempts to remove emotion from eating creates "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 on diets.

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 depletes energy; rapid eating of high sensory, high-calorie food numbs pain and restores energy, for a few minutes.

Core hurt eating is fast eating. 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.

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."

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."

They may say, "You should accept yourself fat," and "Keep going, even if you relapse." 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., the average score, becomes more frequent while deviations from the mean become less so.

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 and attack food (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, increasing the likelihood that I'll overeat.

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. Well, if these foods really had significant comforting qualities, the makers of alcohol and Valium would be out of business.

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. When core value motivates eating (or anything else), the likely result is comfort and general well-being.

But if core hurts motivate "eating for comfort," the result will be guilt and shame. When you think about it, it's a bit silly to say that you eat for comfort when the result of overeating is severe physical as well as mental discomfort.

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 continue eating when full, just to feel so bad about themselves afterward that they will finally stick to their weight loss goals. 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 a severe decline in well being and energy, and thereby makes the impulse to eat stronger.

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

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