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Is Your Mind Sending Emotionally Hungry Signals to Your Stomach?

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You decided. That’s it. This time you really are going to lose weight. You tried protein diet, smoothie diet, cabbage soup diet, low carbs, low fat, this diet and that diet; but nothing worked much. Quick, you think, let’s find another one from some weight loss guru on the internet that promises wonders, I mean there are plenty to choose from nowadays, right?

So off you go in your search again with more enthusiasm than ever, coming across a diet that you haven’t tried before, one that perhaps your favourite celebrity person swears by, thinking that you might finally be on the road to success.

Food and drink are often used, consciously or subconsciously, as an attempt to deal with life problems. Errm, a few weeks later, or even months, you realise that you still struggle with your body weight. Why? Because fad diets don’t work and are not sustainable. You may temporarily lose some weight only to put it right back or gain even more very soon. And what’s more, you start to see the diet as a chore, rather than a positive life change.

For most people, there are three main factors that contribute to being overweight: the food, drink and sedentary lifestyle. On the face of it then, the formula for losing weight seems simple – eat healthier, eat less, reduce alcohol consumption to a bare minimum, and exercise more. So you decide to change your eating and drinking habits, start a healthy diet, feel excited for a while only to give up at the first hurdle, or once the excitement has faded. Why? What is making it difficult to stay committed to your goal? Where did your motivation and determination disappear?

Are you turning to comfort eating in times of stress?

It’s not just about what you feed your body with but what you feed your mind with that dictates the outcome of your weight loss or weight gain for that matter. Food and drink are often used, consciously or subconsciously, as an attempt to deal with life problems such as problems in relationships, difficulty with self-esteem, too much stress, boredom, and difficulty managing strong emotional states.

For emotional eaters food serves as a coping mechanism. In one study, it was revealed that 49 per cent of adults say that they turn to food for comfort and eat more when stressed or feeling difficult emotions such as sadness, disappointment, or anger.

How you deal with these life challenges impacts your weight too. Emotional eating (also known as comfort eating) might be at the heart of your failure to lose weight. Are you rather emotionally than physically hungry? Do you have the tendency to turn to food in response to emotional issues? Do you reach for those fatty burgers, crisps or chocolate cake when you want to shake off stress and negative feelings? Do you feed your brain with negative self-talk?

It’s worth pointing out that emotional attachment to food is not gender-specific. Both men and women can fall victims to comfort eating. The difference is that when it comes to using food, or drink for that matter, as a coping mechanism; men are less likely to admit it.

Instant gratification is embedded in human nature so when it comes to choosing between short-term or long-term rewards, some of us struggle to delay satisfaction. When you are emotionally hungry you not only feel the cravings for specific foods, such as sugary or high-fat food but also you need instant satisfaction.

You may even continue eating mindlessly after you are full, only to feel bad about what you’ve just eaten. Food provided a momentary sense of pleasure and reward when you felt something you didn’t want to feel, something you wanted to block out immediately.

Mind your diet for a slimmer you

If the emotional eating is your battleground then the success to losing and maintaining your target weight is to adopt a healthy diet and regular exercise regimen in conjunction with the psychological approach, which is based on different strategies and techniques, such as goal setting and self-monitoring, drawing from cognitive-behavioural therapy. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) has proven to be effective in weight reduction.

Some of the techniques that you can start with are the SMART goals, food diary and cognitive restructuring form which will help you give conscious attention to your eating habits. Of course, you will discover a few more as you search for a psychological approach to losing weight but these are the standard ones to start with.

  • Think about what motivates you to lose weight and set clear goals that are achievable and measurable. Decide realistically how many pounds you want to lose and by when. You may expect quick results but weight management is all about developing a sustainable lifestyle and new ways of dealing with life’s challenges.
  • Keep a food diary for two weeks to gain better awareness and clearly assess the amount and type of food and drink you consume. You might be in for a surprise. Often we don’t realise how many calories we are obtaining from our meals, calorific drinks and snacks. What you thought you were consuming might be quite contradictory to what your diary will show you.
  • You can unplug that faulty emotional eating wire by paying attention to what triggers your emotional eating. Use the cognitive restructuring diary which basically means writing down your thoughts, feelings and behaviour about situations that triggered your stress response resulting in comfort eating.

These techniques allow for painting a better picture not just about the food and amount you eat but also about how your emotional response impact your diet.

At times you may feel tempted to stray from your goal when you hear the little voice in your head saying: ‘Go on, have the junk meal, pour the wine too, you deserve it after a stressful day.’ But, before you do so, stop and think. By focusing on the thoughts going on in your head and the feelings you have at the time when you reach for junk food you might find it easier to start retraining your mind to stay away from the unhealthy food and drink and stick to your healthy diet (and having a smaller portion too, that is).

So next time instead of searching for quick-fix fad diets try something that will actually make a real difference to your weight management. Search for a cognitive-behavioural type of weight loss programme that you can tailor to your specific needs giving yourself the chance to look at all the factors that have contributed to your weight gain, to keep on track, and your mind on your goal. After all your mind and body are always in a relationship. Make it a happy one.


Image credit: Freepik

Zana Busby is an experienced psychologist and author, having spent over 20 years studying and practising psychology and psychotherapy. 


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