As many of you know, I am a zealous fan of My 600 lb Life and bariatric surgeon Dr. Younan Nowzaradan. [FYI: the new season premieres January 4, 2017!] When he first meets with a patient, he always asks about how they came to weigh as much as they do. Occasionally, the patient is someone who just admits they have bad eating habits but many of them have some kind of excuse and do their best to fob off responsibility on something or someone else: “I’m an emotional eater” or “I never feel full.” I know in my case it was just bad eating habits: too much of whatever I wanted all the time. I had tried losing weight but it always came back and it wasn’t until I found the right eating plan for me that I was finally able to lose weight and keep it off.
I often joke with my family and friends that the tv show functions as my version of a 12 step program. It keeps me focused on my goals and reminds me where I came from. Many times it also brings me face to face with my own problems and excuses. On a recent rerun, the patient was having a lot of issues with excuses. She admitted that she dealt with problems by eating: it was her coping mechanism but at the same time, her kids were her excuse for her being overweight (she was 654 lbs). When Dr. Nowzaradan asked her how she got to be this weight, her immediate response was ‘because of having two kids and having to stay home and take care of them and one is disabled.’ Basically, it was all because of the kids. She was under a lot of stress with her oldest son, who was severely disabled and her youngest was only a year old. They depended on her and no one could take care of them like she could, but at the same time, she was using them as an excuse to eat whatever she wanted as much as she wanted. When her oldest ended up hospitalized, she justified eating whatever she wanted by saying “she had to put her son first.” Maybe I’m just heartless, but I fail to see how her son being in the hospital means she has to eat fries, pizza, burgers and pie in enormous amounts.
I realize food is her coping mechanism. For those few minutes while she is eating, she is not thinking about whatever stressful situation she is in. At the same time, she also knows that her weight is putting her life at risk and if for nothing else, she needs to take care of her own health or her sons will grow up without their mother. While her son was in the hospital for 5 weeks, she managed to gain another 30 lbs and kept repeating how she had to put her son first because he was her top priority. Her health had to come second to his. He needs her to eat huge amounts of fast food while he lies in the hospital bed on the ventilator? She wasn’t being asked to go out of town or to attend classes or anything except to monitor her food intake and stay on her diet. She can eat vegetables at the hospital the same as the burgers and fries. The veggies won’t have the same soporific effect as the fast food and sweets but her husband can bring her a salad the same as he can bring her pizza. She was choosing to make poor eating choices because she didn’t want to deal with her stressful situation. I can understand that but it’s not until she understands it that she can make progress.
This particular patient finally understood that if she didn’t put her own health first, she wasn’t going to be around to take care of her family. If they mean as much to her as she says they do, then she had to lose weight or her children will be growing up without a mother. (She was able to make the changes and was well on her way to her goal weight at the show’s conclusion.)
Most of us don’t get anywhere near her weight or mine, but many of us do the same things: there’s always a reason for why we’re eating and what we’re eating and none of those reasons are “I just want to do it.” Eating for a lot of us is a form of escapism: we don’t want to deal with our reality and this is how we choose to get away. For some people, it’s tv shows or gaming or drinking/ drugs or gambling or anything else. When we feel stress, we run to to our release valve, our crutch, our escape hatch. This is one of the biggest pitfalls we have to learn to sidestep once we decide we’re going to lose weight or get healthier. We can have all the healthy groceries and food/ eating plans we need; we can hit the gym regularly and get our 10,000 daily steps, but when stress comes knocking on our doors (and it always does!), we revert right back to escape hatch! Even once we realize “it’s stress that’s making me eat/ gain weight!”, there’s still the question “if not food as a stress release, then what?” That’s our challenge: we need to learn to replace the ‘food escape hatch’ with something healthier (or at least not food)! Anything in excess is not healthy, even if it’s something like exercise, so we need to learn to deal with our stressful situations in ways that don’t hurt us, either through excess exercise, eating, sleep or medications. For most of us, realizing we are stress eaters is the easy part; we try to outsmart ourselves by not keeping the junk food- the stress defusing food- in the house, but how many times have we found ourselves munching something we’re not really fond of us (like walnuts or candied yams) simply because it was there and we just had a huge fight with someone we care about and now we’re all wound up and stressed and what’s in the pantry?!? It’s really not about the food itself. Brownies are always great when we’re stressed and the chocolate is so yummy but it’s the act of eating that is usually what relieves our stress: like Dr. Now’s patient above, for those few minutes, we’re feeling the pleasure of eating and not the stressful situation we’re in. Even though my biggest trigger was boredom in the evenings (and tv), whenever I had a fight with my mom or sister, I’d find myself staring into the fridge, looking for whatever was quick and available! (I see you there, avocado!)
I’d love to tell you “just do XYZ and that’ll take care of the stress!” but that’s not happening. All of us process stress differently, despite being stress/ emotional eaters. The eating is a distraction; our choices are either to learn to deal with the stressful situation or at the very least find another healthier distraction. Ideally, learning to handle the stress is the best way, but that may require the services of a trained professional. In the interim, finding a healthier distraction is still an option. I often see my friends on MFP (My Fitness Pal) urging others who are stressed out to exercise their way through it. This is not a bad option: physical exertion is a great way to deal with stress/ anxiety and it has a few bonuses: burning calories, toning muscles and the endorphin boost. But again, anything in excess is not healthy, so if there is a lot of stress in your life (and that’s everyone, right?) then you need to find more than way of dealing with it. Exercise can always be one way, but there are others.
Some people like to journal: get all the anger and anxiety and confusion out on paper. This also has the benefit of letting you think through your situation, maybe getting some clarity on it and getting a little distance. I remember reading about one author who used to write vicious and scathing letters to the object of his anger, seal them up complete with postage, ready to go in the mail and then would rip them up the next day. One of the things I do is similar: I have a shouting fit and stomp around the house for about five minutes, and once I’ve vented, it’s done- moving on! Some people accomplish the same thing by posting a rant on MFP/ Facebook/ etc: someone has done X to me and this is what I think of them! It has the same effect as lancing an infected wound: left to fester, the negative emotions grow and spread, but once they’ve been expelled, the wound is clean and healing can begin.
Another thing I like to do when I’m stressed is spend time with my pets. I had a fight with someone I care about, they made me angry and now instead of eating my anger and anxiety, I am distracting myself with one of my furry children. They offer unconditional affection (at least the dog does- the cats I’m pretty sure have some prerequisites attached!) and they are pretty soothing. Not only are they get some attention and some exercise, but I am too!
The point is you need to find out what works for you when the stress hits. There is always going to be some kind of stress or situation which is going to try and derail your progress, so you need to find a way to defuse or reduce the emotion driving you to eat. Whether you opt for hitting the gym, getting outside, journaling, yoga, meditation, posting online, a nice long soak in the tub or playing with the dog, as long as it relieves your stress without hurting you or filling you full of calories and poor nutrition, that’s all that matters. The best solution of course is to fix whatever the stressful situation is (if it can be fixed of course) but there are always those situations which can’t be fixed (an injured or sick loved one, for example) but the problems will still be there when you’re done with whatever you choose, so we all need to learn to deal with them in healthy ways.
These situations won’t always be ‘dire straits’ either. We are all aware of those: a family member gets hurt; job problems; moving, etc. Those are the problems we think of when we think of stress, but it’s the little stresses that also drive us to eat our emotions: coming home and finding out the cat has cleaned off the entryway table; the kids are fighting with each other over something trivial; the boss is nagging about the filing piling up; there’s construction on your route to work/ home and now it takes longer. All of these are pretty normal every day aggravations but they can also influence how we eat. These are the stresses that we can fix! We know it takes longer to get to work so we don’t make anything healthy at home so we can stop at the fast food place next to the gas station since you have to get gas anyway- I’ll just hit the drive thru! I had to work a little late to finish up with the filing so I’ll get a latte on the way home- it’s going to be late when I get dinner done! Since the kids are out of control, I’m just going to order in some pizza so they’ll be quiet and leave me alone for two minutes! All of these are some of the little ways that stress sabotages your healthy eating. The key with these little “naggravations” is to take charge and adjust your schedule and attitude. Since you know it takes longer to get to work, get up a little earlier so you can fix your healthy breakfast, or make something the night before that you can take with you. I usually bring something I can eat in the car and set up the coffee maker and my travel mug the night before. All I have to do is pour the coffee and grab the lunch bag (with my breakfast already in it) and go out the door. If I stop for a latte on the way home, I just adjust my dinner to account for the no sugar latte I get, or I opt for coffee or tea instead of the dessert-drink. If the kids are fighting, how about disciplining the kids? Or get them the pizza and get yourself a salad or veggies to go with one slice of pizza for you?
For most of us, food is comforting. It’s a pleasant distraction that relieves our daily stress and gives us a few moments of relaxation, but when we abuse it, it goes from being our friend to being our enemy. I know for me, it became a vicious cycle: I really need to lose weight because everything hurts; oooh! cheesecake!! dang it, I shouldn’t have had that cheesecake- I need to lose weight because everything hurts! oooh! brownies!…….Taking charge of the situational naggravations not only defuses them and gives you a healthy out, it also builds your confidence so the next one gets easier to handle. The more you learn to deal with them in healthier ways, the easier they are to handle. For example: I came home the last week to find out that the cat had cleaned off my entry way table and dumped over my little shelving unit (I could hardly open the front door!) After throwing my stomping/ shouting tantrum, I put everything back together, and eventually calmed down enough to have my regular dinner and I started thinking about options for keeping her off the table. Four days ago, I came home and saw she had cleaned off the window sill in the kitchen. There was less of a stomping tantrum and a lot more double sided tape (Sticky Paws brand) which was put down on the window sill and on the edges of the entry way table. With any luck, that problem is solved! No emotional “I had a bad day” eating; just a lot of venting (to everyone in sight too)! The point is that the second time this problem came up, I was a lot less emotional and more invested in finding a solution.
The catch is that this is one more process we have to learn. That’s what makes the emotional eating such a quick and easy fix: our only issue is what are we going to eat? We eat it, feel better for five or ten minutes and then we have to deal with the aftermath, but we don’t usually think of the aftermath until we’ve swallowed the last bite of whatever we ate! It’s something we learned as children usually so it’s deeply ingrained and automatic: aack! we had a fight! I need chocolate! Learning to do something else when we’re stressed takes not only finding out what helps with the stress, but then stopping the auto pilot eating response and choosing to do the new routine. It takes time, practice and patience! This is important: I know everyone says this and “yeah, yeah I know that!” but when we blow it the next time the boss has a screaming fit at work and eat a pint of Cherry Garcia in front of the tv that night, we’re going to come down on ourselves like a ton of bricks for not following our new routine of deep breathing or yoga or whatever we chose. Changing our behavior takes time and effort (it’s why so many people give up on new healthy habits!) So give yourself a break when you’re beating yourself up as you stare into the empty Cherry Garcia carton. A big tip that worked for me when I found myself standing in front of the open fridge after fighting with my mom: STOP!! Realize what you are doing (stress eating) and make a choice to do something different (pets, yoga, computer game, etc). It took a bit of practice and for a while, it wasn’t as effective as eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, but what also helped reinforce my new behavior was telling myself: X already screwed up my mood/ day/ plans and I’m not going to let X screw up my healthy weight loss! Imagine if after all the anxiety and stress over whatever happened and eating your emotions, you get on the scale next week and see you’ve gained weight! Talk about adding insult to injury! When you go off track with the stress eating, make a note of what happened after the stress occurred (hindsight is always 20/20!) and the next time something happens, STOP!! Think about what your next choice is, and make it a good one! Then you can congratulate yourself on handling the negative situation better, staying on your healthy plan and you’ll have more confidence for the next time something comes up!