Food Is Only Half the Battle: Weight Loss & Why We Overeat

This is another one of those No Brainers that tends to get overlooked: when we try to lose weight, we focus on changing our behavior but not the reasons behind our behavior.  In other words, we are trying to fix the outcome without fixing the cause!

Simple example: every day you come home and find your dog left an ‘accident’ on your rug, so every day you punish your dog for making a mess in the house. It seems simple enough but why did the dog have the accident in the house? Does he have a dog door? Is there someone to let him out during the day? Does he have a potty pad where he should go instead? If the answer to all those questions is “no,” then punishing your dog isn’t going to change anything! Every day you will come home to find the same mess because you aren’t changing the cause of the behavior, i.e. the dog has nowhere else to go!

For the dog, it’s an easy fix: dog door, potty pad, dog sitter, etc., but when it comes to overeating or snacking or anything food related, it’s much murkier. We are dealing with psychology, emotions and inner conflicts. As we all know, these kinds of causes are just plain messier and way more painful than installing a doggie door! Messy, painful and confusing emotions are the real reason this important part of the weight loss gets overlooked.  Bariatric surgery is becoming more common as the obesity epidemic keeps growing, but for years, physicians and surgeons kept focusing on changing the behavior without looking for the root causes of obesity.  This is like telling an alcoholic “stop drinking!” and walking away.  We all know that doesn’t work!

This is where I remind everyone that I am not a health care professional and I am just offering my opinion here. For most of us, being overweight isn’t life-threatening: it’s more of an inconvenience and embarrassment. For those who are morbidly obese with the attendant health issues like diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, it really can be a matter of life and death. Bariatric surgery such as the lap band, gastric bypass or gastric sleeve are only short-term fixes. The patient will lose weight but without fixing the cause of the overeating through counseling, eventually the weight comes back when the patient goes back to the same bad behaviors. As I mentioned in a previous post, Dr. Nowzaradan of My 600 lb Life is seeing more patients who have regained the weight after prior surgeries because they did not get the counseling needed to resolve the issues causing them to overeat.

Even if we aren’t morbidly obese, we still need to fix the causes of our overeating. Many of us will admit that we are emotional eaters, but we use that phrase as a reason or rationalization for our overeating. It’s become an acceptable band-aid for many of us: I get stressed and I eat! End of story! Let’s substitute the eating with another behavior: I get stressed and I do drugs! End of story? Of course not, but for many drug addicts, this is how the addiction started and it’s still their response to stress. What is the difference between stress eating and stress drug usage? Other than possibly going to jail for illicit drugs, not very much! (There are many drug users who simply refill their Xanax or Vicodin prescriptions.) The responsive behavior (drugs, eating, smoking, drinking, gambling, etc) are triggered by something else and until we find out what that cause is and fix that, any kind of fix will be short term.

Obviously, we don’t have to go running off to the therapist because we want to lose weight, but there is some value in taking the time to pay attention to what triggers the impulse to eat. Likely, there will be multiple triggers, such as stress or boredom.  Sometimes it is fairly easy, as in the stress, but other times it will be more complex. For some of us, there was a scarcity of food growing up, so we learned to eat as much as we could whenever we got the chance.  Sometimes, it is a way of asserting control over our lives or an act of defiance, especially if you grew up criticized for your weight.  In other cases, our weight was a way of getting attention from others in the family, especially if there are rules like “no donuts in the house” or “don’t eat those in front of mom/ dad.” It makes you the center of attention.

Of course, dredging up these kinds of feelings usually creates unease and feelings of stress (cue the potato chips!) Our immediate response is normally an angry “I’m not like that at all!” But sometimes we are. We just don’t realize it because as soon as we start feeling those unpleasant feelings and thinking those unwelcome thoughts, we go right to our escape hatch! In my case, stress and anxiety were clear triggers for eating, as well as boredom. Later, I realized that eating was also my ‘cure’ for loneliness and feelings of rejection. It was also both an act of control and defiance: my weight was an issue growing up and my mom was always criticizing whatever I ate! When I was eating alone in my room, there was no one to tell me not to eat and I felt free to do whatever I wanted to do! And that was some of the reasons I was about 300 lbs when I graduated high school….

Fixing these causes first begins with acknowledging that they exist. Once we can admit to ourselves that we have feelings of inadequacy or rejection or loneliness, we can begin to move past them. It might seem like these things have nothing to do with weight loss, but they do, just like they are triggers for any other addictions out there.  We are all familiar with the classic alcoholic’s excuse of ‘drinking to forget.’ How different is it that we binge on Oreos to distract ourselves from a bad day or a fight with our spouse? We feel stressed over money, we eat to distract ourselves. We feel lonely, we eat to console ourselves. We were told we aren’t attractive, we eat to forget the hurt feelings. We are constantly told not to eat, so we eat to assert our independence. We feel ignored, so we make our eating an issue for everyone: now everyone has to pay attention to me! Eating is our way of not admitting or dealing with how we feel.

Once we admit that we have these feelings, the next important step is reminding yourself that these are not negative feelings and you are not a bad person for having them! This sense of “I want attention so I must be bad/ selfish/ needy/ whatever” is why we distract or medicate ourselves with food. It’s a normal human reaction, just as any emotion is! We all feel stressed, hurt, needy or lonely at times. Admitting that you feel that way, it’s a normal feeling and it is okay to feel it is when we begin to move past the need to medicate ourselves with food. Unfortunately, it takes a little practice to learn that it’s okay if we aren’t always happy, perky and well-adjusted.  Those so-called ‘negative emotions’ are normally discouraged by most families.

Think of your dog again: how many times has your dog approached you wanting to play, sit on your lap or just want your attention? He’s not a bad dog: he just wants to be held or play with you or be comforted if he’s scared. For most of us, we give him the attention he wants! Companionship is one reason we got a dog in the first place.  We don’t scold him for not being more independent or berate him for being needy. Why do we do those things to ourselves (or others in our lives)? Getting past the causes of our overeating is the only certain method of stopping that behavior. We don’t have to run off to therapy; it can be as simple as talking with a trusted friend, or even as simple as hugging your dog the next time you feel hurt or lonely. He may not be as sweet as the Oreos but I bet he will be a lot more satisfying than a sugar binge!

 

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