Escaping Emotional Eating

The holidays are an emotionally-charged time, and heightened emotions—whether negative or positive—can lead us toward comforting temptations like rich foods and calorie-laden drinks. Eating to relieve stress, rather than when you are genuinely hungry, can lead to unnecessary weight gain and might worsen existing medical conditions.

Lisa West-Smith, PhD Psych

What makes us reach for food when we aren’t physically hungry, or feel like a dessert will make us feel better? It stems from our brain chemicals. “There are reward centers in the brain that trigger a sense of well-being, and when we eat those comforting, delicious foods, that response may be triggered,” says Lisa West-Smith, PhD, LISW-S, director of Behavioral Health for the UC Health Weight Loss Center and an assistant professor of Psychiatry for the UC College of Medicine. “After indulging, we may feel happy or comforted for a moment, but then that moment passes and is replaced with guilty or shameful feelings.”

Anything that feels good we are more likely to repeat. For some, holidays are a pleasant time full of family and celebration; for others, holidays mark times of extreme stress. Add a fountain of food to the mix and a dangerous concoction begins to brew.

“We are bombarded by the food culture surrounding our many holidays—no matter our religious beliefs, each holiday is tied with corresponding foods. During the holidays, our ability to control available foods becomes especially challenging,” says Dr. West-Smith.

Environment control is a critical component of managing eating behavior. During the holidays, we’re often faced with bountiful amounts of food not only at family gatherings, but also at our friends’ houses, church, school and our workplaces.

Dr. Lisa West-Smith offers psychological support for patients at the UC Health Weight Loss Center. She performs pre-surgical and post-surgical psycho-social evaluations for bariatric surgery patients, treatments for eating disorders and behavior modification counseling for medical weight loss patients.

5 Tips for Curbing Cravings

  1. Practice Mindfulness. Pause at the moment before any food or drink enters your lips, take a deep breath, and ask yourself – am I really hungry right now? Ask yourself if you truly need that food or drink, or if something else is going on.
  2. Harness the Hunger Scale. On a scale of 1 to 10, how hungry are you? Taking the time to rate your hunger can help you recognize those times when temptation can be curbed with a different activity.
  3. Recognize Head Hunger. Become familiar with what triggers your cravings: the scent of something baking, walking past tempting food in the break room, or feeling overwhelmed from stress. When you recognize the triggers, you recognize the hunger is in your head.
  4. Practice Environmental Control. To the extent you can, remove the things you know will be problematic to you. Make sure you have available everything you need at your fingertips in order to make the right decisions. For example, if you know your only shot at exercise is for 20 minutes during your lunch break, make sure you have a raincoat and comfortable shoes available.
  5. Keep a Food Record. Studies show that patients who record what they eat have better long-term weight control than patients who don’t keep a record. Whether you use pen and paper, or use an app like MyFitnessPal, logging what you eat and drink throughout the day is a good health practice.

To learn more, visit UCHealth.com/weightloss or call (513) 939-2263.

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