Identifying Emotional Ties to Food May be Key to Weight-loss Success
Like tens of millions of Americans each year, many of your clients have undoubtedly vowed to finally lose that extra weight in 2016. While their intentions are good, it’s estimated that only 8 percent of those who make New Year’s resolutions actually keep them.
Even if weight is lost initially, it usually returns. Studies show nearly two out of three people who lose 5 percent of their total weight will gain it back, and the more weight a person loses, the less his or her chances are of keeping it off.
“That’s not surprising,” explains Diane Robinson, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist and Program Director of Integrative Medicine at Orlando Health, a healthcare provider located in Central Florida. “Most people focus almost entirely on the physical aspects of weight loss, like diet and exercise. But there is an emotional component to food that the vast majority of people simply overlook and it can quickly sabotage their efforts.”
A recent national survey of more than a thousand people commissioned by Orlando Health found that 31 percent of Americans think a lack of exercise is the biggest barrier to weight loss, followed by those who say it’s what you eat (26 percent) and the financial cost of a healthy lifestyle (17 percent). Another 12 percent said the biggest barrier to weight loss was the necessary time commitment.
Only one in 10, however, thought psychological well-being was a factor. “That may explain why so many of us struggle,” says Robinson. “In order to lose weight and keep it off long-term, we need to do more than just think about what we eat, we also need to understand why we’re eating.”
From a very young age we become emotionally attached to food, explains Robinson. As children we’re often given treats, both to console us when we’re upset and to reward us for good behavior. Most celebrations, like Halloween, Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day are food-focused, and birthdays are spent sharing cake. Even the aroma of certain foods, like cookies in grandma’s oven, can create powerful emotional connections that last a lifetime.
“If we’re aware of it or not, we are conditioned to use food not only for nourishment, but for comfort,” suggests Robinson. “That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, as long as we acknowledge it and deal with it appropriately.” Whenever the brain experiences pleasure for any reason it reacts the same way.
Whether it’s derived from drugs, a romantic encounter or a satisfying meal, the brain releases a neurotransmitter known as dopamine. “We feel good whenever that process is activated,” explains Robinson, “but when we start to put food into that equation and it becomes our reward, it can have negative consequences.”
In fact, researchers have found a link between emotional issues like stress, anxiety and depression, and higher body mass indexes (BMI). Many people can relate to the idea of overindulging at happy hour after a bad day at the office, for example, or eating a pint of ice cream to help cope with bad news.
That was a common coping mechanism for Shekyra DeCree, of Columbus, Ohio. “As a mental health therapist, my job can be very stressful, and every day when I got home from work, the first thing I would do is go to the refrigerator,” she says. “That was my way to calm down and relax.”
After recognizing the emotional attachments she had with food, DeCree started making conscious changes. In just over one year, she’s lost more than 100 pounds.
“I’d gone on countless diets and tried to exercise before, but this was different,” DeCree explains. “You have to change the way you deal with your emotions, your stress and anxiety. Once I understood the mental aspect, I felt free.”
As a health and fitness professional, you are in a unique and powerful position to help clients recognize those emotional connections, which may be the key to breaking through the barriers they’ve experienced while trying to lose weight or simply live a healthier lifestyle. Robinson offers the following tips to help clients recognize the emotional connections they may have to food:
- Keep a daily diary logging both food and mood, and look for unhealthy patterns.
- Identify foods that make them feel good and write down why they eat them. Do they evoke a memory or are they craving those foods for some other reason (out of stress, for example)?
- Before eating any snack or meal, have clients ask themselves: Am I eating this because I’m hungry? If the answer is no, look for the root of the motive to eat.
The goal is help clients take the emotions they feel out of eating and see food as nourishment, not as a reward or coping mechanism. If your clients struggle with managing their emotional connections to food, encourage them to seek the help of a qualified healthcare professional, particularly if these struggles are negatively impacting other aspects of their lives.