• Dr. Howard Farkas

A Case of Emotional Eating: Is This You?

Lori is a very energetic and hard-working administrative assistant in a busy accounting firm. When she first applied for the job, she felt under-qualified. But in spite of her doubts, she was able to project a sense of confidence and won over the hiring executives. She had been an excellent student at a public college, but had not finished her degree. She had left home right after graduating high school, supporting herself entirely, and after two years had to put her degree on hold to work full-time. Soon after she was hired, her energy and exceptional work ethic were recognized by the partners and associates and before long she was promoted to be the managing partner’s assistant. She is now also in charge of the admin group, and a major part of her new responsibilities is to assign work to the other assistants and monitor the work flow. Although the only work she herself is responsible for is that of her boss, she routinely does work that she could have assigned to others. Since the professional staff goes through her with these requests, she feels responsible to make sure the work is done well, and she could only be sure of that if she does it herself. On a level that she is only dimly aware of, she is still afraid that anything she does that is less than perfect will reveal to everyone that she really isn’t qualified for this job.

Today was one of those days. She ate a salad from the cafeteria at her desk while she worked on organizing account files and preparing paperwork that her boss and other partners will need to have for meetings with clients the next day. Now, after staying late to finish all of the work, she begins to think about what she’ll eat when she gets home. Her thoughts are not about dinner, however, they’re about a food binge, and that’s all she can think about. She already has the food items at home, where she lives by herself. She has a boyfriend, but when they have meals together they never eat at her apartment. Usually they’ll go to a restaurant where she’ll order chicken or fish with a salad; never dessert. But now she’s thinking about the package of doughnuts that she bought the other day, the unopened box of cookies, and a box of a sugar cereal that she’ll consume in its entirety with a quart of skim milk.

If you identify at all with this vignette, this blog may be helpful to you. It is not about dieting; it is about how we often relate to and utilize food in ways that are unhealthy, both physically and psychologically. It is intended especially for people who struggle with the most common form of eating disorder: emotional eating. This doesn’t mean that it won’t help you lose weight. To the extent that emotional eating may be a significant factor in your total calorie consumption, overcoming this problem can be very effective for achieving substantial, permanent weight loss.

Binge eating disorder is a recognized type of eating disorder defined as consuming an unusually large amount of food in one sitting and experiencing a sense of loss of control. Emotional eating, as I am using the term, is a broader pattern of eating that includes binge eating but refers to a more general tendency to use food as a way of coping with psychological or emotional distress, regardless of quantity (although it is typically excessive), but always with a sense of no longer being in control of the behavior. The feeling is often described as inevitable once the idea takes hold, like feeling forced to act on the urge as if on auto-pilot. If you believe that describes you, you may also identify with much of the following description:

You are probably an experienced though frustrated dieter, well-educated and well-informed about nutrition and what constitutes a healthy diet. In spite of this, you have been frustrated in your efforts to keep off the weight you have lost and are still looking for The Diet that will work for you. In your dieting experience, you have been able to lose a substantial amount of weight on many of the programs. You may have found one that was particularly successful, although unfortunately, your definition of “success” does not take into account the fact that each time you have lost weight you’ve gained it all back, and most likely, then some. It’s more in the spirit of Mark Twain who famously said, “It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it hundreds of times.”

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