Feelings Are Why We Overeat
Now that you are eating three meals and two snacks that you are truly
enjoying, it's time to explore the emotional reasons you inappropriately turn to and use food. On those awful days
when you have eaten in an out-of-control manner, it is not attributable to some random phenomenon. It's not a twist
of fate that on some days you can eat fairly normally, and on others you feel compelled to ingest everything in
sight. It's not some force from above that suddenly overcomes you and compels you to open the refrigerator, hoping
something new and wonderful will appear since you last opened it an hour before. Nor does your bakery lack tasty
things on Monday, but have them on Friday, when you must buy everything. What drives people to use food in a self-abusing
manner are feelings.
Every day, I listen to people who share feelings of imprisonment by a powerful preoccupation with food, diets,
and their weight.
"My weight is all I ever think about. At restaurants I am always worried about what I can feel safe
ordering. The worst part is when I do order properly, I then go home and overeat crackers and chips! I cannot help
but wonder what is wrong with me. Why do I keep doing this?"
"My very first thought each morning is whether or not I can eat like a normal person today."
"Just knowing that I will start my diet tomorrow is reason enough to permit myself to eat anything and
All of these clients are well aware that these uncontrollable desires for food are not really related to the
actual food item. They know what is appropriate to eat. After all, many of them label themselves "professional
They can eloquently debate the merits of any past diet program, and give a fairly accurate review of all the
current ones. They can even recite, from memory, the caloric content of everything from a Big Mac to four ounces
of chopped celery. Even though they, like myself, are walking-talking caloric dictionaries," "self-taught
nutritionists," and "exercise/fitness experts," the powerful urge to eat always returns. This awful
impulse is the forerunner to extra pounds and, even more harmful, to feelings of self-defeat, and self-hate.
Sandy, one of my clients, freely admits that her preoccupation with thinking and worrying about food and weight
was driving her crazy. She is a busy mother of two, and works as a part time travel agent. She has a lot of friends
and a nice family. However, her weight was always on her mind. This obsession heightened whenever she began a new
"diet." No matter how hard she tried to remain on her new program, nightfall would arrive, and she would
find herself prey to the midnight binge.
She confided, "After being good all day, in the back of my mind, I think about how fun a treat would be.
I tell myself that I can't. I have to be good and stay on my diet. I know that eating a sweet will make me feel
awful. I fight this thought throughout my day. However, the urge is too strong. It's all encompassing. All of my
promises go right out the window. I just want to eat, NOW! I don't even keep anything that good in the house, hoping
that will help. When the urge persists, and I have checked out the empty pantry, I simply throw on my coat, and
speed off to the nearest 24-hour grocery store. I purchase only what I can hold. I do this shopping quickly, and
with urgency. Before even leaving the store, the packages are voraciously ripped open. I eat rapidly, with little
thought and certainly little enjoyment. As I pull up to my driveway, with sticky hands and feeling stuffed, I am
filled with self-hate and disgust. I wish to never do this again, wondering why I did it in the first place. The
entire episode is terrible, and I promise that tomorrow it will be different. However, it usually isn't."
Sandy's pain is evident, and she is not alone.
Merle is a 52-year old woman who lives alone. She works as a writer. She described her involvement with food,
dieting, and her weight in this way, "I feel as though I have a terminal disease called 'food on the brain.'
I think about food and what I weigh throughout my day. Each day is an internal struggle to pass the vending machine
at work without inserting two quarters. My whole life revolves around food and eating; I go around and around,
and go nowhere. I dread holidays, parties, restaurants, and staying home. Although others see me as competent and
talented, I'm so unsure of myself on the inside. They should only know. I feel like such a fake. I just do not
want to continue living in this manner. There must be another way! "
Merle, too, has uneasy feelings about her self-worth. Why is her self esteem so often based on what and how
much food enters her mouth, and/or what the scale reads. Why is it that our entire self-esteem, rather than being
measured by who we are on the inside, is felt to only be measured by our appearance, and our ability to eat correctly?
Intellectually, this may not make sense. However, emotionally and psychologically on some level, food and staying
involved with our weight and dieting do have some advantages.
Food provides an elixir to uncomfortable feelings feelings we may not know we have, or if we do, they may be
so unpleasant that we will do anything to avoid them. Thoughts of food and weight serve as powerful distractors
from thoughts and feelings about our lives. We have all learned, from a very young age, that food soothes our woes.
I hate to admit this, but when my children were young, and in a particularly crabby mood, I would offer them a
cookie. It worked! They quieted down and seemed happier.
While we are eating we tend not to feel pain. If using food as a band-aid is occasionally done, it's not the
end of the world. However, when practiced frequently, it does not allow us to deal with our inner feelings, our
As adults, issues such as marital discord, job dissatisfaction, a money crisis, parenting hardships, in-law
troubles, dating difficulties, sickness, loneliness, and dozens of others are avoided when the majority of the
day is centered around food/weight. In many ways, food, weight, and diets are easier and more socially comfortable
to address than the aforementioned. Calling a friend to complain about your weight and your latest binge is much
lighter than sharing feelings of hurt, loneliness, or anger.
Using food helps us combat stress and uncomfortable feelings and situations. You may be thinking, "but
food and my weight cause me tremendous stress and discomfort!" My reply would be to agree, with a "but."
Food/weight is a very tangible, concrete problem, with a tangible, concrete solution.
The solution seems to be, "I need to lose 25 pounds and then I'll be happy, feel good, meet my mate...,"
and on the surface this seems pretty simple. So the plan is formulated: "I will just eat less! As I eat less,
my weight will come off, and I will feel happy."
That is supposed to be the plan. However, what if there were some other issues in your life? What if a bad job
is causing you a great deal of stress? You have bills to pay, so you can't simply quit. What if you are in an unfulfilling
marriage? You can't walk away from it, you have two children and a mortgage payment. Do you simply say, "Okay,
I'm out of here?" The answer to either of these examples would have to be thought out, discussed with family
and friends, and planned thoroughly.
Life's decisions are difficult. Since I do not know anyone who has a perfect life, we all are continually faced
with difficult situations and challenges. Human beings are fortunate to be able to feel joy, laughter, passion,
security and warmth. It's also our fate to experience anger, hurt, sadness, frustration, guilt, and a wide variety
of other uncomfortable feelings.
Most people accept, at least on an intellectual level, that experiencing a variety of emotions is part of being
human. However, experiencing uncomfortable feelings is often so unbearable that the individual represses sad emotions.
A decision is made, usually at a young age, to protect oneself from pain. This decision is a survival decision
often from being raised in families where feelings were not validated, honored, or respected - not necessarily
because the parents meant to hurt their children, but because their ability to deal with their own pain is limited.
I don't believe that parents stand up with a list of feelings that they teach their children are wrong or bad
to feel. Somehow, we learn that if we share a certain kind of feeling, we will either be ignored or yelled at in
a very demeaning manner. For example, Melissa, a client of mine, at the age of ten decided she wanted her hair
long and to wear it in a pony tail. Her mother always loved short hair. Melissa felt that she was old enough to
have her hair the way she wanted. So she began letting it grow and within a few months, she was able to wear it
up in a pony tail. Each day she wore it that way, her mother either commented or frowned. This type of treatment
wasn't good for Melissa.
The day my client was actually the most hurt was the day she needed to go to the hairdresser for a trim at the
neighborhood salon. Her hairdresser began cutting. Melissa soon noticed that what started out as a trim began to
look more like a cut. Melissa told her to stop cutting so much. The beautician replied, "But your mom called
and said to cut quite a bit off."
Unfortunately, this type of insensitivity and disregard for another's feelings, especially our children's, is
all too common. If you were raised in a family where your feelings, if different from your parents', were ignored,
unsupported, and put down, you probably figured out at a young age not to admit to any like feelings. The result
of sharing such feelings might have led to getting hurt, or feeling like a bad person. In each of our families,
we learned what feelings were okay to express, and which ones were not. In most families, the "right"
feelings to share might include love, caring, giving, or being nice. The "wrong" feelings to express
might include anger, jealousy, frustration and hurt. Our parents were incorrect.
Right now, as an adult, each time you experience a feeling that you label as wrong, or bad, you're judging yourself
in the same way. Shortly after all this judging, do not be surprised if you notice an overwhelming urge to overeat.
Here is where the eating acts as a viable substitute for feelings. Dealing with food/weight, although not pleasant,
does allow uncomfortable inner feelings to stay tucked away. The place where these feelings are kept gets filled
up quickly. Eventually, these feelings resurface. Until these feelings are dealt with in a healthy, direct manner,
the urge to eat will continue to return. It's very difficult to deal with these feelings in a healthy, direct manner,
if each time they start surfacing, we push them away and tell ourselves that we should not have them. We may label
these feelings silly or bad. I often hear comments from clients similar to these.
"Jealous of my best friend's new house? Of course not! That's ridiculous, I'm so happy for her!"
"Why should I be angry at my sister? It's not a big deal that she didn't call me on my birthday. She
is very busy."
"I am not hurt that my brother did not attend my son's high school graduation. He had an important dinner
"People are starving in Bosnia, how dare I feel such 'silly' feelings. "
Feelings such as jealousy, anger and hurt may seem too petty to admit. This is the core of the problem. All
feelings are important; none are silly or trivial. Each time these feelings or any others are discarded, denied,
or labeled as wrong, silly or bad - your soul and identity are put down. Soon after, cookies will start calling.
As these feelings of hurt, anger, jealousy, loneliness and frustration start tugging at you, thoughts of food enter
your field of consciousness. You may try to busy yourself with other things, but the thoughts generally persist.
After all, they are there for a reason. If ignored, don't be surprised if you throw on a coat and zoom off to your
favorite grocery store.
This is how people become emotional eaters and compulsive dieters. In an attempt to fight off a full range of
feelings, we eat. Food may be the only comfort people know. The problem is that food is only a short-term comfort,
and a band-aid to our pain. If you place a band-aid on a cut without cleaning it, it may feel better temporarily.
However, if unattended the wound may fester and cause a great deal of long-term pain. The same is true with our
emotional pain. If eating is used to repress feelings, you may feel better instantly. However, if they're ignored,
in the long run, the pain deepens.
This pain is why people stay intertwined with food, weight, and diets. It's not because they lack willpower
or are weak persons. People can binge, vomit, fast, obsessively exercise or eat excessive portions, rather than
deal with their feelings.
It's important that you hear this - take it in. I have met the most interesting, creative, bright and talented
people over the years. However, they didn't see these great qualities in themselves. People who have used food
to help them deal with their lives, have picked a coping mechanism that worked. It made them feel better, enabling
them to cope with other parts of their life. The problem is that this coping mechanism also has some negative side
effects including extra weight (with all of its inherent health problems), feeling out of control and badly about
The extra weight alone constitutes a potentially severe health hazard, with heart attack and stroke two of the
more obvious dangers. Add high blood pressure to the mix, and the physical risk of over weight combines with the
negative emotional factors to make food an unhealthy coping mechanism.
Please be assured that your eating urges, your preoccupation with food, diets, and your weight do have a cause.
Here is what the pattern looks like:
Each time you have an overwhelming urge to overeat . . an urge that you are fairly certain is not about physical
hunger, an urge that seems to come from nowhere -there has been a precipitating situation or thought that has left
you feeling uncomfortable. This feeling is one that you presently believe is wrong to experience. It's a feeling
you believe you "should" not feel and you judge it as wrong and yourself as bad. As you keep this feeling
suppressed, you start feeling stressed. Soon after, you crave food. You eat, feel guilty, and promise this is the
last time. But since situations, thoughts, and feelings continually occur, so does the cycle.
What kind of feelings might cause a particular person to crave food? As previously mentioned, for each of us
it may be different, depending on our families. A generic rule of thumb to follow is this: any feelings that were
considered taboo in your household are probably feelings you have difficulty experiencing today.
This reminds me of Mary, a homemaker with three children all under the age of six. Before having children, she
worked as a court reporter and loved it. Although she loved her children, she sometimes felt bored while staying
home with them. She felt terrible for having these feelings of boredom, as a "good" mother would never
experience this. On a really stressful day the ice cream would start to call while her youngest was napping.
What was Mary feeling? My guess was that she was feeling guilty about unfulfilled feelings. How could she feel
this way? After all, she had a nice home, and a healthy family. This is a great example of denial. Whether she
was "supposed" to feel some empty feelings or not, the reality was, she did. These feelings did not mean
that she did not love her children or feel blessed by them. However, she had difficulty allowing herself to feel
both sets of feelings.
Accepting that she has these particular feelings is the first step in addressing them. Many people have rules
about motherhood, friendship, career and marriage. For each of these situations, we are supposed to feel certain
sets of feelings. God forbid, a series of feelings surface that is not on our agenda! There have been many times
in my office when a client of mine begins to get in touch with some feelings that she feels she is not supposed
to have. Shortly, she may begin to look in her purse for some gum.
Unfortunately, these uncomfortable feelings are a part of life. This is a fact. When you go to the dentist,
you may feel a bit anxious. I know I do! You have gone through it enough times, however, to know that the cleaning
may be a bit uncomfortable, or the Novocain may be annoying. But upon completion, you feel fine. You have learned
from past experience. Your experience with feelings is not so well-honed, even the negative ones. We learn that
painful things do happen, and time heals most wounds. This is something that you need to learn and believe.
As we reflect on our lives, all have experienced painful feelings, whether it's having been left out at a party,
being rejected by a love interest, not getting into a desired school or club, or even the early death of a loved
one. If we were allowed and able to process these feelings and be comforted by our loved ones, being with uncomfortable
feelings as adults, though not pleasant, would be much more tolerable. Painful experiences do occur, but with love,
nurturing and time, these feelings will dissipate as they heal. It is important to both understand and experience
when we can deal with our emotions in a healthy and mature manner, inappropriate food consumption will also dissipate
and heal. Almost every situation and relationship in our life bring up mixed feelings. Letting yourself feel feelings,
and deal with them accordingly, is the true prescription to weight management and positive self-image.
In order to get in touch with the feeling you are suppressing, reflect on the behaviors that were considered
taboo in your family. For example, you might have come from a family of yellers and screamers. Your parents might
have loved a good fight. But if everyone in that family came home with a problem that involved hurt feelings, he/she
might have received the message that exhibiting angry feelings was acceptable, but expressing hurt ones was clearly
not okay. If you were feeling hurt or vulnerable, you probably would have been reprimanded, perhaps even called
a name like "baby" or "sissy." You might have been reminded of all the people who have it worse,
and how dare you whine. Off to your room you were sent. Clear messages were learned, "I hurt, but I shouldn't;
therefore, I am bad."
Feelings, as I have said, are funny. We may try large doses of rationalizations and self-deceptions to keep
those scary, unacceptable feelings from surfacing. We may be adept enough to keep them out of our consciousness,
enabling them to be productive. These feelings need to be addressed. Diets are not broken because a person is weak
or stupid. Good intentions fall by the wayside because they are directed toward the symptom, food, rather than
the cause, feelings. This is why so-called diets do not work. No one can eliminate all uncomfortable situations,
thoughts, and feelings. The trick is to intervene with healthy alternatives before you reach a stress level that
causes you to turn to your standby, food. A healthier way to proceed when situations/thoughts bring on uncomfortable
feelings might look more like this:
A situation or thought occurs and some uncomfortable feelings arise. You are able to get in touch with these
feelings. Addressing them in a healthy, non-judgmental manner, you remove all labels of "wrong" or "bad."
You find a way that feels appropriate to deal wick the feelings. You feel better. Hence, the urge to eat disappears.
When you can identify unsettling situations and the thoughts and feelings they trigger, and can accept that
these feelings are neither "bad" nor "wrong," you can deal with them effectively without food.
This time, your changes will be permanent. Living life without food and weight on your mind every minute is possible.
The chapters that follow cover the ways to succeed in this process. Every now and then, check with your gut
instinct to see if what you're learning makes sense. As you begin to eliminate old rules about feelings and eating,
the urges to overindulge will be sent on their way. The realization that you can replace emotional desires for
food with the desire for self-care and self-love, is an important step in reaching your desired body weight - and
A decision is
at a young age,
to protect oneself
This is a
they just are.
or are weak