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How Emotional Eating and other Behaviours get in the Way of Weight Loss

by Linda Spangle(more info)

listed in weight loss, originally published in issue 221 - April 2015

A couple months ago, I headed out the door to take my small dog for a walk. But about a block from my house, I slipped on some loose dirt and fell down hard on the sidewalk. Although it took a minute to catch my breath, I thought my only injury was a scraped knee. But the next morning, everything hurt, including taking a deep breath. The doctor informed me that I hadn’t broken anything, but that I had a bruised rib.

This injury came at an awful time. My schedule was filled with coaching clients and writing projects. But I took lots of Ibuprofen and kept pushing myself with my work. As the days went by, I gradually began to heal.

But my spirit took a nosedive. I had worked hard to build up my exercise program, and suddenly, I couldn’t do any of it. To console myself, I slid into eating ice cream and cookies. Of course, that comforted me for a little while, but then I felt worse because I was unhappy about my eating.


Getting Back on Track after Dieting Setbacks

Finally I decided I’d coped long enough and made a decision to get back on track with my weight-management efforts. It worked, and I began eating a lot healthier again. And even though I had to move a bit slower than usual, I was able to get back to taking outdoor walks every day.

My fall was painful, but I think the setback in my eating and exercise felt worse. We all go through setbacks; it’s easy to let them pull us down for a while. Sometimes, a difficult loss, such as the death of a parent or the end of a relationship will cause you to go through a setback. But other times, you can struggle because of simple things such as tripping over dirt on the sidewalk.

Perhaps you’ve also had times when you were doing great with your weight-loss efforts, but then something in your life went wrong. You got angry at your boss or upset with your kids. Maybe you felt depressed about your finances or relationship problems. You weren’t hungry, but you reached for a few chips or some cookies to make yourself feel better. You have just slipped into emotional eating.

Think about how often you eat for reasons other than fueling your body. Anytime you reach for food when you aren’t physically hungry or needing nutrition, you’re doing emotional eating. Sneaking a candy bar in the middle of the afternoon, searching the cupboards when the kids go down for a nap, nibbling a free doughnut at the bank - all of these match the definition of emotional eating.

If you occasionally grab a candy bar on a stressful day, you probably won’t do much damage. But if you aren’t careful, you can slide into using food to ‘fix’ all of your emotional needs. Eventually, emotional eating will destroy your diet plan as well as your motivation and your self-esteem.

Why am I Eating?

To stop emotional eating, you first have to recognize that you’re doing it. Pay attention to all the times you start looking for food when you aren’t actually hungry. Analyze your habits such as eating a bowl of ice cream at bedtime or grabbing a few cookies every time you get off the phone with your mother. Whenever you start thinking about food, decide whether you’re experiencing a physical need or an emotional one. Before you put anything in your mouth, ask yourself, “Is this hunger or a desire to eat?”

If you decide you’re hungry, give your body some fuel. But if you’re having a desire to eat, catch yourself on the spot and ask, “What’s going on here? What’s making me want to eat right now?”  Once you’ve identified what’s causing your desire to eat, ask yourself, “What do  I feel, need, and want?”

For example, you might realize, “I FEEL tired and overwhelmed. I NEED a break from work and to get some sleep. I WANT time to myself instead of being around people all the time.” Then consider how you could take care of those three things without asking food to do it for you.

Overcoming a Setback

Suppose you’ve had an awful day and finally given in and eaten a dozen cookies. Now what? Does this mean you are a failure at dieting? Not at all. You’ve just had a small setback, similar to what happened when I fell while walking my dog. Overcoming a setback doesn’t have to take a long time. When you feel ready to get back on track, think of it as pushing the ‘reset’ button on your life. Here are three simple steps to help you recover from a setback.

1. Allow a Grace Period

This is a time to let yourself be human. So take a break from dieting and exercise. Cry as much as you want. I know I sure did as I dealt after my painful rib injury. When you’re ready to move on again, you will know it. And at that point, the grace period is over, and you need to choose to get back on track.

2. Return to what Worked

Make a list of things that have worked for you in the past, including any routines or activities that help you stay committed to your program. For me, this included pulling out my journal as well as going back to my favorite online tracking program. I also reviewed my list of reasons WHY I want to lose weight, and used it to remind myself that I really do care about my goals and my health.

3. Start with Small Steps

With your exercise plan, make a deal with yourself that says you only have to exercise for ten minutes, and after that, you can quit. Then go do it. Sometimes, at the end of the ten minutes, you’ll be relieved it’s over and you’ll stop. But other times, you’ll discover that getting started made you feel better. If so, you might choose to keep going longer. Either way, you’re a success! I have used this solution many times over the years, and it helps me overcome feeling stuck and overwhelmed about exercise.

Emotional eating and setbacks don’t have to ruin your weight-loss plan. Instead, view them as a time of learning and renewal. Remind yourself that a setback is temporary, and that once you move past it, you are back on the road to weight-loss success.


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About Linda Spangle

Linda Spangle RN MA is recognized nationally as a leading authority on emotional eating and other psychological issues of weight management. Author of the award-winning Life is Hard, Food is Easy, Linda is the owner of Weight Loss for Life, a healthy lifestyles coaching and training program located in Denver, Colorado.

A registered nurse with a master’s degree in health education, Linda Spangle is a skilled teacher, counsellor and writer. Over the past 20 years, Linda has provided counselling services for more than 2000 clients and taught several thousand people in her workshops and seminars. In addition to being interviewed by hundreds of radio shows, newspapers and magazines, Linda has been a guest on numerous TV shows including Fox News, Lifetime TV, The O’Reilly Factor, and National Media for Health. Her newest book is Friends with the Scale.

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