Dr. Susan Albers is a diet expert and psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Her work has appeared in various magazines including Shape, Health, O The Oprah Magazine, and many more. She is also the author of several books on the topic of Mindful Eating. Her most recent book, 50 Ways to Sooth Yourself Without Food, explores how dieters can combat emotional eating.
Recently, LoveToKnow was able to speak to Dr. Albers about emotional eating, the dangers of this type of eating, and how to get it under control. Find out Dr. Albers' strategies to soothe yourself without food and see your health improve.
Interview with Dr. Susan Albers
LoveToKnow (LTK): Why do emotions lead to overeating?
Dr. Susan Albers (SA): Sometimes overeating is just a habit. You eat the same breakfast every morning or have a chocolate craving every afternoon. You can get comfy in your routines and don't even realize you are overeating.
Other times overeating is more conscious and closely intertwined with feelings. After a hectic day at work or running after your kids, you may turn to food to calm and soothe your emotions. The bottom line is life is stressful. Like it or not, food is often pleasurable and temporarily distracts you from your worries. But, we've all experienced how quickly the momentary pleasure can turn into guilt and regret.
Unfortunately, advertisers set us up. They push the concept of emotional eating. Look closely at food ads. Notice the way many advertisements suggest food is a great way to unwind. For example, chocolate is linked with "bliss" and "happiness." It's sneaky, but we fall for it. The suggestion that you should use food as a "coping" strategy seeps into your unconscious.
Feelings can easily be misinterpreted as hunger. You may be aware that you feel something but not really know what. In the absence of more information, you can respond to feelings with food. It makes a good case for slowing down and really tuning into your body to help you unravel emotional from physical hunger.
LTK: What makes this dangerous?
SA: Everyone comfort eats now and then in small ways. For example, nibbling on chocolate when you have PMS or buying an ice cream cone as a small pick-me-up after a stressful day at work. While small doses of comfort eating aren't necessarily physically dangerous, they can quickly develop into a habit. This habit can lead to weight gain or prevent you from losing weight. When comforting yourself with food becomes your primary way of soothing yourself, this is a problem that will catch up with you.
Recognizing Negative Behaviors
LTK: What type of emotions typically lead to overeating?
SA: Do you eat when you are bored? Do you munch when you are anxious, stressed out or angry? It's no surprise these are some of the most common triggers of emotional eating. This is a problem. So many of us feel stressed out quite a lot, sometimes all the time. It makes a good case for learning calorie free ways to deal with stress. If you can't lessen your stress load, change how you relate to that stress.
Many people believe only negative emotions are linked to overeating. However, it's both good and bad feelings. Eating numbs pain and distracts from whatever is bothering you. However, when you feel good, sometimes it is hard to let those feelings go. So, unconsciously, you continue eating donuts and chocolate to maintain the good vibes.
LTK: How can someone identify if they are truly hungry or just eating emotionally?
SA: Determining the difference between emotional and physical hunger can be tricky. But rest assured it is possible. Before you eat, always check in with yourself. Remember that the thought "eat" often floats through our minds many times a day and often out of nowhere. We frequently take the thought as a command rather than just a thought. Instead, when you hear yourself say, "I want to eat" investigate this thought closely.
Ask yourself two questions.
- How hungry am I on a scale from one to ten right now (1= starving, 10=hungry). This will make you pause and respond thoughtfully.
- Also ask yourself how questions. How did the desire to eat come about? Did the craving suddenly pop up? Hunger tends to grow gradually over time. Was it just because you caught sight of good food? If you are already eating, notice how you are eating. Are you grazing? Sitting at a table? Picking at food right out of the refrigerator?
If nothing else, always make sure you are sitting and giving eating your undivided attention. Push away the newspaper when you eat. Turn off your computer. This way you can focus on how much and why you are eating.
Learn to Soothe Yourself Without Food
LTK: Why is food so comforting?
SA: Food is comforting for so many reasons. In part, it is biological. Food can stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain, which makes you feel pleasure. It's the same chemical that is released when you are engaging in some retail therapy or smoke cigarettes. Certain foods, like your mom's homemade apple pie, can also tap into the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain. The smell and taste trigger positive memories.
Eating is comforting because it is distracting and feels purposeful. Therefore, the entertainment value can temporarily take away the blues and curb boredom. The problem is that there is a very fine line between gaining pleasure from eating and discomfort. Many of us don't know that line or pass it when it is already it's too late. There is a 20 minute time delay between when you eat and when your body experiences the impact.
LTK: What are a few things readers can do to avoid emotional eating?
SA: If you take out stress eating, you have to put something in its place. When you find yourself savaging for pleasurable food, remind yourself that what you are really seeking is comfort. We confuse pleasure with comfort. So, let this be your mantra. "I need to find hmmm not mmm." It's the difference between slipping on a three inch pair of sexy heels or a pair of tennis shoes. You can find comfort in many things like a hot bath, calling a friend or exercise. In my book, 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, I describe self-massage and relaxation techniques. Another helpful hint is to drink black tea. In the Journal of Psychopharmology, it is stated that black tea significantly brings down your cortisol levels, which is the stress hormone that makes you crave sugar, fat and salt.
LTK: Anything else you'd like to share about healthy eating habits?
SA: It's okay to eat. Just focus on eating what you love in a mindful way. Eat, Drink & Be Mindful
LoveToKnow would like to thank Dr. Susan Albers for taking the time to educate readers on emotional eating. To learn more about Dr. Albers and her books, visit her website, EatingMindfully.com.