Stress Eating

A client I worked with a few years ago recently had her second baby and was having trouble getting her eating back under control. Lara told me that during her pregnancy, she let herself eat whatever she wanted and ended up gaining more weight than was healthy. Now at six months postpartum, she’s still struggling to put the skills that we had worked on back in place.

Vacation Plan – Part 2: A Realistic Strategy

A realistic strategy is the most important thing to bring on vacation. Eric lists the Sabotaging Thoughts and responses to help him stay on track.

Common Holiday Sabotaging Thoughts

Everyone knows that it’s harder to stay on track with healthy eating during the holidays, and most people assume that it’s because there are so many more parties, eating events, and treats out during this time.  While that’s accurate, it’s only part of the picture. The truth is that what really makes the holidays so hard are the sabotaging thoughts that people have that they aren’t able to respond effectively to. It’s never a party that directly gets someone off track, it’s when she has sabotaging thoughts while at the party, like, “I won’t be able to have fun unless I indulge.”  Learning to identify, in advance, what sabotaging thoughts you’re likely to have and coming up with responses to them ahead of time is the missing link between wanting to stay on track during the holidays and actually being able to do so. Below are four of the most common diet sabotaging thoughts that we hear and some helpful responses to them.  If you find any of these responses helpful, consider making your own Response Cards and reading them every single day from today until January 1st.

1. I only get this food once a year.

When dieters are telling us about a holiday meal that didn’t go as well as they’d have liked, part of the problem tends to be that they overate food and justified it with the thought that they “never get this food” or “it’s the only time of year I can eat it.”  The truth of the matter is that in this day in age, there is almost no food that can’t be bought, ordered, or made 365 days a year. While it’s true individuals many never think to make a certain food at other times during the year, or only come in contact with it organically during the holidays, that doesn’t mean that they can’t find/make/buy it at other times.  Also, it’s good to keep in mind that it’s true the holidays are only once a year, but they’re once a year every year, so it’s never the last opportunity to have something. While it is certainly fair to eat reasonable portion of favorite holiday foods, it doesn’t work to go overboard on those foods. Reminding yourself that you never need to overeat a food because you can and will have it again can help you stay on track around favorite holiday foods.

Response Card - I only get this food once a year

2. I have to do things the way I’ve always done them or someone will be disappointed.

Dieters often put themselves in traps when thinking about the holidays.  They think that they have to do things the way they’ve always done them or there will be negative consequences, such as disappointing someone or themselves. The truth of the matter is that they way they’ve always done things probably just doesn’t work, not if they’re trying to stay on track with their eating during the holidays. If dieters want this year to go better, it means they have to do things differently. While it’s true that others may be temporarily disappointed if you, say, decide to only make three kinds of Christmas cookies instead of ten, or go out and buy some holiday food to save yourself the time and energy of making it, it’s likely that the disappointment won’t be as great or as long-lasting as you’re fearing.  And they’ll get over it, probably in much less time then it will take you to lose the extra pounds you put on as a result of not making changes.  It’s important to keep in mind that traditions can always be changed and new ones can always be instituted.  If you start the tradition this year of taking a walk after Thanksgiving dinner instead of picking at leftovers, in few years that will start to feel like a time-honored tradition – and one that will help you reach your goals instead of taking your farther away from them.

Response Card - I have to do things the way I’ve always done them or someone will be disappointed.

3. I’ve already been messing up, I’ve blown it so I’ll just wait until the New Year to get back on track.

This is a thought that often plagues dieters who start out trying to have a healthy holiday season, get off track at some point, and just decide that their efforts are wasted and they might as well wait until January 1st to start working on healthy eating again.  We are here to tell you: Don’t buy into that thought! And here’s why: First of all, it is impossible to blow it for the holiday season. It just doesn’t work that way. It is possible to get off track at one party, and then get off track at the next, and then get off track again at the third. But it’s also possible to get off track at one party, recover, and do fantastically well during the rest of the parties.  There is always, always the option of recovering and making the rest of the days until January 1 great days.  And in doing so, it means that you don’t gain weight (or gain less weight), start out the New Year in a much stronger position, and likely have a happier holiday season.  Remind yourself – just because you were on the highway and missed your exit, it doesn’t mean you have to spend the rest of the day driving in the wrong direction.  You can always get off at the next exit, turn around, and get right back on track.  The same is true with dieting. Just because you make a mistake, you can always catch yourself, recover, and get right back on track. In the same way you wouldn’t’ keep driving in the wrong direction, don’t keep making mistakes!

Response Card - I have to do things the way I’ve always done them or someone will be disappointed. (1)

4. I won’t be able to enjoy myself during the holidays if I have to work on healthy eating.

In reality, the opposite of this thought is usually true. When dieters decide to throw healthy eating out the window and get off track, it actually puts a negative tint on the holidays because they spend time feeling badly about their eating, worrying about gaining weight, and dealing with the nagging knowledge that they’re going to have to face up to all this in the New Year.  By contrast, when dieters work on staying on track, it often helps them feel so much better during the holidays because they feel confident in themselves and what they’re doing.  No one (at least no one we’ve ever met!) has ever gone to bed after a really great, on-track eating day and thought, “Well, I shouldn’t have done that.” It just doesn’t happen!

Response Card - I won’t be able to enjoy myself during the holidays if I have to work on healthy eating. (1)

In Session with Debbie: Breaking up With Food

This week I had a session with Leslie, a veterinarian in her 40’s.  Leslie and I have been working together for a little over a month and the topic we discussed this week was overcoming emotional eating.  I discussed with Leslie the fact that negative emotions are a part of life and that they aren’t harmful.  We then brainstormed some things besides eating that Leslie could try to help soothe herself when she was feeling upset, like drinking hot tea, online window shopping, and playing solitaire on her phone.  I could tell, though, that Leslie wasn’t convinced so I asked her what she was thinking.  She told me, “Food is my friend,” and that she just couldn’t imagine that, if she was upset, looking at housewares online would be helpful when she had the comfort of her old friend, food, right in her kitchen.

Leslie and I then examined this notion that food was her friend.  Leslie realized that when she got upset and wanted to eat to soothe herself, she was only looking at part of the picture: She was thinking about how soothing and comforting food was while she was actually eating it.  But she wasn’t thinking about everything that happened after – when she felt guilty and mad at herself, when she took in a lot of extra calories, and when she was forced to stay overweight.  When Leslie thought of food as her comforting friend, she was only remembering the positives and completely pushing aside the negatives.

To help her hold on to a more balanced view of what it really means to have food function as her friend and as her primary coping mechanism for negative emotions, we composed a “Disadvantages of Food as my Friend” list. Here is the list she came up with:

Disadvantages of Using Food as my Friend

1. After I’ve finished eating, it brings out my self-dislike

2. It makes me stay overweight (and potentially continues to increase my weight more)

3. It makes me not fit into my clothes, into airplane seats, into booths in restaurants, etc.

4. It means I can’t move around easily or gracefully

5. It makes it so painful on my knees when I have to bend down to get animals out of the lower cages

6. It makes me want to avoid seeing my real friends and family

7. It makes me not recognize the person I see in the mirror

8. It wreaks havoc with my sense of confidence and makes me feel hopeless about being able to lose weight

9. I know food doesn’t really love me back. It can’t – it’s just food.

I asked Leslie to read this list every single day over the next week so that she can get these ideas more firmly in her head.  Leslie and I then discussed that while doing the things we mentioned previously – playing games on her phone, drinking hot tea, calling a (real) friend, giving herself a facial – might not be as soothing as eating when she was upset, they would come with no negative consequences, as opposed to eating, which comes, ultimately, with 100% negative consequences.  With a more balanced view in mind of what using food as a friend really did to her, Leslie was able to willing this week to start working on breaking up with food and trying to soothe herself in other ways.

In Session with Debbie: Getting Back on Track

I recently had a session with my client, Allison, with whom I’ve been working for a few months.  In session, Allison told me about an experience she had over the weekend that she wasn’t feeling very happy about.  Allison explained that one of her close friends was moving out of state and so over the weekend she had a goodbye party. At the party, there were drinks and passed appetizers.  Allison found herself taking appetizer after appetizer and eating them while talking with her friends. Midway through the party, Allison realized that she was overeating and that she had lost track of how much she had already had.  Allison told me that she went to the bathroom and read her Advantages List and her Response Cards, both of which she keeps on her phone.   After taking a few moments to fortify her resolve and refocus, Allison went back to the party and didn’t eat another bite.

When Allison explained this to me she, she expressed disappointment over getting off track during the party. I, on the other hand, had a different view of the situation.  Even though Allison had gotten off track during the party, she did something that can be extremely difficult to do: she got back on track in the middle of the party.  She didn’t say to herself, “Well, I’ve already blown it for the party, I might as well keep eating whatever I want.”  She also then didn’t go on to say to herself, “Well I’ve blown it for the day so I might as well keep eating whatever I want and get back on track tomorrow.”  No! The moment Allison realized she had gotten off track, she immediately turned herself around and didn’t wait for the end of the party/the day/the week/the month to get back on track.  I pointed out to Allison how significant this was because she has now proven to herself that whenever she gets off tack, she never has to wait even one moment longer to get back on track.

I reminded Allison that the most successful dieters and maintainers are not those who never make mistakes; rather they are those who make mistakes but get immediately back on track.  Allison and I discussed the fact that she will continue to make mistakes for the rest of her life, but as long as she recovers from them immediately (as she did at the party), they will remain very minor and won’t negatively impact her weight. 

Allison and I also took a few moments to assess the situation and figure out what had led her to get off track in the first place. Allison realized that the major problem was that she hadn’t gone into the party with a strong plan. She went in thinking she would have “just a few” bites to eat, but had nothing specific in mind. Allison also realized after the fact that she overate partly because she didn’t have a plan, partly because she was distracted talking to her friends, and partly because she was feeling upset and emotional about her friend leaving town.  In order to better prepare herself for a similar situation in the future, Allison decided that she would ahead of time formulate a strong plan and make the effort to deliberately eat everything slowly and mindfully. And, if she knew that she might be going into a potentially emotional situation, like a good-bye party, Allison decided that she would read Response Cards ahead of time that specifically reminded her that eating for emotional reasons  ultimately always has the opposite of the intended effect, meaning it  makes her feel worse, not better. 


In Session with Deborah: Difficulties Going Home

This week, I had a session with my dieter, Emily. Emily told me that she and her sister are planning a trip home this weekend to celebrate their mother’s birthday, and that she thought it would be hard in a number of ways:  Emily would be off of her usual routine, she would be spending a long time in the car, she would have fewer occasions to exercise, and she would not be in control of her food.  Beyond these practical matters, Emily also told me that saying in control of her eating might be difficult because she would be experiencing more stress, which puts her in danger of engaging in emotional eating.  Although Emily loves her family, she also finds that being around them for an extended period of time can be stressful (in part because they often comment about what she does and doesn’t eat).

In session, Emily and I spent most of the time coming up with strategies for both her practical and psychological concerns.  Emily knew that one the most helpful things she can do for herself is to make a general plan for her eating and exercise over the weekend.  Emily decided that she would plan ahead and bring meals and healthy snacks in the car so that she wouldn’t have to worry about finding healthy choices on the road or being tempted by unhealthy food.  Emily also decided that she would make it priority to take at least a 20 minute walk each day that she at home, which would have the dual benefit of getting in some exercise and also being a stress-reliever.

Emily and I also discussed what sabotaging thoughts that might come up this weekend.  Emily said that her family often watches what she eats and makes comments, and although they are usually well-meaning, they cause Emily stress.   I pointed out to Emily that because she is now an adult, she doesn’t have to worry about “rebelling” against family by sneaking food or worry about what they will say about her eating because the only person she has to answer to is herself.  Emily I discussed this idea further and she made the following Response Card:






Emily and I also discussed the emotional eating aspects that might come into play this weekend and what strategies she can use if she’s feeling negative emotions, like taking a walk outside, working on deep breathing and relaxtion, or calling a friend.  We also discussed the fact that going home is more of an emotional experience for her, and therefore it’s normal that Emily would feel that way.  Just because she’s feeling stressed doesn’t mean anything is wrong, and just because she’s feeling stressed doesn’t mean she has to do anything about it.  It will go away on its own, as it always does.  Emily made the following Response Card:







Emily and I also discussed the fact that she should go into the weekend knowing and expecting that it will be more difficult to maintain control over her eating; this way she won’t be surprised when it happens. As long as Emily knows this ahead of time and fortifies herself, when the difficulty hits, she will be ready and prepared.

In Session with Deborah: I deserve a treat

This week, I had a session with my dieter, Rachel.  Although she very much enjoys her job as a manager in a big medical office, Rachel also finds that her days are hectic and stressful.  In session this week, Rachel and I discussed a situation in which she got off track on Friday night.

On Friday evening, Rachel had planned on going out to meet friends after work, but then felt too tired from an especially busy week.  Although she initially thought to make herself a healthy meal at home, she ended up going home and ordering “way too much” Chinese takeout – and then eating almost all of it over the course of the night.  I asked Rachel what thoughts she was having when she decided to order Chinese takeout instead of her planned healthy dinner, and what thoughts she was having that then led her overeat.  Rachel said that the main thought she was having was, “I deserve to treat myself.”  “I had such a stressful week,” she told me, “and I was already feeling somewhat sad about missing my night out. I kept thinking that I deserved to treat myself after my hard week, and because I was staying in, the thought of big cartons full of Chinese food seemed the way to do it.”

I then asked Rachel how she felt when she was going to bed that night, and she told me she felt, “sick from eating too much, guilty, and really mad at myself.”  Rachel and I discussed the fact that, although she ordered Chinese food to “treat herself,” in the end it actually did the exact opposite because she was left feeling badly, both physically and psychologically.  I pointed out to Rachel that one of the dangers of treating herself with food was that, at least in this case, it was a form of emotional eating because what Rachel was really looking for was a way to unwind and de-stress from her busy week, as well as feel better about staying in.  Emotional eating is something that Rachel has struggled with a lot in the past, and at the time Rachel hadn’t realized that this, too, was emotional eating. And just like every other time Rachel used food to treat emotions, she ended up feeling all the worse for doing so.

Rachel and I then discussed the notion of treating herself and how she might go about it in a way that actually did make her feel like she was treating herself. Rachel told me that when she did things like get a manicure or a massage, or take a long bike ride with her friends, or indulge in an afternoon sitting in a book store with a cup of tea, she felt great, and not at all like how she felt after a night overeating Chinese food.  Rachel made the following Response Card to remind herself of this idea:

Job Stress and Eating

My dieter, Jeff, is a police officer and after a long shift he usually feels exhausted, both physically and emotionally. Because of this, whenever he gets home from work he usually ends up eating a huge meal (of unhealthy foods) because he feels a lot of self-pity and stress and has the sabotaging thought that he “deserves” to eat to feel better. Jeff told me that the thought of coming home and not eating a big meal makes him feel deprived and more self-pitying.  Although Jeff knows that this is something that was sabotaging his weight loss efforts, he couldn’t figure out how to break the cycle.

Jeff and I discussed this situation in depth during our last diet session. The first thing I did was ask Jeff how he felt after he got home and ate a big meal and whether or not it achieved his goal of feeling better. Jeff reported that while he did temporarily feel better while he was eating because he was distracted from thinking about his long shift, towards the end of his meal, or almost immediately after, he started feeling a lot of guilt, regret, and self-recrimination. When he thought about it, Jeff admitted that he actually ended up feeling worse than he did before he started eating.

I pointed out to Jeff that this was good news: it’s a good thing that eating didn’t ultimately satisfy his goal because that would give him extra motivation to work on making changes and figuring out what would actually make him feel better, both in the short term and in the long term.

Jeff and I discussed the fact that after a hard work shift, he certainly does deserve to relax and he certainly does deserve to calm down and de-stress, but he certainly doesn’t deserve to go off his diet, feel even worse, and maintain his unhealthy weight. Jeff and I discussed a number of strategies that he could use when he gets home which would help him relax and shed the burden of his job without turning to food. We also came up with a number of Response Cards for Jeff to read while he was still in his car, before he even walked into his house. Here are some of Jeff’s Response Cards:

When I think I deserve to eat something that will make me feel good, remember: THIS WILL ACTUALLY MAKE ME FEEL BAD. And it will cause MORE self-pity because then I’ll also feel bad about myself, guilty about my eating, and weak.

When I’m feeling stress/self-pity and I’m tempted to eat, ask myself: Do I want to feel better or do I want to feel worse?

Eating when I’m feeling stressed is effective – but ONLY IN THE SHORT TERM. It has 100% negative consequences in the long term – I’ll gain weight, I’ll stay overweight, I’ll reinforce the tendency to give in, I’ll feel bad about myself, I’ll feel guilty about what I ate, it may cause me to continue having a bad eating day, etc.

If I feel “deprived” because I can’t eat everything I want when I’m stressed, remind myself: either way I’m deprived. Either I’m deprived of EVERYTHING on my Advantages List, or I’m deprived of some food, some of the time. Which would be the bigger deprivation?

Jeff and I also discussed the fact that when he maintains control over his eating, regardless of the situation, he feels great about himself. Because of this, we knew that if Jeff stayed in control of his eating after a long shift at work, this in and of itself would help him feel better because he would at least be able to feel good about his eating.

Angry Eating

When Jamie came in my office this week, she reported feeling disappointed.  Jamie thought she had kicked her emotional eating habits because, through lots of practice, she became adept at not eating when she was feeling sad or stressed.  This was something that Jamie had struggled with a lot at first because initially she thought she would not be able to handle feeling sad or stressed without turning to food.  Through our work together, Jamie learned that negative emotions are not going to kill her and she can do other things to comfort herself which will not have the end result of jeopardizing her diet and ultimately making her feel worse.  Jamie always gave herself a lot of credit for being able to handle these negative emotions without turning to food by using a multitude of other distracting techniques, like calling her sister or a friend, going for a walk, taking a shower, painting her nails, or listening to relaxing music. 

Yesterday evening, however, Jamie was out with a friend for dinner and midway through she got a phone call from her mother who made her angry and they ended up getting into a fight.  Jamie hung up the phone, still feeling mad.  Even though she’d almost finished the amount of food she had carefully portioned off from her plate that she would eat at dinner (and was planning to bring the rest home for lunch the next day), Jamie told me that she then proceeded to eat almost everything that was left on her plate, seemingly without noticing what she was doing.  It wasn’t until Jamie looked down at her near-empty plate that she realized she had just engaged in emotional eating, but this time it was in response to anger, not sadness or stress and felt discouraged.  I asked Jamie what she did after she realized this and Jamie reported that she left the restaurant, took a walk with her friend, and then called her mother to work the situation out.  I then asked Jamie if she had proceeded to order dessert at the restaurant or had gone home and eaten whatever was in her house.  In an almost puzzled fashion, Jamie answered, “of course not.”  I recognized what was going on here –Jamie was only focusing on the one mistake she had made that night and was not seeing all the multitude of great things she had done immediately after. 

I asked Jamie what she might have done a few years ago when she felt angry or worked up like that and she reported that she probably would have gone on to eat a lot more food to soothe herself.  I also asked Jamie what she would have done  in a situation in which she made an eating mistake and Jamie acknowledged that she probably would have gone on to eat a lot more the rest of the night, thinking she had blown it.  Jamie and I discussed how very differently she handled this situation and all of the important things that she deserved credit for.  Jamie was able to see that she deserved credit for:

  1. Once she realized she had eaten more than she planned, she did not catastrophize and continue to eat out of hand the rest of the night
  2. After dinner she took a walk to calm herself down instead of turning to more food
  3. She got problem-solving oriented and called her mom to work out the problem
  4. She was able to identify what was going on – that she was eating because she was angry – and respond to sabotaging thoughts that were urging her to keep eating
  5. She was ready to learn from the situation and would be more aware of all forms of emotional eating in the future

I pointed out to Jamie what I point out to all of my dieters: that ALL dieters and maintainers make mistakes, they are just able to recover from them right away.  Jamie and I discussed the fact that, without even realizing it, this is exactly what Jamie did because as soon as she realized she had eaten more than she planned, she put the brakes on eating right away.  We also talked about the fact that instead of feeling good about this situation and how she had proved to herself that she can recover right away, Jamie was actually making herself feel worse by only focusing on the one thing she did wrong, instead of the 20 positive things she did right after.  Jamie and I decided that as part of her homework this week, she would start focusing more on giving herself credit for all the positive things she did, both big and small.