What is Your Why?

Emotions and food

Food, mood, emotions.

Any connection there for you?

If you say no, I won’t disagree with you, but I might inwardly raise my eyebrows in a questioning manner. Why?

Because among the thousands of people I have interacted with over the years who are concerned about their weight , there are very few who have no emotional issues with food. Those few people whose weight issues are not influenced by emotions are often ones who have unshed pregnancy weight or have gained weight due to medications or injury. And even among those people, there still is often an emotional component to their weight issues.

Setting those people aside, a large percentage of people who struggle with their weight often do have an underlying emotional reason for their obesity. A 2008 study done at the University of Alabama and published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that people who reported eating from emotional upset or stress were more than 13 times more likely to struggle with their weight than folks who did not report eating from emotions and stress. .

I can totally believe that. For years I denied that my weight issues had anything to do with my emotions or my stress level. I blamed my obesity on poor food choices, and that certainly was the strongest reason for my weighing in at 300+ pounds, but the bigger question was this:

Why was I constantly making such poor food choices?

That’s the question I want to ask you today. What is behind your food choices that got you to the point where you struggle with your weight? What is your why?

Is it stress? Is it family issues? Is it depression? Is it the need to please other people? Is it financial? Is it ___________________. (You fill in the blank here.)

For me, there were a variety of emotions that triggered an unhealthy eating response. I ate from boredom or sometimes baked (and ate) treats just because I didn’t have anything else to do at the moment.. I often turned to candy or cookies when I was stressed. I felt compelled to stuff my face with Quarter Pounder with Cheese hamburgers from McDonald’s if I was sad or angry. My own personal list goes on and on, and yours may too.

You notice I used the present tense in that last sentence. My own personal list goes on and on – still.

The emotions are still there. They didn’t leave just because I lost 158 pounds 15 years ago. Losing weight was not the cure to emotional eating, but rather losing weight and dealing with the emotional reasons for my obesity in the first place has allowed me to avoid most forms of emotional eating.

The key was dealing with the emotional reasons for my obesity at the same time that I was losing weight. Other people may deal with the emotions prior to embarking on a successful weight loss experience, while others may finally deal with the emotions after completing a weight loss journey.

To identify the emotions and stressors that send you running for comfort foods is a process that requires inner work on your part and quite possibly the aid of a therapist. Never be ashamed in seeking help – whether it is from a therapist, a pastor, or a trusted coach.

I did it by paying close attention to my bad food habits and seeing if there were common emotions that were associated with overeating. I found that stress kicked my appetite into high gear and I would just eat mindlessly, boredom sent me to the kitchen to cook or forage in the pantry, and I often hit the fast food restaurants when I was out shopping. (I think that was mostly a habit.) Of course I am generalizing a bit here, but you get the idea on how I tried to identify the emotions that were affecting my food choices.

Once I identified the emotions, I paid very close attention to my tendencies to push down emotions with food. That took a lot of work and practice. It did not come overnight or even after a year. But continued diligence and awareness, it did come. And your awareness and success can come as well.

How important do you think it is to figure out what role emotions play in your weight struggles and successes. Diane

48 thoughts on “What is Your Why?

  1. Tanvee says:

    Hi Diane, I have still not narrowed down my emotional issues, I did have a lot self doubt and low self esteem but I always thought that was because of my weight, now that I have lost all my weight I still struggle with the same issues. I have managed to control my eating habits and not let my emotions control them but I’m far from sorting out my underlying issues.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I really believe it is a lifelong process and oftentimes those emotions will change over time as we age and mature. I know it has for me which is why I think it is a journey that never completely finishes. Just never give up!

  2. Karen P says:

    Great topic, Diane. Exactly what Marion said. Spot on. I ate for so many non-food reasons. For part of it, I could go it alone. For the big things, I used a counselor (it was for non-weight issues- at the time, but a good counselor will go there with you, if you are open to it).

    There’s no way any one of us can learn 100% of what we need for navigating life as an adult from our Family of Origin. We might learn the rest from co-workers, church, friends, mentor, OA, AA, neighbors. Or a good counselor.

    I used food all the time, and sometimes still do (think coffee! ). I just have better coping skills this time around that keep me within a few pounds of my goal weight. A balancing act. Don’t go it alone, get the help you need and deserve. That time of growth with the counselor, those assignments that I took on for weight and non-weight issues have made such a difference in my life. I highly recommend it.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I agree completely. We definitely learn from others and can benefit from well-thought out advice. Thanks for the recommendation of using a counselor if needed – I agree completely!

  3. Deb says:

    There is still not a lot of encouragement to get help for this problem. If it were alcohol or drugs people would not hesitate to urge you to seek help. Overweight people are often seen as people who have no willpower or choose to be fat. They are one of the last groups it is ok to make fun of. I returned to WW last year after an absence of many years. There were maybe twelve people at the meeting. I had been in WW with six of them before and they were still struggling to lose weight. It dawned on me right then that some of us had bigger issues.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I think that may be because people who do not struggle with their weight see obesity as a self-control problem rather than having an emotional basis. They often think, “Well, just don’t eat so much and you wouldn’t be so fat.” The same person would likely never say that about an alcoholic or a person who struggled with a drug addiction.

  4. Dr. J says:

    I think the thing that rescued me was that I like to be physical, play sports, etc, so being fat was not going to happen or I wouldn’t be able to be as active.

  5. Brenda says:

    Getting emotions and emotional eating under control was the main key I had to work through. I ate when stressed, when HAPPY, extremely when worried..often without remembering everything I stuck in my mouth.

    And I baked when I was emotional. I was known in my family for making the best cookies/cakes/deserts around! Little did anyone know (often not even my husband) I baked things no one ever saw because I would start eating it, then feel guilty I ate so much of it, so then had to get rid of it so I would finish it off 🙁

    For me it took practice. Only having healthy food in the house. ALWAYS driving past fast food..ALWAYS looking away at the chocolate in the check out lanes. Now it is just second nature not to let those feelings take over me. It’s something I can control.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Practice, practice, practice. It really is a key to winning this journey, especially once you have an idea of what emotions lead to which behaviors. I confess that I too am an excellent baker. I have to make myself not bake very often because I know where that would lead. . .

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      For me it sometimes was a “You don’t think I should, so I will. Because I can.” I was almost trying to “punish” the person who was criticizing me about my weight but of course the person I ended up hurting most was myself.

  6. HappinessSavouredHot says:

    I have always thought that emotions are an extremely strong component in weight issues, so much that I think people who want to lose weight should see a psychologist FIRST, and a nutritionist AFTER.
    It can be related to traumatic stuff; I once read an interview in which the woman, who had been sexually abused, said she somehow saw her layers of fat as a “protection” against the male eye and desire.
    It can be related to positive stuff; for example if you come from a family that tends to celebrate and make a big fuss out of food, and if you grew up having seconds and thirds just because it tasted good, never allowing your satiety signal to kick in.
    No matter what the reason in, you need to dig and bring it to light before you can lose weight effectively and keep it off.
    I have personally never really been overweight, except for about a year after having my second baby (and still my BMI was within the healthy range), but I have had an unhealthy relationship with sugar my whole life and still struggling with it at times. Thank goodness I love to be active, because I would probably be twice the size I am! I know sugar is not good for me, I can feel it, even, but it’s still hard to resist… even though it’s not even that pleasurable when I indulge. Surely there is something emotional under it.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Very well said and I appreciate your candor. You sound like Dr. J – he liked to be active and that not only helps him stay at a healthy weight but it also is a motivator for weight control.

      I worked with a woman who said the same thing about sexual abuse. The fat was to insulate her, make her feel like no one would ever dare hurt her again, and to cocoon herself. It was a huge revelation for her and she ultimately lost a lot of weight. Not only from understanding that about herself, but with a lot of good choices.

  7. Jody - Fit at 55 says:

    I think emotions are huge in eating… I think many need to resolve issues but to be honest, I never did.. I just wanted NOT to be fat in high school & that motivated me to lose weight vs. the why… I can look back & understand the why now but I did not resolve it back then…

  8. vickie says:

    LOVED HappinessSavouredHot’s line:
    “I have always thought that emotions are an extremely strong component in weight issues, so much that I think people who want to lose weight should see a psychologist FIRST, and a nutritionist AFTER.”

    I have worked with a therapist for most of my journey. I have been at maintenance since 2009 and still work with her. My work was not done in 2009 when I lost the last pounds. Some of my most important work (boundaries, realistic expectations) happened in 2011. I also see a psychiatrist who regulates my meds. Those two people, working with me, have made all the difference. I do better, get better, each year. It is a continuing evolution.

    I am not sure any of the above comments (very good all) talked about addiction transfer. That is a very common factor in shedding the pounds without fixing the problem. The fat and the food are just the parts we can see.

    Most everything about my life has changed. It didn’t change because I dropped the weight. I dropped the weight because I changed my life. The way I think changed. The habits I have changed. The choices I make changed. I needed help to sort through all of that.

    • HappinessSavouredHot says:

      Vickie, it’s good that you raise the “addiction transfer” issue. Eating unhealthy, just like drinking or doing drugs or any other unhealthy behavior, is often just the tip of the iceberg.
      I think you are tackling your situation in a smart and honest way. Keep up the good work! 🙂

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Thanks Vickie for bringing that up as well. I also like your last paragraph. Everything changed and it wasn’t just because pounds were lost. It was about changing from the inside out. I experienced the same thing. Even though I didn’t see a therapist, I did a lot of inner work on my own. Probably the fact that I had seen a therapist to deal with some external family issues when I was pregnant with my first child helped – because I remembered how he had me work through feelings, emotions, and choices.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    I have been thinking about this a lot. And it sounds silly, but sometimes I think I just don’t want to admit that bad eating has such bad consequences. Food is such an enjoyable part of life, but the consequences are not enjoyable.

    From a social side, it’s often really hard to go against the grain to make good choices. I hate the “party pooper” element of making healthy choices. I guess in some ways when I make healthy choices, I feel like others are saying “who do you think you are…you’re never going to be a supermodel so give up the sanctimonous healthy act and just enjoy yourself.” And I’m honestly not trying to flaunt my choices, but when I make a healthy choice (especially when it is a “tough” place to be healthy) I almost always get a comment.

    One mantra that has worked for me recently is reminding myself “You have tried to use food for years to make you happy. It doesn’t work. Why not try being healthy. That will work.” I know losing weight and the related health benefits aren’t a solution to every problem in life, but being overweight is a major problem and solving that issue seems like removing a major barrier to happiness.

    Thanks for your blog. Some days I come and read through your old entries when I’m tempted to eat, and it helps to know I’m not alone.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      You are not alone and thank YOU for sharing. You have no idea how many people will come back and read through this and other threads looking for encouragement and hope.

      Because that’s what this is about. There is hope for emotional eating. There is hope for getting to a healthy weight. And there is hope for lifetime maintenance.

      I completely agree with the social aspect of this. I like the term “negative peer pressure,” because that really is what people are doing. They are exerting adult peer pressure on us for making healthy choices that make them feel uncomfortable.

  10. Gwen says:

    Emotions do play a huge role in being overweight! Most certainly did for me! Not only eating out of boredom or stress, but also using food to hide me from people and situations I didn’t want to break free of/didn’t have the guts to verbally break free from. But that’s a whole other subject.

    That said, I still believe the cravings the food and restaurant industries create in our brain chemistry, is also a huge reason. Learning that and getting pissed off about it and becoming repelled to their crap, had to go hand-in-hand with emotion healing for me, to break the curse food (bad food) had over me and my life.

    Great post as usual, Diane!

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      That is definitely a factor as well Gwen. I did an article recently on the science of food addictions and it was a really interesting article to write.

      I tell you the truth. Between the food manipulation that goes on in many food manufacturing plants these days and the emotional aspect of food, no wonder it is hard for so many of us to get our weight under control.

  11. Brian says:

    I have never agreed with the model of the “idiopathic” addict except maybe in circumstances that result from the use of drugs in pain management. In fact in Stedman’s medical dictionary the term idiopathic was defined as “a high flown term to conceal ignorance”, meaning disregarding something we don’t understand. In that same way there is no idiopathic over eater. Maybe they don’t yet consciously understand why they do it but there is always a why and it’s almost always emotional. Like you said there are exceptions but they’re usually both obvious and remarkable. I think that’s a big reason why people fail, they never address why they got there in the first place.

    • Janis says:

      I think it’s a matter of just misunderstanding what the word “idiopathic” means. A lot of people think it means “no reason for it, therefore it’s just all in the patient’s head,” but what it really means is, “we don’t understand why this happened.” Idiopathic illnesses do exist. It doesn’t mean “no cause”; it means “no recognized cause.” Prior to the discovery of bacteria, all infections were “idiopathic” as well.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I agree with Janis and I appreciate you bringing that up. We really do need to open up this dialogue in a safe and public way so that people don’t feel embarrassed when they don’t understand why they are making the choices they do, but rather empowered to take the steps to become healthier mentally and physically.

  12. Marc says:

    Hi Diane, I thought this post was excellent. Every fat person I’ve ever known has issues that they deal with by over eating.

  13. I ❤ 2 Eat says:

    You know, I’ve just had a bad relationship with food – or should I just say, a dependency – for a very long time. Only in the last few years have I paid conscious attention to when I eat out of boredom, stress or something else. But food’s always been such an integral part of ME…and yet, it isn’t, you know? Some days, though, I just don’t want to admit I’m eating because of emotional reasons. It takes a lot of effort to not open the fridge or cupboard on those days.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      It does take a lot of effort and I still have to make that effort as well. It is amazing how ingrained those emotions are and even after 15 years of maintenance, they are still there. But the healthier behaviors are now a strong part of who I am as well, and more frequently than not, the healthier behaviors win out over the emotions.

  14. Pat says:

    Hi Diane, excellent post. Thank you. I do think that emotions play a huge role in our diet and eating habits. I also think the “why” is important to know, not only for the way I might be right now, but also for the way I would like to look/be. There must be a big enough “why” to move me in the right direction. Does that mean it’ll be easy – hell no – but at least I can keep looking forward to my “why” to remind myself about why I am working toward any goal really.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      That’s good you brought that up. I often ask people to make a list of not only “why” they think they might have struggles with food but “why” they want to lose weight in the first place. Both are very important and the second can be a huge motivator when the emotions want to take over.

  15. Meg says:

    There is truly a connection between our emotions and our inability to lose weight. Some people resort to food when they are depressed, stressed or heartbroken. I think it is hard to concentrate with your diet and exercise if your mind and body is focused on other things especially the ones that worry you.

  16. L says:

    I’m having the hardest time developing or trying to develop mental toughness with food.
    I give in to the desire to eat more too easily.
    Probably a habit, but many times unconsciously performed.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      You are not alone – believe me. It is a habit but also it often has its roots from our childhood experiences. That makes it harder than most people anticipate. You can do this. It just takes time and a commitment to never give up on yourself.

  17. Janis says:

    You know, I had an experience this past weekend that was really illustrative for me. I had, shall we say, a bad day. Nothing catastrophic, just a black mood made worse by a few things all converging at once. Work stress, worries about recording my music , all of which were magnets for raging insecurity to rear its nasty head. And my mean internal dialogue can pack one hell of a wallop, let me tell you. It’s a down side of being verbally adept — my critical inner voice is relentless and skilled.

    And while I sat there in front of my coffee table, I had some yarn and a crochet hook in one hand. And I think I broke land speed records with it. I didn’t even realize what I was doing until I thought about it the next day. Had I been naturally inclined to use food to self-soothe, I can’t imagine what I would have eaten nor how much but it wouldn’t have been pretty. I am very, very fortunate in that I need to work out ugly inner tensions and vicious critical voices by moving my hands. It doesn’t make them go away — how I wish it did — and the fact that I don’t use food to self-medicate doesn’t mean they don’t exist — how I wish it did! — but it does mean that when they rear their heads, I don’t do permanent damage to myself.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      You are fortunate in that respect Janis and you are also very smart to recognize it! That’s one of the techniques I recommend to people when they are trying to resist the urge to overeat. Get busy doing something, anything. Knitting, scrapbooking, cleaning, going for a walk – sometimes to break that cycle of stress=overeating.

      Thanks for sharing!

      • Janis says:

        I also want to make sure that people realize that the internal voices don’t have to GO AWAY for someone to maintain a healthy weight; not only that, but they WON’T. You don’t have to be mentally perfect, at peace, totally in touch with yourself, or any of that. You don’t have to wait to be perfect before addressing the problem. It’s not a matter of shutting up the voices but finding non-damaging ways to cope with them.

        We all have those nasty internal critical voices, and it breaks my heart when I hear people who are struggling with their weight imply that they have to banish all insecurity and imperfection before they can make headway on their weight. It seems to doom people to failure, and even worse self-recriminations, if they believe they can’t manage their weight until they are perfect.

  18. KarenJ says:

    I had an issue with bingeing which was related to my inability to express my true feelings, most specifically anger (disappointment, frustration, fear and hurt). It took a lot of work on my part to learn to feel safe with my feelings. In becoming the “real” me, my marriage fell apart, and I’m happy to say I maintained my weight loss through it all. I am now married to a man who knows and loves the real me. If I am upset, I can express myself without hurting myself or others. I only eat when I am hungry. It feels really good to have overcome such a difficult challenge, and I love helping others do the same.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Congratulations for maintaining your loss through that really stressful time. It is hard to express our feelings when in the past our feelings have not been respected. I experienced that with some people in my life early on, and internalized the belief that I shouldn’t express my feelings because they were wrong.

      I’m glad that you have overcome this and that you have a husband who respects and loves you the way you deserve.

  19. shelley says:

    My weight has crept on over the last few years, It was only after going through your blog that it dawned on me, I make huge excuses of being busy and side tracked that i have deprived myself of any exercise at all nowadays, And to think i used to love going for walks and to pilates and zumba classes. Now i have come to the realization I will make the small changes each day to schedule one form or another of exercise back into my life,
    Thanks for your inspiring blog its certainly worked its magic on motivating me.

  20. Mayte says:

    Thanks Diane , your post is spot on in my case. My weight right now is 249 pounds and I´ve been losing and gaining the same 100 pounds during the last 10 years , and is so tiring and depressing that food can control my life this way. Knowing that every emotion (stress , boredom , sadness …) always leads me to bingeing.
    I´m reading your book and learning a lot 🙂
    I admire your strenght , maintenance is the hardest part and you`ve mastered it.

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