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Did you find yourself falling into more than one eating style? Many people do. After all, we’re multidimensional creatures that don’t fit into a single pigeonhole. We are complex blends of our past experiences, present situations, heredity, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and behaviours. We evolve and change, usually driven by desires to improve ourselves, and sometimes thwarted by life’s roadblocks. All these factors influence our eating styles, and what holds true for you today may be entirely different one year from now.
Although there are 31 different possibilities (made up of various blends of the five main styles) of the categories described below, they are still too simplistic to fully capture the intricacies of emotional overeating. Yet, these 31 eating styles are about 30 more descriptions than in most diet books I’ve picked up.
In the typical diet book, we get pat answers and one-size-fits-all prescriptions. I used to feel perplexed by diet doctors’ advice, such as, “If you’re feeling upset, stay out of the kitchen.” No other mention of, or suggestions about, emotional overeating exists in most of these books!
When my book, The Yo-Yo Syndrome Diet: Why Your Weight Goes Up and Down, and How to Keep It Down for Good, was first published in 1989, it was considered radical! Three-fourths of the book was devoted to the subject of emotional overeating, and traditional diet advice only comprised a minor portion of the book. Today, it’s accepted as common knowledge that emotions play a role in overeating and unhealthful eating.
With that information in mind, here are the five core emotional eating styles:
1. The Binge Eater – This is a very black-and-white eating style – you either are a Binge Eater or you’re not. Those who are Binge Eaters will instantly recognize this description. Those who aren’t Binge Eaters will think this is an outlandish description.
Certain foods trigger overeating in Binge Eaters. Those foods are often referred to as “binge foods.” Binge foods commonly are made from refined white flour or sugar – foods such as sweets, pastas, and breads. Different theories have tried to explain the binge-food phenomenon. Some experts believe Binge Eaters become anxious as a result of blood sugar fluctuations triggered by eating high-glucose foods. This anxiety leads to a cycle of binge-eating to relieve the condition.
Many Binge Eaters find that the only way to keep their appetite under control is by avoiding their binge food altogether. This is also a useful therapeutic approach, because often the bine food keeps a lid on the person’s underlying emotional issues. When the binge food is removed from their availability, the emotions are free to come forward for resolution. Binge Eaters benefit from interpreting their cravings for the binge food, using the methods in this book.
2. The Mood Eater — This is a person who overeats in response to strong emotions. Often, the Mood Eater is an exquisitely sensitive individual who is very compassionate and empathetic with respect to other people. Mood Eaters are sensitive to other people’s feelings and intuitively know when something is troubling another person. Often, the Mood Eater is employed in a helping profession, such as teaching, counselling, or medicine.
Mood Eaters are so engulfed by the emotions that they’ve absorbed from other people that their own feelings are sublimated or ignored. They may also feel overwhelmed by the prospect of adding their own strong emotions onto their already-full plate. So they eat in order to manage their emotional capacity.
Although Mood Eaters are highly capable caretakers of others, they sometimes neglect themselves altogether. Sometimes, this realization upsets Mood Eaters, as they realize that they are doing all the work, and no one is attending to their needs. At those times, the Mood Eater feels unappreciated and resentful. They take out their frustration in the best way they know how – by eating.
Mood Eaters benefit by the methods outlined in the chapter on Extroverts (Chapter 7). Since Mood Eaters are externally oriented – focusing more on other people than on themselves – they can tune into their own feelings and become more inner-directed by interpreting their food cravings as they arise.
3. The Self-Esteem Eater – This is someone who uses food as a friend, a companion, and for entertainment. The Self-Esteem Eater has difficulties in interpersonal relationships. Often, Self-Esteem Eaters relate better to food, books, animals, and movies than they do to other people. They feel misunderstood and have been hurt by people who rejected or abandoned them. Many Self-Esteem Eaters are survivors of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, and they learned in early childhood to distrust others.
Much of the Self-Esteem Eaters’ struggle with food and weight stems from three issues:
Self-Esteem Eaters benefit more from appropriate psychotherapy than from any particular style of eating. This is not to imply that something is wrong with Self-Esteem Eaters; rather, they just have the most to gain from this type of treatment.
Therapy will most likely be the first experience they have being emotionally vulnerable in front of another human being – that is, a skilled therapist. But when Self-Esteem Eaters find that the therapist doesn’t reject them from being who they are, they will be ab le to connect with other people in their life. They can then develop friendships with people, and stop relying on food for companionship and comfort.
Self-Esteem Eaters also benefit from food-craving interpretation as a way of becoming more honest with themselves. When they face the truth behind the meaning of their food cravings, it’s a first step toward easing the loneliness that haunts them. Self-honesty always increases one’s self-esteem, and food-craving interpretation is a productive way of honestly coming to terms with parts of ourselves we may be afraid of facing.
4. The Stress Eater – This person overeats in response to the third FATS feeling: Tension. I’ve found that two life areas trigger Stress Eating: unhappiness with one’s work life, and dissatisfaction with one’s love life. Both life areas are difficult to change, and usually take time and effort to correct. Because we can’t just snap our fingers and “fix” the love or work life, we overeat to ease the tension.
Stress Eaters usually have a wide range of food cravings, all intuitively chosen to ease their tension and frustration. They crave alcohol to manage their ever-taut nerves, coffee and cola to pump up their enthusiasm and energy, chocolate to ease their love-life disappointments, breads and dairy products to calm themselves down, and crunchy snack foods to control their anger.
Food-craving interpretation is one way of accessing the underlying sources of frustration so that they may be dealt with head-on. I also encourage Stress Eaters to add four essential ingredients to their life, which help with tension much more effectively than do foods or beverages:
Exercise. Please don’t assume that I’m asking you to add one more responsibility to your already-full plate of things to do. I realize that it’s a hassle to exercise. Still, exercise is one of the easiest ways to feel better, reduce stress, get more energy, control anger, and reduce the appetite. The best motivational tool I’ve ever found with respect to exercise is to develop a focused mindset that “exercise is a non-optional activity.” Put exercise into the same category as your daily shower, and see it as something that you simply need to do. No ifs, ands, or buts!
Fun and Recreation. The number-one source of resentment is the feeling that everybody else gets to relax and have fun, while we’re left with all the chores and responsibility. It’s a powerful residual emotion left over from childhood. Many people feel that fun is a waste of time or a sign of weakness. Yet, fun – like exercise – is a necessity, not a luxury.
Would you like to feel as if you have two extra hours in the day? You’ll get that feeling when you incorporate small daily doses of fun into your life. Fun recharges the soul and the spirit, giving you the energy and enthusiasm necessary to meet your responsibilities. Fun doesn’t have to cost anything or take more than 10 or 15 minutes. The important things is for you to give yourself permission to relax and enjoy yourself every day.
Time Outdoors. Stress Eaters usually lead whirlwind lifestyles. They’re running at a dead heat from the moment they wake up until the time they go to bed at night. This harried pace leaves little time for noticing the simple and beautiful things in everyday life.
Here’s an instant stress-buster, kind of a game you can play with yourself on a daily basis: When you are driving home from work or during your lunch hour, notice three things in nature. This could be a cloud, the sound of a bird singing, the reflection on a puddle of water, or the colors in a sunset.
If you really want to ease your tension, take a walk during your lunch hour or eat outside (near grass or trees). Being in close proximity to nature is instantly stress-reducing. It calms our nerves, soothes our soul, and definitely slows us down. I suppose that’s where the phrase, “Stop and smell the roses” came from.
Spirituality. When your heart feels full of love and gratitude, very few things can get on your nerves. People who are spiritual or religious are usually less vulnerable to earthly stressors, because they believe that everything will turn out for the best. Instead of sweating out the picayune details of everyday life, they “let go” and trust. This doesn’t mean that they blindly accept the dictates of others. Spiritually guided persons are among some of the world’s most successful individuals.
All four stress-reducing elements – exercise, having fun, spending time outdoors, and spirituality – can be combined effectively. For example, any type of outdoor activity, blended with meditation or prayer, will create an incredible host of positive feelings and energy. And when you feel great, you won’t crave food as much.
5. The Snowball Effect Eater – Think of a snowball rolling down a mountain, gaining momentum and size, and you’ll have an idea of the Snowball Effect Eater’s style. This person’s determination to stick with a healthful eating and exercise program vacillates tremendously. Brenda’s story typifies the struggle of a Snowball Effect Eater.
Last December, Brenda was horrified when she saw a Polaroid picture of herself next to the Christmas tree. “Oh my gosh! Look how fat I look!” she exclaimed, and immediately made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight.
Her motivation to eat light was high after the holidays, so Brenda’s dinner meals consisted of skinless chicken breasts, salads with fat-free dressing, and steamed rice. She lost six pounds in just a few weeks. Then, in mid-January, her husband decided to throw a Super Bowl party. Brenda volunteered to plan the snack menu. While preparing the pizza, chip dips and other munchies, Brenda felt obligated as hostess to taste-test all the foods.
After the Super Bowl, Brenda’s incentive to diet decreased. She’d tasted those high-fat foods, and her mouth ached for more. So, her skinless chicken breast meal was now a fried half-of-a-chicken, complete with skin. Her fat-free salad now consisted of a small serving of lettuce, topped with huge portions of shredded cheese, bacon bits, croutons, and blue cheese dressing. She replaced the steamed rice with a huge baked potato complete with butter and sour cream. In Brenda’s mind, she was still eating the basic “diet dinner menu” of chicken, salad, and a complex carbohydrate. She quit caring whether or not she lost weight , and barely noticed when she regained the six pounds.
Snowball Effect Eaters usually exhibit inconsistent motivation levels because their weight-loss efforts are externally motivated. Like Brenda, they declare themselves to be on a diet in response to some outer stimulus, such as a photograph, a spouse’s comment, or too-tight jeans. However, these external sources of motivation just can’t provide the steady stream of inspiration necessary for permanent changes in eating behaviour. Internal motivation is necessary, with a focus on:
Brenda’s black-and-white approach to weight loss also set her up for fluctuations both in her weight and in her motivation. Instead of saying, “Either I eat like a pauper, or I eat like a pig,” Brenda could take a more conservative approach. Yes, it takes more time to lose weight using a moderate rather than a radical diet, but in the long run, we won’t get those sharp swings in weight. So, instead of forcing ourselves to eat a bland, fat-free diet, it’s more realistic to find a flavorful, low-fat menu that satisfies the taste buds as well as our nutritional requirements.
Snowball Effect Eaters benefit from food-craving interpretation because it keeps them focused on internal motivations for eating. Instead of viewing their food cravings as a sign of, “What’s the use? I’m hungry, so I’ll just abandon this stupid diet,” they are more able to understand the underlying emotional significance of their cravings.
All five styles of emotional eating can employ food-craving interpretation as a means of reducing or eliminating intrusive desires to overeat. The more you understand about yourself, the more you’re able to work with – instead of against- yourself. There’s no need to fight yourself; that’s an unloving thing to do that will only create depression and internal resistance. Instead, move toward gently understanding and accepting yourself.
As I wrote in Losing Your Pounds of Pain; Breaking the Link Between Abuse, Stress, and Overeating, trying to sublimate an emotion is like trying to ignore a child who desperately wants your attention. The child just screams louder and more urgently until the adult finally acknowledges him or her. Your emotions are just like that child. If you nurture and pay attention to them, they won’t need to scream at you in the form of an overly active appetite.
So, really listen to your food cravings – they are part of your inner voice, and provide valuable information!