Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
24 Jan

Weight Loss: The Emotional Element

EmotionsIn a recent survey, psychologists named emotions as their clients’ “top obstacle” to weight loss. The 1300+ licensed psychologists, to fill in the picture, also cited emotional eating as well as food selection and exercise commitment among the common challenges their clients faced. Sure, it’s maybe little surprise that psychologists would emphasize the role emotional issues play in weight loss. It’s their profession after all, and their clients comprise a self-selected group of people who are interested in delving into the emotional dimensions of their weight management struggles. That said, I know plenty of trainers (myself included), doctors, and dietitians (Primally focused or otherwise) who would suggest psychology has figured prominently into many of their clients’ situations as well.

From my own perspective, I’ve worked with many people who honestly felt they didn’t deserve to be healthy, to be beautiful, to be happy. Every effort they’d made in the past to lose weight and improve their wellbeing had been sabotaged by psychological ghosts. Negative self-talk got the better of them even after they’d experienced substantial success in losing weight and/or achieving other health and fitness goals. When a number of these folks combined emotional work with their lifestyle changes, it was like the air cleared. Not overnight, but over time.

As much as I believe giving people accurate information (about diet, fitness, and other key lifestyle areas) can empower them to live healthier lives, there’s that more complex dimension. The body, after all, is pretty simple. Our metabolic functioning, for example, is fairly straightforward once you understand the basics of hormonal responses.

For many people, however, the physical side isn’t the issue. They get it – and they do it. It’s the psychological baggage that acts as the obstacle at some point (or points) along the way toward a healthier life. Maybe it’s a background of abuse, neglect, bullying, or depression. For some, food dulled some pretty harsh emotions in their histories, and the associations are hard to break. For others, there was something to the image of themselves itself that was protective: being overweight or sick was part of how they had defined their lives. For many, it could even be negative self-talk related to current stresses and circumstances.

By all means, if you feel emotional issues significantly affect your daily functioning or progress toward reasonable health goals, the expertise of a professional counselor is advisable. For anyone who’s interested in fostering the emotional side of their health journey or break past what might be a mental as opposed to a physical block, let me throw out a few suggestions. I hope you’ll add yours as well.

Cultivate Self-Awareness

The journey toward better health – under any circumstances – offers plenty of fodder for great journaling. Use a journal or other tool to explore or record realizations, stumbling blocks, self-doubt, accomplishments, and motivational ideas. Reflect on the history you bring to your current health endeavor (previous weight loss attempts, disordered eating, etc.) as well as your day-to-day journey in the here and now.

Try to identify the roots of emotional issues at play and the current triggers that send you down the road of negative self-talk. Use your developing awareness to continually “catch” yourself earlier in the self-talk cycle and redirect your thoughts and activities before it even starts. Record what works in that redirecting.

Seek Support

Use whatever works for you: inspirational books, affirmations, close and supportive relationships, online forums, formal support groups, life coaching, and/or personal counseling. Social support is key to any life change, and it can be incredibly motivating whether or not you feel emotional issues figure into your health journey.

Differentiate Between Self-Soothing and Self-Care

Even if you indulged in your share of self-soothing at the refrigerator, you may have denied yourself any meaningful self-care. Commit to self-care and consider what activities and choices have the power to really nourish your physical and mental health. Make a list of healthy indulgences that can take the place overeating or other unhealthy habits once held in your life. What other practices or activities can offer comfort? Research, for example, suggests relaxation training helps people avoid emotional eating and reduces feelings of depression and anxiety.

Revise Your Life Script

After a major weight loss or health change, some people continue to live with a distorted view of themselves. Even if you’re loving the transformation, it can be worth the effort to envision the future. Certain routines or even social connections might not play as big a part as they once did. Certain opportunities you never considered might seem worth pursuing.

The road to health and weight loss obliges a degree of striving. (Although a Primal life of bacon and leisurely bike rides isn’t such a hard existence really…) However, the process sometimes calls us to shed other things along the way – the self-talk as well as habits, the self-image as well as diet that just don’t work for us anymore (and in truth never did). In this sense, it’s about surrender as well as striving. We strive for a better, healthier life, but it’s important to ask ourselves what we need to let go of in the journey.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. I hope you’ll share your thoughts, perspectives, and experiences related to weight loss and health changes. Have a great weekend, everyone!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. “I used to think that I was eating emotionally, because I had those intense cravings that had to be satisfied NOW. But my current thinking is that I was suffering from a sugar cycle and had low blood sugar, hence the urgency.”

    Violet wrote on January 24th, 2013

    I am exactly like Violet, since becoming Primal (and even more right now on Whole30) emotional eating isn’t an issue, any urges to are so mild I can disregard them with ease. Getting off almost all fructose and excess glucose has been startlingly helpful.

    Julia wrote on January 24th, 2013
  2. I’m breaking my posting virginity here, and much like that situation in real life I wasn’t looking for the information mark provided just here but man did it feel good to read it! I made the switch to primal at the beginning of the year after almost a decade (since early teens) of binging/restricting/losing weight/gaining/ never feeling satisfied happy or in control of my eating and body. I’ve been struggling the past week because on seeing results mentally/physically of a much more natural and healing lifestyle I started to fall into my old trap of ‘feeling good so should restrict more to feel ever better’ and linking punishment/deprivation to happiness. This post is like a jolt awake out of a negative thought pattern. I’m going to post this and go write a list of how to recognise ‘feeling better’ without the self flagellation. First stop, read the comics in the paper, second, go for a stroll in the sunlight with my gorgeous strong groklkin’ lady legs!

    Lauraagnes wrote on January 24th, 2013
  3. I work with a lot of emotional eaters, and I agree that it’s a complex issue. There are simple supportive things that can be done however. A good quality magnesium supplement calms the nervous system, helps sleep and can dramatically reduce cravings.

    Lara Briden wrote on January 24th, 2013
  4. I cannot agree more about pursuing emotional eating as an important process in primal (for those of us for which it applies). I came to primal while seeking treatment for emotional eating. As it turns out, eating primally has eliminated my cravings that I had when I was having and so I’m not emotionally eating anymore. Primal has opened a whole new world for me—Now I am available to actually address the underlying issues that I ate over because I am not distracted by zoning out on carbs anymore. I am only 25 days primal and have a long road ahead of me; but at least I’m ON the road now! I am in therapy with a good therapist (after cycling through a couple of really bad ones). Things are looking up. I look forward to being a healthy weight and emotionally healthy as well:0) GROK ON!!!

    bamabelle wrote on January 24th, 2013
  5. There are loads of different approaches to deal with emotions and other unconscious patterns. Just as certain people can benefit enormously from coaching on fitness and primal diet, some people need to work with professionals for psychological issues assuming their cause is psychogenic. As for the rest, i.e., the DIY crowd, so many simple and inexpensive techniques exist. Someone mentioned NLP. These is also EFT. See, for example. Dr. Mercola found some good success with that. You can find a lot of the information free online.

    Jamil Avdiyev wrote on January 24th, 2013
  6. If you think you have disordered eating you will benefit from reading Jane Hirschmann and Carol Munter Overcoming Overeating. I used to think that going primal is the way to go to cure myself out of my emotional eating and although paleo eating may be the answer for many, I found that first I have to get rid of my compulsion to eat. It took me a while to admit this. I also believe that different things work for different people so whatever great idea/eating plan you read about that rings true for you, embrace it but also be ready to fine tune it to your own needs. For example I agreed with most of what I read in the above mentioned book although I started sugar quitting at the same time. I do believe sugar really messes me up, although I try not to demonize it. I found it useful to read David Gillespie Sweet Poison and check out Sarah Wilson website for sugar quitting support, her 8 week guide and cookbook is brilliant.

    bluesky wrote on January 25th, 2013
  7. Susan Alberts books are the best I have found to help with untangling the psychology of mindless eating, dieting and many things beyond. She cuts out all the fluff and has things broken down in a precise manner. True, she is a devotee of a CW eating style, but the psychology is universal. I resisted badly on the first reading, but I have made myself to go through her books numerous times, and every time it helps me.

    That’s said, I don’t believe the body and metabolism is at all simple. There is such a warped connection between the foods, timing of food, individual response to food, it’s insane. Things that work for a whole bunch of people do not work at all for another bunch… and stuff.

    leida wrote on January 25th, 2013
    • Gosh, I had the same attitude when I started reading the Hirschmann/Munter book on overeating. I think the reason while these authors encourage CW style eating is to free you from your demons. I only realized a couple of months ago that for me no eating plans work until I sort out my overeating/binge eating/emotional eating issues. Even tho I believe paleo/primal style eating is the best way to nourish oneself, I know I cannot follow that lifestyle until my disordered eating is fixed. I think however to accept this and be open to ideas discussed in those books, you have to have your fair share of suffering first. But then it might be just me. Ridiculous as it may sound but it took me 8 months to accept that I can no longer fit in to a size 10 jeans. During that time, I avoided clothes shopping which was good for my wallet but not so good for my body and soul. Wearing too small/tight clothing is not your passport to Happyland. Anyway, thanks for your insight and I’ll be looking out for Susan Alberts books. The more informed I am the better choices I make (or so I hope:-)). (English is not my first language so sorry for my simple ways of explaining myself).

      bluesky wrote on January 25th, 2013
  8. Do any of you struggle with eating ‘at’ yourself or someone else?

    Whilst I totally have all the ‘angry, stressed, sad, no control or tired’ eating issue, I find that if I can just get started on controlling that (magnesium is a great help – thanks MDA! – & a cuppa distracts me), I can get on a roll & gain more & more distance from that kind of eating.

    But where I struggle is eating as a form of anger at myself (or someone else). I’ll a Rialto eat too much of something bad because somewhere deep down I believe I deserve it. Not as a treat, as a punishment.

    How on earth do you approach this? All the usual advice, such as thinking about what you’re doing to your health or knowing the Primal alternatives, don’t work, because they would be self-care & this type if eating is precisely, deliberately the opposite of that.

    (PS. Please don’t say counselling. Please? Tell me there’s another way! :)

    SFJL wrote on January 25th, 2013
  9. This is the key for me. Always has been. I get it, for sure. Eating healthy…makes total and utter sense to me. Being Primal is right for me.

    Its my emotions that have always gotten in the way. That’s why Weight Watchers was actually good for me (not in the food category) but the support, other people struggle with similar issues, weekly meetings to talk and support each other, cheer for each other. I miss that!

    Maybe someday I will create a Primal Blueprint Weight Watchers….LOL 😉

    Joanne wrote on January 25th, 2013
  10. I, and perhaps more immediately my fiance, notice that I am very grumpy if I don’t eat chocolate every day. I know that this sounds crazy, but I have cut it out before and really am grumpy for as long as I don’t eat chocolate (several weeks and it doesn’t get better). Fortunately dark chocolate has a lot of health benefits, so I don’t feel like it’s cheating to have a square of dark chocolate every morning. However, I am fascinated, and somewhat disappointed, that my emotional well-being is so closely tied to one food. To clarify, I don’t crave the chocolate (or sweets), and often I even have to purposely remember to “take my chocolate” in the morning. But I will soon notice if I forget because of my bad mood!

    Amy wrote on January 25th, 2013
  11. It took me decades to address and deal with the emotional aspect of my eating. At 58, I now have a completely different problem, which is dealing with the aftermath of decades of bad eating, which includes the damage of having undiagnosed celiac, which has done permanant damage to my immune system and metabolism. Despite being primal/paleo for 3 years, my body is just plain broken and I can only compensate for the damage. I am lighter and healther than when I was still eating the garbage, but my health problems will be with me until my dying day.

    SO! If you recognize yourself when you read this column and you are any younger than 50, please, please, please deal with your issues BEFORE the permanent damage of bad eating takes you beyond the point of being able to fix yourself physically.
    Thanks Mark!

    Lottie Leigh Schafer wrote on January 25th, 2013
  12. For the emotional part of the journey, I recommend two books: The Happiness Trap, by Steven Hays, and Living Like You Mean It, by Ronald Frederick. They’re quite different from each other but both are excellent. Can anyone suggest other books? I find the emotional/psychological change absolutely necessary for other changes to stick, and extremely rewarding on their own.

    Jill wrote on January 25th, 2013
  13. I really appreciate the question of the emotional side of weight gain and weight loss. Too often people try to ignore that they need to deal with more than just food and exercise, because if it’s emotional it is hard to engage with those emotions in an honest way. Many people fall into blaming themselves when they try to see that they do have control of their bodies and their choices. It can be a slippery slope for sure.
    A journal is a great way to engage with those thoughts and emotions, but also a way to monitor behaviors and hold yourself accountable.
    Enjoying the blog, thanks!

    joates wrote on January 25th, 2013
  14. I have fallen off the paleo bandwagon lately but I really think this could be applied to anyone.

    Lauren wrote on January 25th, 2013
  15. YES! Totally agree that the emotional side of things needs addressing and I’m glad that the Primal Connection covers this too.. some research done by Harvard has shown that up to 85% of illness and disease is rooted in thoughts and feelings that are not conducive to good health..

    wiremu wrote on January 25th, 2013
  16. How about fighting the fear of home cooking – I cook healthy and my youngest picky eater then needs to be talked into it so it’s a horrible struggle and now the kids just eat out a lot (granted it’s still juiced veggie drinks and salads, but it’s still from out and god knows what they do to it). Fearless cooking dinner at home is my huge struggle… along w all the other food noise.

    SarikaJain wrote on January 25th, 2013
  17. If I want to eat something I know I shouldn’t (cupcakes, cake, cookies, etc…) I eat a meal or something healthy first, allowing myself the treat after I’ve had the healthy food first, and have found my desire for the terrible thing I’d been thinking about eating all day goes away. It also helps that I cultivated an acute awareness of when I’m full and a dislike for feeling over-full, so adding extra, poisonous food after eating a healthy meal is not as exciting an idea as it once was.

    drea wrote on January 25th, 2013
  18. “You have to realize the difference between self-soothing and self-care.” Thank you for being such an amazing writer, and synthesizing these issues into concepts that make so much sense. That is the heart of it – you can either “soothe” yourself with things that you know make you sick later, or truly care for yourself. Once I realized the soothing was so fleeting, it was easy to remind myself that I wanted to care for myself long-term instead. No food feels better than good health, energy and being at the right weight for your body. Great article.

    Dana wrote on January 25th, 2013
  19. As a psychiatrist, and as a woman who has struggled with her weight and with “emotional eating” all my life, I have learned a few things about this very important topic.

    1. Emotions come from brain chemistry and brain chemicals come from food.
    2. The only two food groups that I or any of my patients have ever “emotionally” eaten are carbohydrates and dairy products.
    3. Paleo diets do not cure emotional eating in many people because they contain too much carbohydrate. Low-carbohydrate or even ketogenic diets are required in many of us, especially women, and especially those over 40.
    4. Carbohydrates cause blood sugar and insulin spikes, which, in turn, trigger swings in hormone and neurotransmitter levels. This roller coaster results in a wide variety of emotional responses, from depression to anxiety to fatigue to insomnia to ravenous hunger, to difficulty concentrating. Several times per day.
    5. Dairy products contain factors which trigger insulin spikes just like carbohydrates do, and contain growth hormones which make people hungry.

    I’m not saying that there are no psychological factors (childhood or trauma issues) involved in overeating, but in my personal and clinical experience, almost all emotional overeating can be addressed with dietary modifications. There is hope:)

    Georgia Ede MD wrote on January 26th, 2013
  20. Thank you for this article Mark, it really spoke to me (and as I can see from the comments, to lots of other people as well!). I have huge struggles with negative self-talk and self-image, as well as emotional eating and other negative self-soothing behaviours. To give a context, I was sexually abused and emotionally neglected as a child then sexually assaulted in my teens/early twenties and involved in several abusive relationships. All of this led to depression, anxiety, an eating disorder (anorexia then bulimia) and negative self-soothing behaviours through abusing food, alcohol and prescription medications.

    It is INCREDIBLY hard for me to break the negative patterns and ways of coping that I’ve set up for myself! With the help of an excellent psychiatrist, a supportive partner and the positive influences of CrossFit and Primal/Paleo eating, I’m getting there.

    I’ve loved the suggestions from everyone, and I’ll definitely be taking note of them all, and following up on a few of those books people mentioned. I’d also like to add my own tips:

    – If your issues have arisen from a background of trauma like mine, professional assistance is hugely helpful. A psychiatrist is your best bet (higher qualifications than a counseller). Its pretty hard to work through these kinds of things on your own.
    – Keep a journal. I don’t write in mine every day, I just note down any emotional eating and write what I was feeling during/before/after, so I can look at it and go “OK I emotionally eat when I feel lonely” etc
    – Write a list of self-CARE behaviours (rather than self-soothing). Its different for everyone but mine include taking a bath, reading a good book, looking at photos of loved ones. Then use them :)
    – Avoid triggers for bad habits. Eg. I would emotionally eat on coming home from work and finding myself home alone. Now I’m going straight from work to a well-populated park to watch the puppies and kids play, enjoy the sunshine and practice my pullups!
    – I’ve also found that avoiding sugar and ensuring I get adequate sleep makes a HUGE difference for me. I do take anti-depressants but my aim is to get off them one day.

    Thanks again for a fantastic article Mark :)

    zowla wrote on January 26th, 2013
  21. Thank you so much Mark for addressing this topic.I had emotional eating issues from the time I was old enough to choose my own foods. I struggled with bingeing and purging through my teenage years. As a result of my own issues I became a holistic nutritionist, then a personal trainer, then a sports nutritionist and now I use something called EFT (someone mentioned it earlier..hooray!). EFT was the missing piece for me. Knowing more about exercise and diet didn’t do anything to change my emotional drive for food. I now specialize in teaching people how to overcome emotional eating with a combination of diet, supplementation, proper exercise (MDA is a vital source of info for me in that regard so thank-you SOOO much) and the emotional blocks that prevent us from being able to change. I have a free slideshare presentation here that goes into this in depth, offers solutions and even teaches you EFT so you can begin to try it on your own…

    Ellie wrote on January 31st, 2013
  22. I have been dabling with Paleo for the last couple of years off and on. When I need to drop some weight I am much more strict. I have to be really careful with carbs because I will easily over indulge for days and weeks if Im not careful. I have been pretty Paleo strict for the last 4 weeks with a cumulative calorie deficit of about 23000 calories but havent dropped a singe pound!! I am running 30-40 miles per week and weight training 1-2 times per week. I have recently been trying to up my protein to over 100g and lower carbs to below 50g. Not sure what else to do. I am 23% body fat and want to drop 5-10 lbs. HELP PLEASE!!!

    Brenda wrote on February 5th, 2013
  23. Any fitness regimen or exercise plan will deem a failure if you will not eat right. No amount of exercise will help you achieve your weight loss goals that you so desire without taking on the discipline necessary.

    Dan Clay wrote on February 20th, 2013

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