In the midst of a bad day, the refrigerator always seemed to provide solace.
When Eric Schott wasn’t feeling good or was looking for a quick pick-up, he turned to food. If he was sad or bored, angry or worried, he could usually find something in his kitchen cupboard that temporarily put him at ease.
“A lot of emotional eating is just pleasure seeking. It was all pleasure seeking,” he said.
The elation would never last. And over time, he saw his weight balloon to more than 500 pounds.
Schott, like millions of people throughout the country, struggled to avoid emotional eating. Grabbing a handful of cookies after a particularly stressful day, binging on ice cream after a break-up or celebrating success with a big steak dinner are all examples of linking food with the ups-and-downs of everyday life.
Left unchecked, emotional eating can sabotage efforts to lose weight, get more healthy and create good eating habits.
“If you have a good day, you celebrate with food. If you had a bad day, you celebrate with food,” said Dr. Carol Wroblewski, a psychologist for the weight loss center at Franciscan St. Francis Health. “Eventually, you start to numb yourself to the feeling and focus on the food. That can make it very difficult for you to maintain weight loss.”
Emotional eating is any eating that’s done for reasons outside of getting nutrients to live, Wroblewski said.
“Our bodies digest food in anywhere from three to six hours,” she said. “If you had a reasonable meal, and you’re eating any time one or two or three hours after that, it’s for non-essential reasons.”
Nearly everyone emotionally eats occasionally, and as long as it doesn’t become a habit, it’s not a health concern.
It becomes problematic when it’s so tightly engrained in the feelings that we have every day, Wroblewski said. Any time something goes wrong, or something goes right, food becomes woven into the experience and emotions that come with that.
“It can make it very difficult to make it through weight loss if you think, when you have a bad day, you can’t get through it without chocolate,” she said.
And when people emotionally eat, they’re not binging on carrots and celery. Chips, ice cream, pizza and other junk food are the go-to choices for people — all highly refined, salty, fatty or sweet.
“These are all convenience food, so you don’t have to make much of an effort to get them,” Wroblewski said. “Then, when you eat them, your body doesn’t even have to work to break them down. It’s all very insidious and self-reinforcing.”
Schott fell into an emotional eating spiral that was established when he was a young man. A football player in college, he was taught to eat up to 8,000 calories a day to give him energy for the intense workouts the team went through.
“You have a lot of muscle mass, your body just burns fuel constantly,” he said. “But when I got done with that, I continued to eat the same way.”
After leaving college, Schott wasn’t working out nearly as much. His metabolism slowed as he grew older, and he started putting on four or five pounds every year.
He’d try diets, and lose a few pounds, but always gained the weight back, and then some.
Throughout the course of a couple of decades, the Center Grove resident watched as his weight ballooned to 523 pounds. He was taking medications for high blood pressure and stress. At night, he wore a continuous positive airway pressure machine, to keep him breathing while he slept.
“I always thought I should be able to handle this on my own. But the older you get, you have kids and a job and you lose track of it,” Schott said.
In December 2013, Schott had gastric sleeve surgery at Franciscan St. Francis Health in an attempt to turn around his health. The surgery removes a portion of the stomach and reshapes it to roughly the size of a banana.
By making the stomach smaller, patients get full sooner and are unable to eat as much.
Fourteen months after having the operation, Schott has lost 230 pounds. But while the procedure was a first step in shedding the weight he had gained, Schott also had to completely reprogram his life in relation to food.
At dinnertime, he brings out an 8-ounce plastic cup. All of his food for that meal will have to fit into that cup, so carefully measures his portions and packs them into the container.
At every meal, Schott writes down his exact portions of what he eats. By keeping a food journal, he has a more precise record of everything that goes into his body.
That mindfulness is something that his doctors at Franciscan St. Francis Health emphasizes. The hospital offers an emotional eating support group to people who want to learn how to break the connection between their feelings and the food they eat.
The focus is on getting people to slow down and think about the food they’re putting in their body. Group leaders also let people know that they’re not alone, and that others struggle with this same issue.
They make it clear that it is OK to have emotions — to be sad or happy or anxious — then finding ways to handle it without food.
“I’ve had people say that they’re afraid that it they don’t have their ice cream or whatever, once they start crying, they’ll never be able to stop,” Wroblewski said. “We work on that to ensure that you can survive that and get reacquainted to your feelings.”
Schott joined the support group at Franciscan St. Francis Health to help him work through his ties to unhealthy eating.
His main tool has been taking a walk. Every time he gets an urge to go to the cupboard for a bag of chips, he refocuses, puts on his athletic shoes and takes a stroll for 15, 30 or 45 minutes.
Through constant reinforcement that way, he’s rewired his brain to avoid eating for his emotions.
“They train us what to do instead of eating for pleasure,” Schott said. “Your brain will actually start to release dopamine for good habits as well as bad habits.”
Tips to deal with emotional eating
Stress, anxiety and depression can all trigger hunger that is not based in physical needs but in your emotional state. Here are few ways to help you manage emotional eating:
- Make a list of activities that you enjoy doing, other than eating, such as walking, reading or gardening. Keep this list handy and refer to it when you get the urge to eat.
- Call up a friend or family member who can take your mind off of eating.
- Try waiting out the urge. Give yourself 10 minutes. Then, after 10 minutes, if you really want to eat, have a small portion.
- Drink a glass of water or cup of tea. Hunger can be mistaken for thirst.
- Keep healthy snacks around, such as baby carrots, low fat crackers or cut up fruit, rather than high-fat, high-calorie treats.
- Don’t deprive yourself. It’s not uncommon for people trying to lose weight to completely cut out all favorite foods, but then end up binging on them later. Allow yourself to have a treat on occasion.
- If you think your eating is due to depression, anxiety or stress, seek out help from a mental health professional.
— Information from the Joslin Diabetes Center