Yo-Yo No More: Understanding the emotions that make us fat

In all forms of media we are told about our nation’s obesity problem. And San Antonio is one of the fattest cities in the United States. At the same time, we are bombarded with advertisements and information about losing weight.

Most solutions include some combination of exercise and diet. You can lose weight on the Atkins, the South Beach, the Beverly Hills or LA Weight Loss diets. Or with Slim-Fast. There’s Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers and Body Solutions. There are also medications and herbal remedies (e.g., Herbalife and Super Blue Green Algae) by the score. And, of course, the surgical solutions. Get your gastric bypass here. Everywhere I look, I see low-carb this, no-carb that and this pill to inactivate the carbs you do eat. Obesity fighting is a multibillion-dollar industry.

I have lived through my own struggles with my weight since the birth of my first child. I’ve tried many of those regimens: Atkins, the grapefruit and egg diet, counting calories, and the most sensible of all, the Weight Watchers program. More recently, I tried Weight Loss Resources (online). All of them, though, resulted in an eventual weight gain, yes, even Weight Watchers. For me, dieting, or restricting my food, inevitably leads to weight gain. I have decided the fattening of America comes from our obsession with diets.

Twenty-plus years ago, I discovered Geneen Roth’s book Feeding the Hungry Heart. (She has written several since that time, all addressing different aspects of the Emotional Eating problem.) I did well with it for a while, then drifted away. I’m back now. I know she has the answers for my yo-yo tendencies. She cites the “Fourth Law of the Universe: For every diet, there’s an equal and opposite binge.” She states: “The way you eat is the way you live your life.”  

There’s freedom in following her guidelines.

1) Eat only when you’re hungry. For me that means not eating something just because it’s out on the counter. My tendency is to nibble and never really allow the hunger to come.

2) Eat sitting down in a calm environment. This does not include the car. Adhering to this guideline will take care of my grabbing a bite of something on the counter when I walk past it.  

3) Eat without distractions. Distractions include radio, television, newspapers, books, intense or anxiety-producing conversations and music. This is a hard one for me. The way I live my life is to multi-task. I am working on stopping this behavior, especially with regard to eating.

4) Eat only what your body wants. After a near lifetime of thinking of certain foods as “bad” and restricting the kinds of foods I eat, I am re-educating myself about my tastes in food, learning again what I really like and what I really want. There are also things I might think I want and my body doesn’t want them. I am sensitive to chocolate and caffeine. They can produce a Meniere’s attack or a milder vertigo and loss of balance. I am staying away from them.

5) Eat until you are satisfied. Notice that this guideline is NOT eat until you are full. Learning when you’re satisfied requires study and experimentation. It’s all about increased awareness, of hunger and of satisfaction, of when you’ve had enough.

6) Eat (with the intention of being) in full view of others. Simply put, this means no hiding of certain foods and eating them on the sly. If you are going to eat it, eat it in full view of others.

7) Eat with enjoyment, gusto and pleasure. Take time with your meal. Eat with full awareness of the texture and taste. Savor each bite. Hold it in your mouth.  Appreciate the flavor. One of my clients was eating out with friends. She was “savoring” each bite. Someone asked her what she was doing. She said, “I’m making love to my food.” That’s it. Make eating the sensual experience that it is.

These guidelines came straight from the latest Geneen Roth workshop I attended in January, “The Diet for the 21st Century.” Following the guidelines strictly will allow your weight first to stabilize and eventually to begin to drop. The keys to healthy eating are to grow in awareness of emotions that drive you to eat, and to be aware of the “positive intent” for the fat. The food is used to numb feelings. I have learned from my experience, and my patients have taught me, just how efficient this process is. It is spontaneous and totally out of awareness. One of my patients was going through severe grief for loss of a child. When the emotional pain was unbearable, she deliberately ate ice cream. The emotions subsided immediately. She realized she had been doing this for years. This was the first time she did it with full awareness.

It sounds so simple. And it isn’t. It may be the most difficult thing you do. I think I am in touch with my feelings most of the time. Yet at times, I find myself having difficulty with three of the eating guidelines: one, two, and seven. I know now that when I’m having trouble with these it’s time to examine my feelings. I do this best by sitting alone and writing — writing whatever pops into my mind. I discover interesting things about myself this way, and I figure out what the driver is for my out-of-control eating.

To paraphrase an old saying, “I ain’t what I wanna be and I ain’t what I’m gonna be, but thank heavens, I ain’t what I used to be!”

Rosemary J. Stauber, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in San Antonio and founding director of the Bexar County Women’s Center.

Author: Rosemary J. Stauber

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