Food and Emotions: 90 percent overlook key to weight
loss, survey finds
Expert says diets fail because people don’t address the
emotional aspects of food
results of a national survey about weight loss barriers finds 90 percent of
respondents discounted one of the most important factors — your mind. A
neuropsychologist says the most crucial factor is your psychological
relationship with food and exercise, yet the majority (60 percent) listed diet
and exercise to be the biggest barriers of weight loss, and only 10 percent of
people thought psychological well being was the biggest barrier to weight
Tens of millions of Americans vow each year to lose
weight in the New Year, and while their intentions are good, most of the time
their results are not. It’s estimated that only 8 percent of those who make New
Year’s resolutions actually keep them.
Even if weight is lost initially, it usually returns.
Studies show nearly 2 out of 3 people who lose 5 percent of their total weight
will gain it back, and the more weight you lose, the less your chances of
keeping it off.
“That’s not surprising,” said Diane Robinson,
PhD, a neuropsychologist and Program Director of Integrative Medicine at
Orlando Health. “Most people focus almost entirely on the physical aspects
of weight loss, like diet and exercise. But there is an emotional component to
food that the vast majority of people simply overlook and it can quickly
sabotage their efforts.”
A recent national survey of more than a thousand people
commissioned by Orlando Health found that 31 percent of Americans think a lack
of exercise is the biggest barrier to weight loss, followed by those who say
it’s what you eat (26%) and the cost of a healthy lifestyle (17%). Another 12
percent said the biggest barrier to weight loss was the necessary time
Only 1 in 10, however, thought psychological well-being
was a factor. “That may explain why so many of us struggle,” said
Robinson. “In order to lose weight and keep it off long term, we need to
do more than just think about what we eat, we also need to understand why we’re
From a very young age we’re emotionally attached to food.
As children we’re often given treats, both to console us when we’re upset, and
to reward us for good behavior. Most celebrations, like Halloween, Thanksgiving
and Valentine’s Day are food-focused, and birthdays are spent sharing cake.
Even the mere smell of certain foods, like cookies in grandma’s oven, can
create powerful emotional connections that last a lifetime.
“If we’re aware of it or not, we are conditioned to
use food not only for nourishment, but for comfort,” said Robinson.
“That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, as long as we acknowledge it and
deal with it appropriately.”?Whenever the brain experiences pleasure for
any reason it reacts the same way.
Whether it’s derived from drugs, a romantic encounter or
a satisfying meal, the brain releases a neurotransmitter known as dopamine.
“We feel good whenever that process is activated,” said Robinson,
“but when we start to put food into that equation and it becomes our
reward, it can have negative consequences.”
In fact, researchers have found a link between emotional
issues like stress, anxiety and depression, and higher body mass indexes (BMI).
Many of us can relate to the idea of overindulging at happy hour after a bad
day at the office, for example, or eating a pint of ice cream to help us deal
with bad news.
That was common coping mechanism for Shekyra DeCree, of
Columbus, Ohio. “As a mental health therapist, my job can be very
stressful, and everyday when I got home from work, the first thing I would do
is go to the refrigerator,” she said. “That was my way to calm down
After recognizing the emotional attachment she had with
food, DeCree started making conscious changes. In just over one year, she’s
lost more than 100 pounds.
“I’d gone on countless diets and tried to exercise
before, but this was different,” she said. “You have to change the
way you deal with your emotions, your stress and anxiety. Once I understood the
mental aspect, I felt free.”
Robinson offers these tips to help recognize the
emotional connection you may have to food:
-Keep a daily diary logging your food and your mood, and
look for unhealthy patterns.
-Identify foods that make you feel good and write down
why you eat them. Do they evoke a memory or are you craving those foods out of
-Before you have any snack or meal ask yourself: Am I
eating this because I’m hungry? If the answer is no, look for the root of your
The goal is to take emotion out of eating and see food as
nourishment, not as a reward or coping mechanism. If you struggle, don’t be shy
about finding help. “When we’re focused on the physical aspects of weight
loss, many of us have no problem joining a gym or hiring a trainer,” said
Robinson. “How about joining a support group or hiring a
psychologist?” she said. “If getting your body in shape hasn’t work
out yet, maybe this time start with your mind.”
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