New study tackles emotional eating

    America is fat. That’s been blamed on fast food, transfats and Coca Cola, among other things. But some weight loss experts say it’s not just about WHAT we eat. Just as important is WHY we eat.

    America is fat. That’s been blamed on fast food, transfats and Coca Cola, among other things. But some weight loss experts say it’s not just about WHAT we eat. Just as important is WHY we eat.
    (Photo: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


    Weight Watchers, Atkins Diet, counting calories, Philadelphian Sue Curren has tried them all. After losing a few pounds, she gained them all back. Every time.

    Curren: So there was a disconnect between what I knew and the habits that I should be following versus what I was actually doing.

    Then Curren heard about a study at Temple’s Center for Obesity Research that seemed made for her. Lead investigator Edie Goldbacher set out to study eating triggered by emotions:

    Goldbacher: For some people it’s stress, for some people it’s anxiety, for some people it’s sadness, boredom, for some people it’s positive emotions.

    Sue Curren says the study helped her figure out why she would go for crackers or chips, even with a full stomach:

    Curren: You just had a meal, why do you think you’re still hungry? And then it would dawn on me, that you’re upset, or you’re [un]happy, or you’re in a group environment and you’re talking and that might make you anxious, so you just keep on eating and eating.

    Goldbacher says participants in the study learn different techniques to recognize and deal with their emotion-triggered food cravings:

    Goldbacher: Because it seems like a lot of times people who are emotional eaters tend to respond almost automatically or habitually by getting something to eat. So by slowing things down it really opens up the opportunity to make different choices.

    For example, here’s what Sue Curren does when she feels an urge coming on:

    Curren: When you’re sitting there and you’re going through these emotions, you just imagine that you’re putting these emotions on this conveyor belt, and they are only emotions, it doesn’t mean that they have to rule your life, it doesn’t mean that’s who you are, so you put them on there, and you just imagine them going through.

    Participants in the study also learn about mindfulness – being aware of your surroundings and emotions.

    Baime: Because the truth is that we’re all moving so fast that we’ve gotten out of the habit of actually noticing.

    That’s Dr. Michael Baime of the Penn Program for Mindfulness. He recently studied mindfulness and eating. He says it’s commonplace for people to wolf down food without paying attention.

    Say you are watching your favorite TV show, a bowl of ice cream on your lap. Suddenly, you hear a clink – it’s your spoon, hitting the bottom of the empty bowl.

    Baime: And you almost have to look around – who ate my ice cream, but it was you – 2000 calories down the drain, and you didn’t even taste a bite.

    Baime’s advice: Before reaching for the cookies, take a couple of deep breaths. Use the time to take inventory of the emotions that sent you to the kitchen. And when you’re eating a meal, really pay attention to it:

    Baime: If you’re really noticing while you are eating, even a little bit of food seems like a lot more, because you are tasting it, you’re appreciating it, you’re actually sensing it, you’re right there while it’s happening.

    Since Sue Curren started learning these techniques to control emotional eating, she’s lost more than 20 pounds.

    She calls herself a “work in progress,” but says she now controls urges about 95 percent of the time. Researcher Goldbacher says if the program continues to show success with more participants, the techniques will likely be included in other weight loss programs.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal