Erasing Emotional Eating

Emotion: what comes to mind? Maybe, moody teenagers, couples in love, or is it road rage! Emotions have the power to shift perspective and focus in a way that influences energy. Love colors everyone and everything in a generous light and moving through the world feels light and free. Joy makes the energy we all possess feel like a bouncy ball, and clouds out any negative cues. On any given day, how many emotions are there? I can’t even begin to guess.

It only makes sense that emotional eating is an especially hard habit to break. Once a habit has been encoded in the brain and a shortcut link has been formed from cue to habit it becomes a very powerful response. But the good news this response is really just a habit. It’s a habit that can be broken, one that doesn’t have to (as my mother would’ve said) rule the roost. Sound good? Is it easier said than done? Well, yes, probably… but what have you got to lose except for a habit that isn’t serving you well.

The “Research Says” category name for this phenomenon is, “cue-induced wanting.” Self-control doesn’t work in the long term, we tire and succumb to the habit. So learning how to lesson this habit is in our best interest. Let’s say stress is the trigger for emotional eating.

  • Name the habit so it can be known to you: I want to eat, not because I am hungry but because I am stressed out.”
  • First, try to replace overeating with something beneficial. What you decide is up to you. Some possible options might be: walking the dog, meditation, or something creative.
  • Then if that isn’t possible, if at the moment the emotion is too hot, limit the damage. Eat low-calorie options with a big CRUNCH eat an apple, carrots, or celery. Or drink water with a straw that “emptying sound” can be very satisfying when you get to the bottom. Chances are you won’t do much damage to your weight loss efforts.

So can we really erase emotional eating? I’ll tell you, but first a story. I love to draw. Sketching that perfect line is extremely rewarding. However, I don’t always get the line perfect on my first try. Many times I’m pulling apart my gummy eraser to blot out a section of the line to make an adjustment. Changing a line’s direction, depending on how sure I was in my initial attempt, can be difficult. Sometimes even with my best efforts, I can still see traces of my misguided lines. Cue-induced wanting (stress=food) also makes deep grooves in the brain. Remember, habits are powerful – but the human spirit is a mighty force. I say yes, we can “erase” emotional overeating and make it virtually invisible, just as a heavy line on the page is erased traces of it remain upon closer inspection. Sometimes the beauty of a thing is in its imperfections.

Is it Luck, Skill, or a little of both?

Tonight was a wonderful evening of fun, family, and food. Getting together with family almost always involves lots of great food. So it was a big test for me to try out some of the techniques I have been writing about. I made sure to have lots of conversations, and I stayed away from the appetizers. The plan was to sample a couple of things and stop. I was conscious of my dinner plate, but I did overindulge on the Irish Soda break. I ate a slice of chocolate pudding pie. I maintained control and tracked all my food choices in my journal. No matter the number on the scale tomorrow, tonight was a win.

Of Willpower and Whirlpools

Do you ever blame yourself for not having enough self-control? You think, “If only I had enough willpower and resolve, I would be able to push through this and stay on track.” For those of us who are working to improve our health, it can be very confusing when it comes to willpower. Sometimes a challenging situation will arise, like bagels in the breakroom, and it is easy to navigate that situation. But then, there are other situations that completely deplete our reserves of willpower and bad habits take over. Driving us backward, and then comes the dreaded vortex of shame, “I can’t believe I did it again!”

Let’s start this post by saying, falling into the groove of a bad habit is normal, and should not be received as a source of shame. I hope that by the end of this post, you’ll have a better understanding of what is really going on when we (all) fall back into bad habits from time to time.

Sometimes habits become encoded in the brain, and they are activated by a situation. If I am attending a holiday with my extended family, I will eat and drink much more than I would at home. That response is an encoded habit for me. If I go to the movies, I’ll want popcorn – another encoded habit. Think about yourself, what situation would activate an encoded habit? You find yourself in a situation, and internal forces wake up to trigger a response. The situation and the habit work together and suck you in as if you were in a whirlpool on the ocean.

Imagine the rotating current is the encoded habit. The opposing arrows represent a situational cue that puts the habit into action. Willpower is no match for that amount of force.

Top 5 Strategies for Breaking Bad Habits

  1. Avoid the situation – if you don’t want to eat the bagels don’t go into the staff room.
  2. If a situation can’t be avoided, make a detailed mental story – if I’m going to a wedding I will wear an outfit I feel great in, I will eat 3 hors d’oeuvres and my entree, and spend the rest of the time socializing and dancing.
  3. Create a network of others to draw strength from, I am going to face a challenge next weekend like going to a winery, so I will talk about it with my weight watchers community to help me focus on what I really want.
  4. Disrupt a situation by inserting a new cue – I come from work and sack out on the couch but no – my workout clothes are there waiting for me to put them on. I work out instead.
  5. Find new rewards that will develop healthy habits – Instead of rewarding myself with a latte for a job well done, I put the money in a jar and let it collect there as a reminder of all I am accomplishing. Then spend it on something bigger and better.

Beware, bad habits. Steer your ship away from those insidious whirlpools. For they have no choice but to suck you back into the old lifestyle you are trying to escape. This journey is all about making the most of the situations you find yourself in, avoiding unhelpful situations, and building momentum for the good. You are the one who decides how this will go – never doubt that you are powerful! We got this.

Just for fun

Remember when we were all watching videos of sea chanties?

If you’d like to learn more about Whirlpools, this is a great video:

What’s Next?

Yesterday, I was admiring spring flowers during my walk with Sadie. Today, I woke up to a light coating of snow. Surprise! This has me thinking about surprises. A surprise disrupts a pattern, you expect one thing and something else happens – SURPRISE! For so long I’ve treated the scale like a literal platform for a surprise to unfold before me. Step onto it and… surprise! You’re down, “Yay!” Your up, “Agh!” In my mind, I would think, “I did this or that, and now I have an expectation for how things are supposed to go.” But hey, sometimes the pattern is broken and there is a surprise.

Whether it’s a good surprise or a bad surprise is not the point. A surprise is a momentary blip. No different than the snow that was there in the morning and gone by the afternoon. It’s what happens after the surprise that really matters. It matters because that’s the part where I get to decide what will or will not happen – next. This is a process, and if I stick with it, over time, I will achieve my weight loss goals. Believe it, and it will be so.

Doing the Work

I got a text from a friend who is also on a weight loss journey. This is how it went:

“Up 1.2.”

“Only down 14 now. Was at 20. Ugh.”

“Ok. What’s your goal this week?”

“Lose weight.”


“What are you going to do to make that happen, small goals.”


“Think about it commit to one thing.”

“A little self-care.”

I get how my friend feels because today was a struggle for me too. Again, with the candy bowl within reach all day, to say nothing of the bag of candy that was right behind my desk. For some reason, I was also hungry all day. I could keep complaining, but who wants to hear any of that?

Sometimes, when the journey gets hard, you need to recognize when you need some help. Whether that relief comes by texting a friend, or permission to give yourself a self-imposed “time out” for self-care – it’s ok. There is no one right way to do this because weight loss is hard. Tomorrow is another day.

Adjusting Expectations

When the habits start clicking and the weight starts coming off it feels really great. In the beginning, it is very hard to get into the groove of living a healthy lifestyle. There can be many false starts (as I know so well). There is an amazing feeling of confidence, when the inner voice says, “You got this.” and you really believe you do have it. As with so many things in life, there is another side to this story. On the flip side, you may feel impatient with the process. A rift can form from how you feel inside and the progress you make with the rest of the world.

It’s no small feat to get these networks of habits working in your favor, and for that reason, it is completely understandable that you would feel great about being able to get to that place. The productive place where you are able to do the work of weight loss and feel good about it at the same time. But as with all complexities to life, there is another side to this experience. Since weight loss requires quite a bit of work on your part, it’s easy to see how frustrating the speed of weight loss can be. Sometimes we have these expectations that in reality, cannot be achieved as quickly as we’d like. As we know, if something is deemed too hard – the habit can be broken.

Unreasonable expectations are a weight loss journey’s enemy. They thwart all the good work and can set you right back to the beginning if you’re not careful. So here is my advice:

  • Appreciate your amazing qualities that have gotten you this far you’re great
  • Don’t put happiness on hold appreciate exactly where you are on the journey now
  • Have faith that the process is working just as it should and focus more on what you’re learning about yourself rather than what you see in the mirror

The more I learn from having been on this journey, the more I think that weight loss has the power to teach us about ourselves. It can deliver this intrinsic discovery that shows up to the world in our appearance. Losing weight matters, and learning from the experience of weight loss matters even more.

The Secret of Systems

The year I turned 50, I achieved my weight loss goal and it was fantastic. When a goal aligns with your identity it becomes an extension of who you really are. When a goal is driven by an outcome it is being motivated by something outside of yourself. So it is essential to understand the motivation for any goal you set because all of the habits that are formed create a system that is in service of the goal. Very simply, outcome-based habits (think goals driven by a life event – like say, turning 50) are very likely to fall away once the goal is achieved. But if habits are identity-based (goals are related to your perceived identity) habits will endure because those habits are an extension of who you really are.

Atomic Habits by James Clear

After reading about this, in James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, everything makes so much sense. Getting to Goal was created to help me reach my weight loss goal the year I turned 50, there was a countdown clock, and every post was entitled by the number of days I was on the journey. It did work, I did make goal, and I did learn a lot about myself. However, it did not endure because my outcome-based. My goal was attached to a timeline, first and my identity last.

When a goal is attached to identity, the important question to ask yourself is: What kind of person am I becoming on this weight loss journey? For me, I am a person who values a healthy lifestyle – that is part of who I am. My habits are forming a network of systems that exist because I live a healthy lifestyle. Knowing how to create these responsive systems will result in my losing weight because I am a person who lives a healthy lifestyle. See the difference?

Here is a secret about systems, they don’t defer happiness. If one system is to establish a habit of drinking 64 ounces of water each day – and I do that – I’m happy. If I only focus on my goal, to lose 40 pounds I’m not going to be happy for a while – happiness is deferred. I have not achieved my goal yet, and I won’t for a long while. However, I am so happy about my healthy habits – and the systems I am laying down because I live a healthy lifestyle. Let’s say I am a work in progress, but I am making progress as I continue to learn more.

Stress Test

I found out some stressful news today. I have to travel to NYC for professional development. I thought it would involve a trip to Penn and an Uber to the school. Turns out, the school is an hour away from Penn, so taking the train would just add another hour to the commute! After some, vigorous texting back and forth with my friends, we decided to drive. After coming to terms with our new plan, she said: “I’m going to need lots of snacks.” So being a good friend I listened…

After buying snacks, I promptly went to Carvel with my husband and got a small Carvelite ice cream cone with chocolate sprinkles (15 points). This took me out of my healthy eating zone but it was a great cone. Stress comes and so many of us look for comfort in food.

Here is what I also did today – I completed my 45-minute training class on the Peloton. I tracked everything I ate (37 points later). I drank all my water, and I weighed and measured my portions. I prepared a healthy dinner and figured out the point values by calculating the nutritional information in the app. I ate mindfully. So, overall, I would say this was a good day on plan. Honesty is the best policy when it comes to weight loss. It requires us to be fully present in our actions pretty much all the time. If it’s worth it to me – I can make it happen.

High Utility Habits

Do you have a junk drawer at your house? A drawer is a drawer that you allow yourself to just throw in whatever you want without any organization whatsoever. The only requirement is that the drawer can close. Out of sight out of mind. Until the tape is needed, or the little scale (don’t judge I do own two scales the little one is more precise with grams than the big one). The dog brush that untangles knots is there, right next to scented tartlets…

Some things are useless – like expired coupons or expo markers when there is no whiteboard in my kitchen. Some things are high utility objects, things I use every day like the tape, or pens you see in there. I think I have a condition that I always need office supplies on hand – but that’s a topic for another time.

In some ways, the habits I’m trying to cultivate are similar to this collection of stuff I hide away in my kitchen. Some habits are high utility – like tracking and movement goals. If I make those habits more accessible I am going to be more likely to lose weight. Others like meditation and bedtime routines are nice (and very good for me) but are not as likely to make or break my week when it comes to shedding weight.

So what habits are you trying to cultivate? As you think about it consider which ones are the most important – the ones you want to have on hand because they really make a difference.

Thanks for reading, and if you feel like it -leave a message, and let me know what you are thinking about.

Tracking Transparency

How do you feel about writing down everything you eat? Have you ever done it? I have. When my healthy habits are ticking along under their own volition – it is somethingI do without even thinking about it. Meaning, it takes very little energy or thought to keep it going. Today’s WW meeting was all about how research says that people who track what they eat, lose weight.

“Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway.”

Mother Teresa.

I believe that research because I lived it. On December 22, 2018, I reached “Lifetime!” (click here to read all about it) Faithful, honest tracking is a big reason I acheived this. If you are reading this (and are not a member of WW) “Lifetime” is a term meaning you have maintained your goal weight for 6 weeks and now you no longer have to pay to be a member.

So if you’re serious about reaching your weight loss goals, here are some tips that can help you started with tracking:

  • Write down the food or beverage as you eat. If you wait until the end of the day you may not be as accurate.
  • Be specific when tracking. For example, if you have a snack of pretzels, note the amount (a good kitchen scale helps with this).
  • Get ready, this can be a tough one, cocktails count – track the booze it adds up.
  • Writing in a journal or blogging works just fine, or a smartphone app like WW or My Fitness Pal can support your efforts. These apps also offer lots of helpful information.

So join me! Get on the right track but tracking. We can do it.