Case Study #02 The Emotional Eater
You’re compelled to eat by factors that have little to do with food. The brakes might fail after a bad day at work, or a fight with your partner, or because a social media post got your hackles up. “Some of us can handle our emotions most of the time, and then a negative event occurs and we go off,” says Tim Church, professor of preventive medicine at Pennington. “We turn to drinking, smoking, eating, or a combination.” Alcohol reduces your impulse control, so turning to the hard stuff at the end of a tough day can have cumulative negative effects on your waistline.
The Prescription “Know your emotional triggers,” Church says. If they’re not obvious, he advises: “The next time you go on a bender and eat a family-sized box of nuggets, sit down afterwards and write down what’s distressing you, as specifically as possible. Unpeel the onion.”
John Oldham, an IT worker from Kansas, lost 105kg on the programme that Church designed. By examining his triggers, he concluded that his difficult relationship with his ex-wife was behind much of his compulsive eating. “So, I learned to stop giving her control,” he says. Talking therapies can help you become aware of the root cause, making your behaviour feel less like a foregone conclusion.
You can also train yourself to put time between the distressing event and your reaction to it. “When you’re heading for the fridge, ask yourself: can I wait 10 minutes before I do this?” Church says. Then, find something to do that activates those same reward pathways, but doesn’t involve food. Exercise is the obvious choice, but even listening to a favourite album releases dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical.