You help women who struggle with emotional overeating. Can you explain what that is, how to recognize it, and why it’s common among women?
Emotional overeating, as I define it, is eating neither for pleasure nor the satisfaction of hunger, but in a desperate attempt to distract ourselves from painful thoughts and feelings.
There are numerous reasons why it is especially common among women.
As children we’re taught by our parents the importance of being a “good girl” which often includes being obedient and finishing all the food on our plates. Society still tends to send us messages that place an equal or greater emphasis on the importance of a woman’s physical appearance as opposed to her personal, academic and professional achievements. For this reason, women sadly often experience self-blame and self-hate when they overeat or don’t adhere to an acceptable norm for weight (which in some social circles could be a size 0).
Other options for unproductive disassociation (behaviors that may become addictive) like gambling, alcoholism, porn, etc., seem less socially acceptable to women than overeating. At home—for those of us who are homemakers, there’s a great deal of proximity to food—when coupled with an overabundance of unstructured time, this can be very dangerous.
In short, there are many elements of being a woman that can create a “perfect storm” for the potential development of emotional overeating.
Is this a problem prevalent among women 40+?
Yes, this is prevalent in women over 40. It is often a continuation of patterns that started in childhood or in teenage years, but sadly, some poor habits can begin in mid-life. Change of any kind can be a catalyst. Losing one’s job or a job change, children moving out of the home (the empty nest syndrome), the loss of a spouse through divorce or death, illness, relocation, and many other potentially stressful situations can pose challenges to our sense of self-esteem, as well as change our routine and the availability of social support.
In your book, Let Go of Emotional Overeating, you present a five-point plan for successful recovery from emotional eating. Can you tell us a bit more?
The beauty of the Five Point Plan (Effectively Handling Stress; Exercising; Loving Your Food; Filling Up on Healthy Foods and Fluids; Being a “Light” Eater, Especially in the Evening), is that because of the simplicity of the steps, they can be remembered and actually practiced. Performing new practices in the most enjoyable way possible is key to making them happen and most importantly turning them into habits.
Checking in with ourselves daily in a self-accepting way is key to successful, life-long change.
Can you give us a few examples of women 40+ whom you’ve helped recover from emotional eating?
One woman in her mid-forties, whose children had recently left home for college, found herself spending a lot of time at home in the afternoons, watching talk shows while she snacked. We looked at her sense of loss, helped her face those feelings, and also examined the fact that she felt less important and valued as a person because she no longer was as much of a “hands-on” parent. She came from a traditional family where the woman was seen as a homemaker and parent first and foremost and was never encouraged to explore any professional options. She always toyed with the idea of taking art classes but was afraid she might fail. We worked together to help her explore her overly high self-expectations and learn to do something just for fun. After taking the classes, she met other women with whom she became friendly, wasn’t at home during the day, and was able to allow food to take an ancillary role among other pleasures in life.
Another woman in her fifties worked in the hospitality industry where food was always available. She’d grown up in a home where eating “well” meant eating a lot. This was valued by her mother, who was a skilled cook. Eating large quantities of food evoked memories of being praised and escaping criticism. Whenever she and her supervisor had any conflicts, real or perceived, she tended to self-soothe at one of the available and abundant buffets. Often, her perceived “crisis”—her boss passed her in the hallway without greeting her—had nothing to do with her per se, yet she tended to “personalize.” We looked at this painful pattern of thought, utilizing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (a powerful, research-proven tool for stress management) and helped her learn how to logically yet compassionately challenge those negative thoughts. Utilizing the company gym, taking a brief walk in the company gardens, or taking a quick break to call a friend (not employed at her company) were other effective ways she learned to self-soothe sans food.
What is your best advice to women who are seeking to begin to curb emotional eating?
Start to develop an awareness of when you really enjoy eating most—when you are relaxed, “in the moment”, hungry, and savoring your food—as opposed to distracted and eating on the run, or “stuffing down” large quantities of forbidden yet momentarily available foods.
When you sit down for a meal, ask yourself to what degree are you hungry. Notice your surroundings. Look at others who are eating and the way they eat. Are they hunched forward and hurriedly stuffing the food down while they work a computer? To what degree does the way they eat, leaning back and relaxed or hunched-over and hurried, correspond to how fit they look?
Ask yourself what you enjoy in life and how you can do more of that? Do you take time to do it at all? If not, why not?
Awareness is key in any behavioral change at the start, during, and after.
Besides your book, what are some of your favorite resources for women seeking to recover from emotional eating?
Anything written by Geneen Roth is excellent, compassionate and wise. She’s also, herself, a former emotional overeater.
The book Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment by Ben Shahar, Ph.D., based on an eponymous, highly popular course he taught at Harvard, is a great inducement for allowing more fun into your life—in which food should be a part of the “plate” but not all!
Also, any book by Michele Weiner, Davis, a fellow LCSW. Change Your Life and Everyone In It: How To: is outstanding in presenting strength-oriented, short term, positive approaches to improving our lives, behaviors and relationships.
Connect with Arlene B. Englander, LCSW, MBA
Contact form: https://arleneenglander.com/contact
Book: Let Go of Emotional Overeating and Love Your Food: A Five-Point Plan for Success
Arlene B. Englander, LCSW, MBA, is the author of Let Go of Emotional Overeating and Love Your Food: A Five-Point Plan for Success (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers; September 2018).
Ms. Englander has been a licensed psychotherapist for over twenty years. She trained at Columbia University and is currently in private practice in North Palm Beach, Florida where she specializes in treating persons coping with eating disorders, relationship issues, depression, anxiety, grief and stress (personal and work-related). Love Your Food® is her non–dieting, psychologically-oriented program for compulsive overeaters in which clients learn to eat whatever they like, but stop just at the point of satisfaction without overeating.
Ms. Englander developed many of her theories about stress management while working at Cancer Care, Inc. where she counseled thousands of patients and families dealing with advanced cancer. She subsequently developed stress management programs for use in hospitals, law firms, and other settings. As Director of Community Education at the Holliswood Hospital, a private psychiatric hospital in New York City, which was renowned for its eating disorders program, her responsibilities included the production of educational seminars, often attended by audiences of as many as 500 professionals, including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, psychiatric nurses and guidance counselors.
Aside from her professional training and experience, Ms. Englander is also personally familiar with the issue of eating disorders, as she is a former compulsive overeater.