Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Diet, weight loss, and emotion

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Diet, weight loss, and emotion:
What is the role of emotion in diet control and weight loss?
Epiphany-bookmarks.svg This page is part of the Motivation and emotion book. See also: Guidelines.

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Emotional states and situations can affect our food intake, in some cases to an extreme extend. Depending on the individual, these emotional states can lead to a decreased food intake, however in most cases they result in an increased food intake. This uncontrolled eating can be caused by both negative and positive emotional states and situations a person is going through. 

So many people are struggling with reaching their ideal weight, or when reached, it can be a major struggle to maintain it. It is hard work, including so many different factors, which a lot of those people are not, or not fully, aware of. This chapter shares some findings about why emotions are so important when it comes to diet and weight loss, lays out the importance of our body and mind connection, and gives some tips to help people see the big picture and reaching their personal goals.

Definition and role of emotions[edit | edit source]

Basically, we have emotions to help us cope and express situations in everyday life. They allow us to communicate what we feel towards certain situations, people, things, thoughts, senses, dreams, and memories. (Myers, 2004).

How emotions affect diet and weight loss[edit | edit source]

Have you ever asked yourself how emotions can affect weight loss? Well, when considering the role of the mind towards successful weight loss, it is important to understand the concept of how the mind actually works, both consciously and subconsciously.

One important factor as for why so many people have weight management issues is our emotions and negative patterns that we have formed throughout our life. It is those bad habits that people have, without even realising, that are so hard to get rid of. It is a process which happens without giving it proper thought or putting any effort into. For example, why do so many people who are depressed become overweight? Because their emotional low makes them lose rational control over choosing what is best for themselves, and therefore for their body. They crave food, mostly unhealthy, fatty food, to bring pleasure to themselves and their life, because food stimulates and satisfies the body. Moreover, they simply choose not to leave the house and therefore lack physical activity. Once finding themselves at this point, it can be extremely hard to get back into a healthy, active lifestyle and to lose weight. It is, once again, an emotional matter as well as a motivational one, since being overweight and unfit makes them feel unhappy and even more depressed and it is very hard to just start feeling better and change their whole lifestyle around (Wurtman, 1993).

Common difficulties in weight loss[edit | edit source]

It seems that dieting and being hungry always go together. But you can no doubt change your thinking about that issue if you know some key factors and how to handle them. If you have ever dieted, you know only too well that one of the downsides is that you actually spend a lot of time thinking about food. And what 'goodies' you are missing out on, AND how that makes you feel!

A lot of the time people break their diets because the hunger and deprivation just become too much to bear. Once reverting back to old 'bad eating' habits, the kilos unfortunately start stacking on again and it gets, mostly for psychological reasons, harder and harder to go through yet another whole process of dieting and also creates a continuing frustrating cycle. The idea is to revolutionise both the way you look at food and manage your weight, by listening to your body and act accordingly to its needs (Sainsbury-Salis, 2007).

Mind and body connection of hunger[edit | edit source]

The connection between mind and body has been studied for years, although it seems that the mind and body link of hunger is a more recent matter. Nowadays, hunger is primarily motivational. Despite previous strong beliefs that hunger is a purely biological cause, this motivation is controlled not just by physiology, but to a great extend also by psychology. Our emotions, eg. the way we react and respond to something, the way we feel about something or somebody, has a major impact on our eating behaviour. Hence, there are two kinds of hunger; one is caused physiologically, and the other one psychologically. What makes human beings different from animals is the motivation to eat. We eat not only to feed our bodies as a necessity to satiate physiological hunger, but also, and more often, to feed our minds to satiate our psychological hunger. However, putting some food in our mouth to satisfy our mood is not necessarily the right way to feed our psychological hunger. It is argued that problems like eating disorders and obesity could result because of our mistaken attempts to satisfy our psychological hunger by eating food when our body really doesn't need it. Until we realise and admit that it is our mind, and not our body, which needs food, we cannot be satisfied with what we put in our mouth. Thus, hunger is about how our body and mind together are well fed. Not only the satisfaction we get from putting food in our mouth influences and defines our satiety, but also the whole environment around us (Lowe & Butryn, 2007).

Psychological roots for emotional frustration and craving fatty foods[edit | edit source]

Foods containing a high percentage of fat, sugar and salt, stimulate the brain to release dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure centre in our brain. In time, the brain gets wired so that dopamine pathways light up at the slightest association with the food, such as driving past a fast-food restaurant, and the urge to eat the food grows more and more. Once the food is eaten, the brain releases opioids, which bring emotional relief. People choose fatty foods as comfort foods when bored, stressed or upset. Comfort eaters may reach for familiar fatty foods or foods that remind them of better times. Eating fatty foods may become a distraction from problems or a comfort when feeling upset, stressed or sad. However, it is argued that fatty food cravings may be largely a matter of habit. People often experience food cravings because they're used to eating certain types of food in certain situations or in response to certain emotional states. They key is to understand your emotions and to know how to respond to them (Christensen & Brooks, 2006)

A physiological and psychological approach of satiety vs. hunger[edit | edit source]

The mechanism of hunger and satiety are not necessarily the same. There are two mechanisms for satiety. One is at the brain level, the other is at the gastrointestinal tract level. There are two places in the hypothalamus, part of the brain, that controls hunger and eating. The Ventromedial Nuclei gives a signal when to stop eating, and the Lateral hypothalamus gives a signal to start eating. We feel satiety at the brain level because of the function of the Ventromedial Nuclei. On the other hand, it is stated that satiety signals come from the stomach, which controls short-term eating. (Coon, 1995).

Important emotional support during weight loss[edit | edit source]

Emotional support is the often forgotten piece of the weight loss puzzle. Everyone knows you need to watch what you eat and exercise regularly, but dealing with emotions and changing the way you think is what gets you to the final goal. However, knowing where to find emotional support is tricky—our usual go-to people may be less helpful or understanding than we would like (Wing & Birch, 1998). 3 types of emotional support have been suggested by psychologists, which can be helpful in different situations:

Family and friends[edit | edit source]

If you have a friend or family member who is also trying to lose weight, you can support each other by sharing more than just recipes and workouts. Talking about your feelings, especially when you've had a bad day, helps put things back into perspective. We are often our own worst critics and your loved ones can and will support you regardless of whether you ate that whole box of cookies. Although this is usually the first choice, friends and family can also be too close to the situation, so be sure to choose your confidant wisely (Golan & Crow 2004).

Online community[edit | edit source]

The social action model is both task- and process-oriented. It is con- cerned with increasing the problem-solving ability of the community and with achiev- ing concrete changes to redress imbalances of power and privilege between an oppressed or disadvantaged group and the larger society. Weight loss communities are an excellent source of information and support. Online meetings give you a group of people going through the same strugglesMessage boards help like-minded individuals find each other. Plus, the online community has the best of both worlds: you can make real friends who help you deal with real issues, while maintaining a certain amount of anonymity and distance. Your online friends are not intricately involved in your daily life, so they can offer insight on situations from an unbiased perspective. Since it is a whole community, the amount of emotional support is amazing. You will find that many people are having the exact same feelings you are and you'll be able to get advice from those that have gone through these situations before (Minkler, Wallerstein, & Wilson, 2008).

Help and advice from professionals[edit | edit source]

Talking to a medical professional can also be a source of emotional support, as they have experience in helping people who are trying to lose weight. A family doctor, for example, may be able to help fight through feelings and difficulties. Since people usually have the same doctor throughout a long period of time, there's experience and knowledge, both personal and professional, and can manifest in a certain trust between doctor and patient. Alternatively, dieticians are experts when it comes to weight loss. They work with clients with weight loss problems on a daily basis and can be a source of both information and understanding (Wing & Birch, 1998) It is argued that for many people, excess weight is a symptom of some other internal problem(s), which can possibly be resolved by the help of a therapist, and result in a decrease or even in disappearance of the symptoms (Zablocki, 1998).

Emotional eating: Why it happens[edit | edit source]

Just about everyone engages in emotional eating at one time or another in life. The misconception is that people only eat when they are depressed or stressed out. In reality, there are a variety of emotional reasons for eating. You may eat because you feel happy, sad, mad, stressed or bored (van Strien, 2010).

Background and research[edit | edit source]

Anytime you reach for food and it is not because you are hungry, there is an emotional reason behind it. It could be that you are at a party and food is a way to enjoy your experience. It may be that you are a guest in someone’s home and eating is a way to put yourself and your guest at ease. You may be at home feeling bored with nothing to do and you reach for food because it is a way to pass the time. Or, you may be sad or angry and it’s a way to make yourself feel better and get your mind off of things.

Everyone has their own comfort foods. Cookies, ice cream, candy, pizza, or French fries are just a few examples. Studies show that the types of comfort foods you choose are linked to your particular mood. For example, happy people are drawn to steak or pizza. Those who are sad tend to eat more sweets, such as cookies and ice cream. When people are bored, they eat potato chips (Sainsbury-Salis, 2007).

How to recognise and stop emotional eating[edit | edit source]

According to Sainsbury-Salis (2007), emotional eating is the culprit behind many people’s weight problems and it very common. Anytime people eat or overeat even without being hungry, they are eating due to some emotion. These emotions could be joy, sadness, anger, frustration, or boredom. The key is to avoid making bad choices so that emotional eating does not become the only strategy for dealing with emotions.

The same source suggests that, when catching ourselves in a moment where we eat despite lack of hunger or when we, for some reason, cannot stop eating despite being full, the trick is to ask ourselves why we are eating. It is argued that keeping a food journal can help to track any patterns and to be more aware of our habits to be eventually be able to overcome and change them. Our environment, people we spend time with, can have a significant influence as well. When realising that a certain environment or a certain person pushes us towards emotional eating, it is best to think of other ways to spend time with that person and for example choose a different place that is not associated with eating (Sainsbury-Salis, 2007).

Regular self-check-ins about whether or not we are really hungry are good opportunities to think of other activities to replace emotional eating. For example, if a person finds that he or she is eating because he or she is feeling sad, other alternatives to deal with his or her emotions are going for a walk, writing in a journal, calling a supportive friend or reading an enlightening book or article. If food is a way to deal with anger or frustration, the realization is a good starting point for dealing with the core of the emotion. Furthermore, it is a good thing to ask oneself what it actually is that is causing the emotional stress so that we can respond to it accordingly.

Emotional eating can become a problem if it is the most common way of dealing with emotional problems. It can result in an overconsumption of calories, which leads to weight gain. Simply checking in with ourselves on a regular basis to measure whether we are really hungry will help addressing the core of the issue in ways that do not involve food (van Strien, 2010).

Tips to stop emotional eating and the cravings for sugar and fatty foods[edit | edit source]

by Dr Amanda Sainsbury-Salis (2007).

  1. Keep Healthy Snack Foods Around
    Cravings aren't going to go away overnight, and that's why it is necessary to start training our body, and more importantly our mind, not to have them. It's a smart idea to keep healthy snacks, like fruit or a container of almonds, within an arm's reach, so they can be grabbed as soon as the feeling of a craving is coming on. This method can be especially effective if experiencing sweets cravings at work. The healthy snack will satisfy that hunger and take the mind off of the sweet snack.
  2. Cut Down on the Sweets
    Studies show that the more sweets are eating, the more they are craved. It is possible essentially minimise our desire for sugar simply by cutting down on our intake overall. It is the same deal, for example, with people who eliminate sugar from their tea or coffee and then can't go back to drinking sweetened versions. Eliminating sugar cravings overall works the same way--just on a larger scale. But in time, our body begins to build a distaste for anything too sweet, which will help to consume sugary foods in moderation. We don't have to give up on every sugary good there is, however moderation is the key.
  3. Wait Fifteen Minutes
    Cravings are short-lived, so trying not to act on them immediately, can help! Most nutritionists and health experts recommend waiting fifteen minutes before giving into the craving. Chances are it will go away. If it doesn't, it is recommended to train our body to have a moderate portion of something sweet so the intake of sugary and fatty foods decreases.
  4. Distract Yourself
    When craving something sweet all of a sudden, it can be reduced by distraction, like for example picking up a magazine and start reading, or going out for a walk, talk to a friend or go and get something done. Another essential thing is to drink water, lots of water. Not only does drinking water take your mind off of the craving, but it also helps to make you feel fuller. Often people confuse the sensation of being hungry with dehydration of the body. Drinking regular amounts of water helps our metabolism to function for longer and keeps us fuller for longer.

Tips to think and act like a nutritionist[edit | edit source]

Nutritionists typically obtain high amounts of education regarding making healthy food choices and are very good for giving professional advice. However, scheduling an appointment with a nutritionist can be very expensive. There are supposably some easy ways to learn how to think like a nutritionist. Overall, for best results, choosing the right foods, eating several small meals over the course of the day, and planning ahead are the key factors.

  1. Choosing the Right Foods
    One of the best ways to think like a nutritionist is to choose the right foods. According to the USDA, individuals should consume plenty of fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains. All of these foods are rich in fiber, which can help in the prevention of numerous serious conditions and keep the body full for longer. It is argued that choosing lean meats and healthy fats is best for our bodies, and we should avoid sugary foods such as chocolate, cakes and cookies. Eating these foods cannot only help to keep the goal weight on track, but can also ensure good health and optimal growth (Elfhag, 2005).
  2. Going for the Right Portion Sizes
    It is important to eat in small portions during the day in order to achieve weight loss or maintenance goals. However, in order to achieve success with this technique, it is important to make the right choices in terms of serving size. Over the past few years, serving sizes in both restaurants and at home have gotten progressively larger, which has been linked to increases in weight gain and obesity. Our bodies can get used to the portions sizes, which means that when trying to cut back on large meals, our bodies and metabolism will adapt to it. Reading serving size labels closely and follow USDA food guide pyramid recommendations is helpful in order to determine what the appropriate serving size is for each food item (Elfhag, 2005).
  3. Eating Several Meals a Day
    Eating several meals over the course of the day is crucial, according to many psychologists, nutritionists and scientists. Research has found that eating several meals over the course of the day is not only important in the maintenance of a set weight, but can also help to regulate blood sugar levels. It is suggested that for best results, eating at least five to six small meals each day containing lean protein and whole grains is most successful for monitoring weight loss. This will help to keep feeling full for longer, and will give the body the energy that it needs to make it through the rest of the day (Sainsbury-Salis, 2007).
  4. Planning Ahead
    For best results when thinking like a nutritionist, planning ahead is one of the key factors. This cannot only serve to make meal planning much easier, but ensures that the foods eating are both healthy and delicious. Creating a schedule at the end of each weekend that lays out the food choices for the following week is helpful. Moreover, it is suggested to prepare as many meals as possible ahead of time in order to achieve optimal results with this technique (Sainsbury-Salis, 2007).

Summary[edit | edit source]

It has been scientifically proven that emotions play a major role in diet control and weight loss. Eating is not just about satisfying our physiological needs, but also about satisfying our psychological needs. In other words, it is not just about giving our body what it needs and what is necessary and healthy for us, but also about what our body wants and when it wants it.

Our emotional state plays a major role in our regular food intake and negative emotions like stress, sadness or frustration can lead us to make bad choices when it comes to food. It is important to know our body and its needs and to know how to respond to it. Every body has cravings, mainly for bad foods, and it can be very hard to resist those cravings. It has been shown by psychologist and nutritionist that there are certain ways that can help us stop cravings and live a healthier life. The best way is to think before eating, make a plan diet plan and eat foods that fill you up and contain all the nutritional values our body needs. It can be hard sometimes to be consistent and wise about food, but research and studies show it can be done.

Mini-quiz about the influence of emotions in weight monitoring[edit | edit source]

1 Emotional states and situations can highly affect our food intake.


2 Hunger is just as much psychological as it is physiological.


3 Our environment doesn't have an impact on our dieting and eating habits.


4 Eating more frequently in smaller portions throughout the day can help stop cravings and overeating.


5 According to research, waiting 15 minutes when feeling a craving coming on only makes the craving stronger.


6 Planning your meals ahead can help you eat better and make wise food choices that keep you full and satisfied for longer.


References[edit | edit source]

Christensen, L., & Brooks, A. (2006). Changing Food Preference as a Function of Mood. The Journal of Psychology, Vol. 140, Issue 4, p. 293-306.

Coon, D. (1995). Introduction to Psychology: Exploration and Application, 7th ed. MN:West Publishing Company.

Elfhag, K., & Rossner, S. (2005). Who succeeds in maintaining weight loss? A conceptual review of factors associated with weight loss maintenance and weight regain. Obesity Reviews, 6, 67-85.

Golan, M. & Crow, S. (2004). Parents Are Key Players in the Prevention and Treatment of Weight-related Problems. Nutrition Reviews. Vol. 62, Issue 1, p. 39–50.

Herman, C. P., & Polivy, J. (1984). A boundary model for the regulation of eating. In: A. J. Stunkard & E. Stellar, eds. Eating and Its Disorders. New York: Raven Press.

Lowe, M. R., & Butryn, M. L. (2007). Hedonic hunger: A new dimension of appetite? Physiology & Behavior, Vol. 91, Issue 4, p. 432-439.

Minkler, M., Wallerstein, N., Wilson, N. (2008). Improving health through community organization and community building. In: K. Glanz, B. K. Rimer & K. Viswanath, eds. Health behavior and health education : theory, research, and practice — 4th ed. San Fransisco, USA.

Myers, D. G. (2004). Theories of Emotion. Psychology: Seventh Edition, New York, NY: Worth Publishers, p. 500.

Sainsbury-Salis, A. (2007). The Don't Go Hungry Diet: The scientifically based way to lose weight and keep it off forever. Australia : Bantam Press.

Van Strien, T. (2010) Predicting Distress-Induced Eating With Self-Reports: Mission Impossible or a Piece of Cake? Journal of Health Psychology, 29: 343

Wing, L., Birch, L., et al. (1998). Behavioral and social influences on food choice. Nutrition Reviews. Vol. 56, p. S50 –S74.

Wurtman, J. J. (1993). Depression and weight gain: the serotonin connection. In: J Affect Disord. 29(2-3):183-92. Review.

Zablocki, E. (1998). Work-site review: peer support pays off. Business and health. Vol. 16, No. 8, p. 26-30.

See also[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]