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Boy, was I wrong in my last eating blog post!

When I wrote my blog post on August 18 about how my new de-conditioning process would stop emotional eating, I made a few statements that I've since discovered just aren't true.
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When I wrote my blog post on August 18 about how my new de-conditioning process would stop emotional eating, I made a few statements that I've since discovered just aren't true.

So this post will correct those mistakes and bring you up to date on what I am currently doing to help people stop emotional eating for good.

My single biggest error was in stating, "I finally realized that almost all emotional eating involves both types [classical and operant] of conditioning." In fact, I'm now pretty sure that neither of these types of conditioning is involved.

Conditioning is still the primary cause of eating when you aren't really hungry; I'm still convinced that most emotional eating is the result of conditioning that is set off by triggers and rewards. However, the conditioning involved seems to be a unique type that doesn't fit the description of either of the two major types that psychologists are familiar with.

In this post I'll describe what this unique type of conditioning is and how it is formed. I'll also explain when beliefs are and are not involved in emotional eating, which I was not clear about earlier.

Conditioning of eating happens in one of two ways. The first and most common is when you have some negative feeling or experience and then just happen to eat and experience a "pleasurable distraction." In other words, when you eat you experience a pleasurable feeling instead of a negative feeling and you also have a distraction from the negative feeling. After (unconsciously) noticing many times that eating provides a pleasurable distraction in that situation, you get conditioned to eat whenever that situation occurs in the future.

The second way conditioning happens is when you want a "reward," such as wanting to feel good or comfortable, or to celebrate. You eat and then discover that you are experiencing the reward you want; after numerous connections between eating and the "reward," eating gets conditioned to occur whenever you desire one of the rewards.

I call this process "conditioning" because the behavior (eating) is experienced as compulsive, as driven. Eating happens automatically and requires considerable will power to stop.

Why does eating get conditioned so often and not other behaviors?

Why do so many people condition eating and not some other behavior? The answer is simple. There are no other "pleasurable distractions" that naturally occur three times a day.

Imagine that one of your triggers occurs frequently in your life, such as negative feelings, boredom, loneliness, or feeling unlovable. Imagine further that you go to a movie several times a day and you notice over and over that the movie almost always provides a pleasurable distraction from the negative experience. Can you see that going to the movies would eventually become a conditioned response to your negative triggers?

In other words, eating is the most common response to our triggers only because we normally eat more often than anything else that provides a pleasurable distraction.

I had thought that the Lefkoe De-conditioning Process (LDP) was effective with emotional eating because it de-conditioned classical and operant conditioning. I still think the LDP can be effective with operant conditioning, but the reason it is so effective with emotional eating is it also de-conditions the unique type of conditioning involved in emotional eating. (The Lefkoe Stimulus Process is effective with classical conditioning.)

Moreover, although the basic elements of the LDP haven't changed recently, I make some small change in the Process from time to time, because I keep learning something new with each client. Luckily, even the earlier versions of the LDP worked to help my clients de-condition eating in response to their triggers and rewards.

The role of beliefs

Here's another mistake I made in my last blog post about emotional eating. I had thought, because getting rid of beliefs never stopped emotional eating and because de-conditioning did with most clients, beliefs had nothing to do with emotional eating. That was a logical fallacy on my part. Just because beliefs are not the sole cause of emotional eating doesn't necessarily mean they can't be a partial cause for some people.

I now think that conditioning is almost always involved, but beliefs also can be involved for some people.

Here's the way it looks to me now. Most people with an emotional eating problem have been conditioned to eat in response to various triggers and rewards. This is true regardless of the client's environment as a child.

However, if someone has grown up in an environment in which one's parents have an eating problem and they talk frequently about dieting, losing weight, being too heavy, being "good" on days they stay on their diet and "bad " on days when they do not, and "good" foods and "bad" foods, then such people are likely to form a bunch of beliefs that result in food and eating being a constant issue in their lives ... in addition to the conditioning.

Here is a list of a few of the beliefs one of my clients identified and eliminated: If I can't eat "bad" foods, I'm missing out. "Bad" foods make you fat. To lose weight you can't eat anything "bad." The way to keep food from running my life (like it did my mom's) is to eat whatever I want to eat.

Can you see how such beliefs probably would lead to emotional eating? Beliefs like these would have to be eliminated before one's emotional eating would stop completely. I've been able to help clients with this type of belief eliminate their relevant eating beliefs using the Lefkoe Belief Process.

I want to distinguish between beliefs that directly lead to emotional eating (like those just discussed) and those that lead to triggers that lead to emotional eating. The beliefs listed above would directly lead to emotional eating. Beliefs also can lead to negative feelings (such as anxiety, anger and upset), feeling sorry for oneself (a sense of victimization), feeling unlovable, etc. These conditions then can become triggers for emotional eating. But these beliefs do not have to be eliminated before emotional eating can be totally stopped.

Not all beliefs have to be eliminated

Why are these beliefs different? Because if the LDP unhooks these triggers from emotional eating, it becomes possible to deal with the triggers with behaviors other than emotional eating, such as talking to friends, listening to music, exercising, reading a book, or any activity one truly enjoys. Although these activities have always existed as possible ways to deal with the triggers that emotional eaters have, they are rarely chosen as alternatives because eating already has been conditioned to occur immediately (unless stopped by will power) following the presence of the trigger. Once eating has become de-conditioned and is no longer a compulsive behavior, you then have the time to calmly find another activity that will provide a "pleasurable distraction."

Why has it been so difficult to stop emotional eating?

So many of you with an emotional eating problem have tried so many diets and pills and eating programs that you are now skeptical that anything can help you. That conclusion is understandable. You have been disappointed so many times. It would make sense to now believe that people's claims about emotional eating solutions just don't work.

But if you now understand the role of conditioning, you understand that diets--which consist of eating something different and eating less than you normally would eat--work only to the extent you are using will power to overcome the compulsion to eat more than the diets permit, whenever triggers or the desire for rewards are present.

And even though pills can affect your appetite or change how you process food internally, they cannot stop the compulsion to eat more than you are hungry for in response to triggers and rewards. Only de-conditioning can do that permanently.

As long as I stay on the cutting edge in creating effective solutions for the problems we face in life, I'll make mistakes from time to time. Luckily I eliminated the belief Mistakes are bad a long time ago, so mistakes are no longer the problem they used to be for me. In fact, I now see them as great learning opportunities.

What makes my work so fulfilling is that the more I learn, the more there is to learn. And the new learning sometimes overturns the old learning. Life doesn't get much better than that!

If you'd like more information about emotional eating or how the Lefkoe De-conditioning Process works to stop it, please read my free Special Report, "How To Stop Emotional Eating For Good," at

copyright © 2010 Morty Lefkoe