"You need to hide me because I'm running away from home," Julie whispered as she reached the front steps of my porch. Her golden curls disheveled, she'd arrived pulling a red Radio Flyer wagon containing packaged cookies, several donuts and a bag of candy stolen from her mother's kitchen just over a block away. Julie was my best friend throughout elementary school, but given we were only in the 4th grade at the time, I knew my mom wouldn't go for it. I was more puzzled that Julie's wagon didn't contain anything else - no toys, pajamas, or even a backpack. Only food.
"I can't live there anymore," she cried. "But I brought these for us to share if you want to help me."
Nearly two decades later, as I sat in tears riddled by postpartum depression, a flailing marriage and immense self-loathing, I mentioned to my therapist that I had a problem with self-sabotaging my various weight loss attempts. While some people envisioned sugar-plum fairies dancing in their heads at Christmas as their pounds melted away, I dirty-danced with Brach's Candy Corn as soon as my weight began to drop. I shoveled those hardened "corn" candies like Ms. Pac Man while donuts with sprinkles were my Kryptonite.
"Have you ever considered taking only two bites from a donut and throwing the rest away?" My therapist asked. Two bites? I then remembered how my Ob-Gyn was astounded to hear that people still ate donuts after my tiny confession during an appointment while six-months pregnant with my daughter. Uh yeah. Some people still eat donuts. During emergencies.
Didn't these doctors get it? You don't have to be hungry to eat.
When Hunger is Emotional
"There does need to be an acknowledgement that there's an emotional component to food. We live in a scientific world - what's unseen isn't what's getting attended to very well", says Geneen Roth, author of #1 New York Times bestseller Women, Food and God. Roth has tackled the subject of "emotional eating" for decades and was gracious enough to agree to an interview. Her bestselling books were among the first ever to link emotional eating and yo-yo dieting with personal and spiritual issues that go far beyond food, weight and body image.
"My direct experience and the experience of my students is that unless we acknowledge why we are turning to food when it has nothing to do with the taste of food - and everything to do with our minds, we are approaching the topic as if approaching a Glacier," says Roth. "Emotional eating is the unseen part beneath the surface."
Meanwhile the public is overwhelmed by a multi-billion dollar weight loss industry pushing tips for counting calories and best methods for increasing exercise. National debates over dietary guidelines and whether or not to tax sugary drinks, while imperative, largely outweigh exploration into what's causing us to reach for these unhealthy foods and beverages in the first place.
As a former "insider" working behind the scenes for a handful of Los Angeles County Department of Public Health obesity prevention initiatives, there is still much work to be done to address the impact of emotional health as a contributing factor within our obesity crisis. I was surrounded by a remarkably dedicated team of programmatic and financial public health analysts, many of us with our own food issues. I'd been off and on diets my entire life, and my mother died from preventable Type II diabetes before reaching the age of 50. But direct mention or discussion about the emotional side to eating and its stronghold within our obesity epidemic across the county wasn't taking place at all within our initiatives yet.
We instead focused on portion control, increasing physical activity and ways to improve the built environment throughout Los Angeles. We began by telling people how much to eat and how to exercise without directly addressing why people were turning to food when not physically hungry.
New Interventions: Expanding Obesity Prevention Through Mental Health Partnerships
Public health and mental health professionals must work collaboratively to address the rising rates of obesity, malnutrition and other chronic diseases like Type-2 diabetes. By studying rates of emotional eating alongside rates of obesity, we can identify whether interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy ("CBT") can aid with managing emotions more effectively and ultimately decrease overeating. These partnerships need to remain in the forefront of public health discussions on obesity prevention by mainstream press and media as well.
Instead of focusing on the "eat less, move more" solutions to weight management, we must also teach youth and adults appropriate strategies for coping with emotions beyond sugary drinks, extra snacking or added food on their plates. For some eaters, distinguishing the difference between the biological and emotional cravings for food is largely underdeveloped. This warrants additional funding targeted to screen for emotional eating within current and prospective obesity prevention initiatives, along with increased funding for resources advocating both healthy and mindful eating programs.
Groundbreaking strides into the science of obesity can help the general public identify how particular foods affect the mind and body. When it comes to processed foods and sugar consumption, #1 New York Times bestseller, Always Hungry? by renowned endocrinologist Dr. David Ludwig, (January 2016) educates readers about the science of "cravings" offering a strategic, yet user-friendly food plan of healthy fat and reduced carbohydrates. When particular food cravings diminish through proper diet, addressing the emotional issues preventing weight loss or promoting weight gain may prove easier to identify.
Recent studies illustrate that stress, depression, boredom, anger and even happiness can trigger emotional responses leading to unhealthy food behaviors like binge eating and severe calorie restriction (starving). When working alongside emotional eaters, Roth recognizes that digging deep into the wreckage from the past may be too painful to explore. While the process is critical, it's also very individual and shouldn't deter people from looking deeper at their relationship with food when addressing weight issues. "It's about figuring out how you want to live this life, and what you will be satisfied with," says Roth. "For some people it's the newest diet and attempting to lose weight, followed by the next diet, - never really approaching the scary territory and hungers which can't be met with food."
Teach Our Children Well(ness)
Kids today are still offered lollipops after shots at the doctor's office, while ice-cream socials and pizza parties infiltrate classrooms as rewards within our schools for good behavior. Eating to emotionally cope with the stresses, joys, and uncertainties of life are largely evidenced in food marketing ads, television and films, yet seldom a focal point for obesity prevention and treatment for adolescents and adults worldwide.
As we look to improve and expand our obesity prevention initiatives throughout the United States and abroad, the often untapped subject of emotional eating must also have a seat at the table.
Geneen Roth is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Women Food and God. She has appeared on many national television shows including: The Oprah Show, 20/20, The NBC Nightly News, The View, CBS Early Show, The Today Show, and Good Morning America. Geneen is the author of nine books, including bestsellers Lost and Found and When Food Is Love.
Kimberly A. Cooper, MA is a writer, activist and former chief of operations for the "Reducing Childhood Obesity" initiative - a partnership between First 5 LA and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. She's spent nearly 20 years working in project development for entertainment media, nonprofit and community based youth organizations throughout Los Angeles.
"When Eating is the Tip of the Iceberg" is part of the Confessions of a Miseducated Dieter series on Literatigurl.com. Each post covers a specific topic inviting readers to reevaluate personal health, along with opportunities for sharing insights and information with others through social media.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.