When Gina Carr wrote down her New Year’s resolutions, she was surprised to notice one familiar goal missing from her list: Lose weight. “I’d still like to drop a few pounds, but for the first time in my life, I’m truly convinced I’ll never have a weight problem again,” says the 55-year-old online marketing consultant who at 5’8” now weighs 155 pounds.
Carr, who lives in Orlando, credits a vegan lifestyle for helping her finally reach a comfortable weight after a 40-year battle that included pre-packaged meals, Atkins and twice-weekly injections of a fertility drug that was supposed to speed up her metabolism. At one point, eight years ago, Carr shed 50 pounds on a program combining whole foods with protein bars and shakes. Yet, over the last few years, as Carr struggled with the suicide of her 18-year-old son and starting a new business, the weight crept back.
Though she’d repeatedly tried to help her son with his severe depression, Carr suffered from lingering guilt that triggered binge-eating episodes, she recalls. “Each ‘anniversary’ date of his birthday, adoption and death as well as the holidays were the most difficult,” says Carr, who dealt with her grief and work stress with donuts, pizza, Starbuck’s mochas and red wine. Finally, in August of 2014, when she hit 195 pounds — and cringed looking at photos of herself on Facebook — she vowed to get back to a healthy weight.
The Link Between Weight and Your Emotions
We all know there’s an emotional component to weight gain and loss. Why else would we crave fattening comfort foods over celery sticks when we’re stressed? But according to a recent national survey, only 10 percent of people thought that psychological wellbeing was their biggest barrier to weight loss. Instead, some 60 percent of respondents blamed poor food choices and lack of exercise for sabotaging their diets.
“What surprised me most was that people didn’t acknowledge that their emotional health is part of this puzzle,” says study author Diane Robinson, PhD, a neuropsychologist at U.S. Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health, a hospital network that sponsored the study. “But if we focus on being emotionally healthy first, everything else can fall into place.”
Overcoming Emotional Eating
So how did Carr get her health back on track? Well, she believes her plant-based diet of whole, unprocessed food made her generally feel better. But she also set herself up for long-term success by finding new strategies to cope with her emotional triggers. The most obvious was coming to terms with her son’s death. “I came to accept that blaming myself wouldn’t bring him back,” she says. That psychological shift — combined with a strict “no junk” policy — changed her taste buds and helped her stop bingeing. Plus, she used every weight-loss milestone as motivation to keep going, she says.
“If your mind is saying ‘I have to have those chips,’ that’s your clue that something else is going on.”
Slowly, Carr started to change other areas of her lifestyle. Daily exercise and regular massages lowered her stress levels. And now, Carr keeps a log of what she eats and writes down how she’s feeling at the same time. That’s how she made the connection that drinking a lot of coffee made her anxious and more prone to open a bottle of wine as soon as happy hour arrived, she says. “Since I cut out coffee, I feel so energized I don’t even want any wine.”
During the day, when she wants to avoid difficult business tasks by eating, she asks herself: “Am I really hungry?” and drinks some water with apple cider vinegar. If she’s still hungry in an hour, she gives herself permission to get a healthy snack. “I had to really look hard at why I’d been eating all the time,” she says.
Need help getting to your happy place when it comes to balancing your emotions — and your diet? Try these three expert-backed tips to get to the root of your emotional eating, too.
3 Ways to Put a Stop to Emotional Eating for Good
1. Pay attention to what you’re craving.
“If your mind is saying ‘I have to have those chips,’ that’s your clue that something else is going on,” explains Robinson. Are you bored? Aggravated? Need a little carb-y comfort? You’re probably not responding to your body’s pure hunger cues. “It’s amazing the number of emotions we can attach to food,” she says.
2. Write it all down.
People roll their eyes at Robinson when she suggests keeping a “food and feelings” journal. “It doesn’t have to be super serious, but it’s helpful to detect a pattern,” she says. “If you only order pizza after a grueling meeting with a certain boss, it tells you that you’re angry.” You might be surprised at what your journal reveals.
3. Commit to making small changes.
Maybe it’s substituting water for your lunchtime diet soda or taking the stairs to your office once a week. The key, insists Robinson, is to make changes realistic and incremental. “If you can do one small change a week, by the end of the year, you’ve made 52 changes, and that can transform your life.” You’ll also start to feel better about yourself — which will help you tackle both your food and fitness goals.
For Carr, she discovered an emotional need she didn’t even know she had: Social support. After she started regularly attending an interval workout class at her local “Y” that started at 5:15 a.m., she and several other participants got into a groove of meeting at the café afterward. “Having a sense of community is so important because I work from home all day. That class became my main source of friends,” says Carr. In addition, the boost in self-esteem from sticking to her fitness goals — and seeing her developing biceps — helps her remain focused. “I finally decided that taking back my health was the best way to honor my son’s memory,” she says.