Dear New Shrink,
For most of my adult life I have struggled with weight and body image issues. Over the last two years I have gained over 50 pounds and can’t seem to kick my unhealthy habits. I have tried a number of different diets and weight loss plans, all with only short-term results. During a recent doctor’s visit, my physician asked me to think about the reasons I eat, and in particular the occasions or things that might cause me to overeat. This helped me to think about the underlying causes but do you have ideas of what I can do to take my mind off eating and help me to commit to losing weight for good?
Overweight and Unhappy
Dear Overweight and Unhappy,
Congratulations to your physician! Most people think that the incredible weight problem and epidemic of obesity here in America is simply the result of poor food choices and bad lifestyles. While this is certainly part of it, it is anything but the whole picture. People that go on and off diets, gain and lose weight and feel bad about themselves like you do, are most likely struggling with food addiction.
Diets don’t work! The weight loss industry is one of the biggest industries in our country precisely because diets do not work for most people. Those who lose weight and keep it off are the ones who adopt a lifelong food plan that means “eating to live rather than living to eat.”
If you find yourself feeling ashamed and embarrassed because of your eating — hiding your food, eating until you feel sick, vomiting or using other unhealthy ways to lose weight quickly or varying three sizes in your clothes closet — odds are you have a food problem. Weight, which is the consequence of your problem with food, is not the primary issue.
Food is meant to fuel the body and while we all enjoy our comfort foods from time to time, when you find yourself eating for the wrong reasons, i.e., to self-soothe, to avoid feelings of loneliness, emptiness sadness or anger, you have a food problem and you need help.
As one of my successful patients says, “I am a food addict!” “I have an emotional attachment to anything I put in my mouth. I was afraid of my feelings and would use food to avoid them.” She now attends Overeaters Anonymous, and does not eat sugar one day at a time. She is also working on herself in therapy.
This is a bit like admitting you are an alcoholic, one drink is too many. There are countless success stories from people who have gone to Overeater’s Anonymous. As long as they work the program, they not only lose weight but learn to identify and free themselves from the underlying causes of their food addiction. Members pick their own abstinence plan. Another one of my patients who is doing quite well has picked three meals a day, two snacks and nothing in between. The patient that I quoted above has chosen no sugar or white flour, one day at a time. For her, if she has one cookie or piece of cake, she will eat the whole box or cake. Eating right has led both to feeling better physically and psychologically. One had gained 60 pounds and the other 80. And yes, they have both lost and are losing weight. Both are feeling happy with themselves.
I realize that it is very hard to take the first step of admitting you are an addict and may need this kind of help. If you are, you will be so much happier for it, you won’t be sorry. Ideally, you will get a therapist to help you process your feelings as well. If you have been afraid of them for a long time, relapse is less likely with the support of a good therapist although many do just fine with OA alone.
If you simply do not see this as an answer for you, Weight Watchers has a good success rate as well. They have meetings, education, weigh-ins and a lot of support, similar to OA.
The right therapist can help you with identifying fears or feelings that you have been avoiding and then along with their support, you may be able to stick with a lifelong food plan that you choose for yourself. The important thing is that you should not try to do it alone.
Good Luck! I promise you that this can work if you really want it.
Dr. JoAnne Barge is a licensed psychologist with offices in Brentwood. Please send your questions and responses to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us at www.NewShrink.com. All questions will be kept anonymous. Please let us help you with your life matters.