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Q&A With Julie M. Simon: "The Emotional Eater's Repair Manual"

by Staff


How do you know if you’re an emotional eater? Doesn’t everyone eat emotionally?

We all enjoy eating and will eat when not hungry, or overeat on occasion just because the food is incredibly tasty or because it enhances our personal or social experiences. The problem arises when we turn to food so often that we are overweight or our health is at risk. The truth is, if you regularly eat when you’re not hungry or when you’re already full, or if you regularly choose to eat unhealthy comfort foods, the bulk of your overeating is not just because you love food and enjoy eating. You might consider yourself an emotional eater if any of the following apply:

· you “use” food as a tranquilizer to dull emotions that are difficult to cope with, such as anxiety, anger, sadness, frustration, hopelessness, loneliness, shame, guilt and even happiness and joy;

· you turn to food for soothing, comfort, pleasure and excitement;

· you eat to distract yourself from unpleasant feeling states such as boredom, apathy, overwhelm, general upset or stress or when you feel numb;

· you eat as a way to procrastinate and

· you try to fill up an inner emptiness with food.

How does one become an emotional eater?

What most emotional eaters have in common is that their early family experiences were under nourishing, at best, and at worst, chaotic or traumatic. For a variety of reasons many emotional eaters have grown up in environments where their basic physical and emotional needs were inadequately met. Their caregivers may not have had their basic needs met and may have been incapable of meeting their children’s. Even well meaning, loving caregivers can be overly self-absorbed or needy and regularly distracted by their internal struggles. They may have had a physical or mental illness. Perhaps they were angry, anxious, depressed, controlling, hypercritical, indifferent, unpredictable, overindulgent or overprotective.

When our emotional needs go unmet, we are forced to spend much of our precious childhood years trying to cope with unpleasant emotional states, insecurity and low self -esteem. Our emotions and needs are neglected and we lose touch with these important internal signals. It’s easy to see how we can begin to use food for comfort, pleasure and calming. Unlike our neglect-filled or chaotic family environment and inner world, food is soothing, readily available and predictable. We can easily become over focused on food and eating. Our development, like a train, goes “off-track” and gets derailed or even arrested. Rather than acquiring necessary self-care skills, we end up with skill deficits, which unfortunately can have life-long consequences. We grow up with an emotionally starved inner child running our lives.

What exactly is emotional hunger?

Emotional hunger represents an appetite, a craving or a desire to eat, in the absence of true physiological hunger cues. Emotional hunger often feels the same as physical hunger. Generally, an appetite, without true hunger cues, represents an exaggerated desire for pleasure, soothing, fulfillment and distraction.

Were you once an emotional eater? Tell us about how you came to do this work and what inspired you to write your book.

Yes. I know firsthand how frustrating overeating and gaining weight can be. I spent a good portion of my life stuck in a cycle of overeating comfort foods, gaining weight, dieting and over-exercising. I definitely ate emotionally — I used food to calm and soothe myself. It helped numb the pain of unpleasant emotions, self-doubts and other negative thoughts, and general stress. Food altered my brain chemistry; and because food is pleasurable and exciting, it was a good distraction. It temporarily filled up the inner emptiness and restlessness I regularly felt, a sort of spiritual hunger.

I was raised in a dysfunctional family environment and I entered adulthood missing many basic self-care skills and what I call “soul-care practices.” And to add insult to injury, I had inherited body and brain chemistry imbalances that made junky comfort foods and stimulants, like caffeine, both attractive and addictive. It took many years of study, therapy, and visits to health care practitioners for me to understand and resolve all the pieces of the overeating puzzle in my own life.

Most diet books and weight loss programs focus exclusively on reduced-calorie eating plans and exercise regimens. They attempt to apply external solutions to internal problems and fail to address emotional and spiritual hunger and body imbalances. I created the 12 Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program and wrote this book because I wanted to offer an alternative to dieting that would address these mind, body and spirit imbalances.

You suggest that the reader reject the “diet mentality.” What exactly is “diet mentality?”

When I use the term diet mentality, I’m referring to deeply entrenched thoughts and habits related to controlling food intake and body size. For example, you might be:

· constantly thinking about what you’ve eaten, what you’ll eat and what diet you’re going to follow to lose weight;

· regularly counting and restricting calorie, carbohydrate and/or fat grams;

· eating according to “rules” rather than body hunger, i.e., not eating past a certain time of night, fasting, under eating, or skipping meals when you feel fat or after you’ve overeaten;

· avoiding activities that involve food and eating;

· ignoring hunger signals by drinking extra amounts of water, tea, coffee or diet sodas;

· feeling guilty when you eat something off your current diet plan;

· using diet pills, caffeinated beverages and cigarettes to reduce your appetite;

· over-exercising to compensate for perceived overeating or weight gain;

· overusing laxatives and diuretics to combat overeating or bloat and

· excessively concerned about your body size which may manifest in weighing yourself daily or multiple times per day.

What are the main causes of weight gain?

The main reason we gain weight is because we overeat. And generally, overeating is driven by emotional and spiritual hunger and physiological imbalance.

In the book, you talk about paying attention to mind/body/spirit signals. Could you give some examples of these signals?

Emotional signals such as joy, fear, sadness and anger. Cognitive signals like pleasant, empowering thoughts or pessimistic, fear-based, self-defeating thoughts. Physical signals like hunger, cravings, fullness, fatigue, bloat, headache and irritability. And spiritual signals like inspiration and passion, or meaninglessness, purposelessness and apathy. When we pay attention to these signals they can guide us in meeting our daily needs.

In Part 1 of the book, you talk about the importance of developing an inner nurturing voice that can soothe, comfort and reassure us. How does one develop this voice?

If the adult voices of our childhood are primarily warm, kind, encouraging, hopeful, loving, validating, soothing, and nurturing, we begin to develop a supportive voice within that can restore us to emotional balance when needed. As we mature into adulthood, this supportive voice becomes the voice of what I call our Inner Nurturer. If our caregivers were judgmental, critical, unkind, or shaming, the dominant voice inside our head will most likely be that of a harsh Inner Critic.

If we weren’t fortunate enough to have been raised by nurturing caregivers, we can learn to model the voice of a kind, caring relative, mentor, therapist, or compassionate friend. We will need to consistently practice using this voice (with ourselves and others) rather that the voice of our Inner Critic. Most of us access a supportive voice within when we speak to close friends, small children or animals. This voice may not be well developed if we haven’t practiced it very often, but it’s there.

What are the Four Habits that people with a healthy level of self-acceptance naturally engage in?

Learning to love and accept your self is a process--all that’s required is the willingness to practice. We can un-learn self-rejection and gently move towards self-love and acceptance by developing these habits:

Habit 1: Practice self-affirming commentary and dialogues.

Habit 2: Adjust your expectations. Be realistic about what you can change or achieve.

Habit 3: Use comparisons for inspiration and motivation only.

Habit 4: Forgive yourself for perceived mistakes and failures.

In Part 2 of the book, you suggest that we may be overeating because our body is out of balance and that we may be disconnected from our body signals. What are the six factors that contribute to this disconnection?

1. Cultural and family messages have encouraged us to ignore body signals (like hunger, thirst, fatigue or foggy thinking) in an attempt to control our body size, leading to a destructive “diet mentality;”

2. Chronic low-calorie dieting imbalances our signals and leads to dietary deficiencies, slower metabolisms, out- of-control rebound eating and weight gain;

3. Our calorie-counting machinery gets fooled and thrown off by our modern diet artificially concentrated in fat, sugar, fiber-deficient processed foods and foods of animal origin. Obesity is on the rise because our diet has become substantially different from that of our ancestors;

4. Modern “drug-like” foods activate pleasure centers in the brain, imbalance body/brain chemistry and lead to addiction. Once addicted, it takes a disciplined effort to tolerate the unpleasant process of detoxification and re-introduction of less stimulating whole foods;

5. Genetics and life-style can cause body and brain conditions such as hormonal irregularities, low/high brain chemicals and food allergies/sensitivities that result in imbalanced signals and

6. High stress, 24/7 over stimulating, sedentary urban lifestyles downplay the need for proper exercise, rest and sleep.

Can you define spiritual hunger?

Emotional eaters often feel disconnected from the deeper reserves of joy, passion and contentment within and from their “higher self” or a “higher power.” Many feel disconnected from their “calling” or sense of purpose in life and they may also feel disconnected from other nourishing human beings or from nature. Spiritual hunger represents a longing or yearning for peace, joy, inspiration, passion, purpose and meaning. It may involve a desire for transcendent experiences that help us gain a more expansive perspective and connect us to something or some force greater than ourselves. Even when we’ve achieved our desired weight loss, improved our health and our lives seem relatively full we can still experience symptoms of spiritual depletion.

What are some of the signs of spiritual depletion that emotional eaters can watch for?

They can start by asking themselves if they experience any of the following symptoms of spiritual depletion on a regular basis:

· emptiness

· restlessness

· unease

· purposelessness

· meaninglessness

· lack of inspiration/motivation

· boredom

· loneliness or a sense of aloneness

· longing for there to be more to life

· lack of personal fulfillment

· general sense of discontent or dissatisfaction and

· a sense of being lost in life.

Is it truly possible to stop emotional eating once and for all? How long does it take?

Yes. I did and everyone else can too. The approach I’ve outlined in this book offers a way out of dieting and a once-and-for-all resolution to emotional eating. Restrictive dieting allows overeaters a way to periodically put on the brakes, gain a sense of control, and lose some weight, but it doesn’t lead to a permanent solution. And the constant focus on food, weight loss, and body image crowd out joy and vitality and replace them with vigilance, anxiety, and frustration.

For most overeaters, the causes that underlie their overeating or imbalanced eating and weight gain have existed for a very long time. It will take some time to resolve them. This approach will require a shift in thinking, a longer-term perspective, and a loving commitment to yourself. It’s best if you can shift your focus to gaining skills and practices rather than to losing weight. Over time, the weight will come off and stay off. And losing weight tends to be somewhat effortless with this approach.

What can loved ones of emotional eaters do to help?

What emotional eaters most need is compassion, understanding, support and encouragement. Be patient with the emotional eaters in your life and let them know that you care about them and believe in them. Telling them to “just eat less and exercise more” is a recipe for disaster. Many are unable to practice suggested lifestyle changes or address health challenges because of an emotional, physical and spiritual disconnect that is sabotaging their best intentions. Encourage them to get the help they need, through books like this one, programs or therapy with a specialist.

Where can emotional eaters or professionals who work with emotional eaters learn more about these skills, principles and practices?

They can order the book through my website: www.overeatingrecovery.com. They can also sign up for my 12-Week Program where I guide participants through these skills, principles and practices.

If you could offer just one piece of encouragement or advice to an emotional eater, what would it be?

Never give up. You can put an end to your emotional eating and preoccupation with food and weight, eliminate the idea of dieting from your life forever, and experience a more rich and satisfying life.

The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual by Julie Simon

November 1, 2012 • Health/Personal Growth • 360 pages • Trade
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