The chocolate chip cookie is in your hand. Your brain is shouting, "No! Put it down! Remember, you're trying to lose weight!" Your mouth is watering. Your hand is drawing the cookie closer to your lips. "Stop!" your brain pleads. "You've already had four of those. And before that, you finished off the leftover kung pao chicken and a buttered baguette the length of your arm. Put down that cookie!"
But you don't put it down. You finish eating the cookie, then tell your brain to shush as you scan the shelves of the fridge for a container of milk.
We're a nation of overeaters: Forty-one percent of us are overweight; 23 percent are obese. Just about all of us wish we could do a better job of listening to our brains when they tell us to stop eating. Despite our desire to be thinner and healthier, we shovel in everything from cheeseburgers to cheesecake. Why the heck can't we stop ourselves from stuffing our faces?
"We overeat because we're emotionally hungry," says Laurel Mellin, M.A., R.D., associate professor of family medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of The Pathway: Follow the Road to Health and Happiness (ReganBooks, 2003). That emotional hunger draws us into a cycle in which emotions -- such as stress, depression, boredom, fear, loneliness and emotional emptiness -- trigger overeating, which in turn triggers more stress, depression, boredom, fear, loneliness and emotional emptiness. And so the cycle continues.
How can we break the endless cycle of emotional eating? Dieting won't do it. What works is understanding why you overeat, then using the appropriate bust-the-cycle strategy to get your brain and your body on the same healthy path.
The following reasons for overeating and their solutions will help you break the harmful patterns standing between you and a slimmer, healthier body.
1. You overeat because of external cues.
You're watching TV, and along comes a commercial for Pizza Hut. All of a sudden, you're craving pizza. You're not hungry -- you finished dinner only an hour ago -- and yet you're feeling like you'd do anything for a slice of cheesy pizza. "Ads can make food look very, very good," says Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders and the author of Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America's Obesity Crisis & What We Can Do About It (Contemporary Books/McGraw-Hill, 2003). Because our bodies have evolved to survive food shortages by gobbling up lots of food when it is readily available, it really doesn't take much to trigger a binge -- even when we're not hungry.
Unfortunately, external cues to eat are all around us, from gas-station mini-marts to vending machines. Fast-food joints are open 24/7, and appeasing a craving is often as easy as a stroll to the corner convenience store, which used to sell staples like milk and bread but now offers everything from freshly baked oatmeal cookies to sizzling sausages. "Food is accessible as never before," Brownell says.
Bust-the-cycle solutions When something you see -- in an ad or at a store -- triggers an urge to eat, Brownell suggests you try one of these strategies:
Move. Go for a walk or a run, or jump rope for 60 seconds.
Ride it out. A craving is like a wave: It builds, crests, then fades away. If you don't eat, the intensity of your craving should subside.
Create a distraction. Call a friend, take a bath, read a book, listen to music.
Eat something other than the pizza. "Very often a small amount of healthful food -- a piece of fruit, for example -- can take away the pang," Brownell says.
Talk to yourself. Ask: Am I really hungry? Is it really good for me to eat this food? Is this really what I want?
Refer to your "action" list. When you discover a strategy that helps you cope with externally triggered eating, note it on a list, and refer to this list the next time you find cheese-filled-crust pizza irresistible.
2. You diet excessively (and deprive yourself).
"We have a false belief that dieting is an effective way to lose weight," says Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, M.D., a psychiatrist in Reno, Nev., and author of Fed Up! The Breakthrough Ten-Step, No-Diet Fitness Plan (Contemporary Books/McGraw-Hill, 2003). In fact, many of us overeat because we feel starved. We diet continuously, keeping our bodies in a near-constant state of hunger. When resolve gives way to intense hunger -- as it always does -- we stuff ourselves. Mortified with our weight gain, we turn back to dieting, and the cycle goes on.