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Emotional Eating and My Personal Pity Party

We all do it. We’re not hungry, we’re stressed or sad or bored and out comes the sugar. I recently had a 2 ½ week pity party for myself where I did everything wrong, and ended up weighing more then I’ve weighed in 6 years!

As most of you know, I did my program about 7 years ago and lost just shy of 30 pounds. I have maintained that loss staying within a 3 pound window, I gain 3, I lose 3, which is much easier than losing 30.

Also, as most of you know, I have gone through breast cancer twice in the last 15 years. In fact the reason I became serious about losing weight was because of what I learned when I studied at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The #1 thing we can do to avoid breast cancer is keep our weight under control.

Last month, when I had my annual mammogram, there was a suspicious spot which required a biopsy. Well, I’ve had 2 biopsies in my life and both times they were cancer. Needless to say I FREAKED! All I could think was 3 strikes and I’m out!

I bought a package of fudge and ate half of it. I hid the other half from myself in the back of the freezer and then ate that too. I ate lots of French bread slathered with ridiculous amounts of ice, cold butter. I drank too much vodka. I stopped exercising. I stopped stepping on the scale because I didn’t want to be any more upset than I already was. I didn’t talk to anyone about my situation except my poor husband Bob. All he could do is watch me self-destruct.

For various reasons, it was 2 ½ weeks until I could have the biopsy and get the results. I’m happy to report that I’m fine, but the damage was done. During my lonely 2 ½ week pity party I gained 7 pounds!

This newsletter is about what causes emotional eating and how to overcome it so you don’t go down the path I did!

Researchers at Harvard Medical School have linked weight gain to stress, and according to an American Psychological Association survey, about one-fourth of Americans rate their stress level as 8 or more on a 10-point scale.

In the short term, stress can shut down appetite. A structure in the brain called the hypothalamus produces corticotropin-releasing hormone, which suppresses appetite. The brain also sends messages to the adrenal glands, which are like little party hats sitting atop the kidneys to pump out the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). Epinephrine helps trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, a revved-up physiological state that temporarily puts eating on hold.

This is where I was at the beginning of my ordeal, but then the switch was flipped.

If stress persists, the adrenal glands release another hormone called cortisol, and cortisol increases appetite and may also ramp up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat. Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress doesn’t go away—or if a person’s stress response gets stuck in the “on” position—cortisol may stay elevated.

Cortisol also seems to affect food preferences. Numerous studies have shown that physical or emotional distress increases the intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both.

Once ingested, fat- and sugar-filled foods seem to have a feedback effect that inhibits activity in the parts of the brain that produce and process stress and  related emotions. These foods really are “comfort” foods in that they seem to counteract stress — and this may contribute to people’s stress-induced craving for those foods.
Of course, overeating isn’t the only stress-related behavior that can add pounds. Stressed people also lose sleep, exercise less, and drink more alcohol, all of which can contribute to excess weight. This is EXACTLY what happened to me!

There are 3 things that can stop this horrible cortisol chain reaction, which I should have done, but didn’t.

  • Meditation Meditating takes practice. It’s almost like you have to build meditation muscle. Unfortunately, in my case, every time I attempted to meditate my runaway cortisol took me to a dark and scary place. Since that didn’t work, the next step is…
  • Exercise Intense exercise increases cortisol levels temporarily, but low-intensity exercise seems to reduce them. University of California researchers reported that exercise may blunt some of the negative effects of stress. Some activities, such as yoga and tai chi, have elements of both exercise and meditation. Normally I walk for exercise, and walking on the beach becomes a lovely meditation. Again, the cortisol took me to that same dark, scary place, even while walking on the beach. So I should have turned to…
  • Social Support Research suggests that people working in stressful situations, like hospital emergency departments, have better mental health if they have adequate social support. This is where I totally blew it. I should have at least reached out to Davey Ann and had her treat me with acupuncture, which is proven to lower cortisol levels.

In conclusion, I don’t have cancer again, I’ve stopped my bad behavior and lost 5 of the 7 pounds with 10 days of Phase 2 of our weight loss program. I’m back to my daily walking and I’ve shared my experience with my social support system, which truly includes you.

Next time I throw a pity party, you’re all invited. You can talk me off the cliff. I will do the same for you!