During the past two years I’ve written several blog posts about emotional eating and its causes.  As I learned more about emotional eating from my clients and about learning theory, I’ve changed my mind on several occasions.  I now think I understand the essential causes of one of the biggest problems we face: One-third of America’s adult population is obese and another one-third is overweight.  The health consequences are devastating; the financial costs are staggering; the misery experienced by those afflicted is overwhelming.  Nothing proposed thus far has come close to being able to stem the epidemic.  I think I have the answer.

Most proposed solutions attempt to deal with the symptoms, namely the weight people gain when they eat emotionally.  These proposed solutions include a wide variety of diets, special eating plans like Jenny Craig, in-patient facilities, exercise programs, pills to kill appetite, pills to change metabolism, 12 step programs, etc.  On his television show last week, Dr. Oz tried to scare obese people into stopping their emotional eating by graphically displaying the medical consequences of their behavior.

The reason these plans for dealing with the obesity epidemic ultimately fail is that all of them ignore the source of the problem: a conditioned, obsessive need to eat in order to deal with negative emotions and to attain specific rewards.

The first type of conditioning: emotional triggers

The primary cause of emotional eating is emotional triggers, usually negative emotions such as anxiety, feeling unlovable, feeling angry, and feeling bored.  At some point in life an emotional eater ate and experienced either comfort, a pleasurable distraction from the negative feeling, and/or a calming sensation.  After that sequences happened a few times, the negative emotion got conditioned to result in an obsessive need to eat because eating relieved the discomfort of the negative feeling.  The negative emotion became an unconscious and automatic trigger for the eating.

Graphically it looks like this:

Negative emotion + accidental eating (results in)> pleasurable distraction x repetition = (results in conditioning) Negative emotion (results in)> an obsessive need to eat

In other words, when a negative feeling is followed by normal eating and that eating produces a pleasurable distraction or a sense of calming, and that sequence happens repeatedly, eating gets transformed from an activity we engage in only when we are hungry, to a compulsion that gets triggered when that negative feeling is experienced, in order to gain the pleasurable distraction.

The second type of conditioning: to gain a reward

There is a second type of conditioning involved in emotional eating.  This occurs when eating is consistently followed by some type of “reward,” resulting in a compulsive need to eat whenever those “rewards” are desired.  Some typical “rewards” include the desire to celebrate, the desire to give oneself pleasure, and wanting to be in control.

In other words, rewards have been conditioned so that desiring them will result in a compulsive need to eat.

Graphically it looks like this:

Eating (results in)> reward x repetition = (results in conditioning) the desire for the reward (results in)> the obsessive need to eat

I created the Lefkoe De-conditioning Process (LDP) specifically to de-condition these two types of conditioning that are responsible for emotional eating.  See http://emotionaleatingreport.com to learn how the LDP works.)

Beliefs are a secondary cause of emotional eating

In most cases of emotional eating beliefs are a secondary cause.  Some typical beliefs that lead to emotional eating include:

  • To lose weight you can’t eat anything “bad.”
  • The way to keep food from running my life (like it did my mom’s) is to eat whatever I want to eat.
  • If I don’t eat when there’s food around there won’t be any later.
  • Eating is a way to not be alone.
  • The best way to avoid sex is to be heavy so men wouldn’t be interested in me.

Although the elimination of some beliefs might be required to totally eliminate someone’s emotional eating, conditioning is the primary cause of the problem.

Other learning theories

There are other theories psychologists could use to explain the “conditioning” or “learning” that I contend causes emotional eating, including Information Processing Theory and Behavioral Theory.  Each theory comes at learning or conditioning in a totally different way than I do.  If either theory has both an explanation for how emotional eating becomes an unconscious, automatic, obsessive behavior that emotional eaters are helpless to overcome on their own and a technique for effectively stopping that behavior, I am not aware of it.

The problems can be overcome

Although the twin problems of obesity and overweight are the result of more factors than emotional eating, if people were not conditioned to eat when they weren’t hungry, they would gain far fewer pounds.  The Lefkoe De-conditioning Process quickly, easily, and permanently de-conditions that conditioning.  Now let’s find a way to make it available to the hundreds of millions of people who need it desperately.

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