Practically every client I counsel who struggles with weight loss will say something like, “I just need to workout more.” But the truth is it’s not that simple, and now a new survey confirms a reality I’ve observed among many clients—that the real key to weight management is your emotional state. The survey, commissioned by healthcare network Orlando Health, found that 90% of respondents discounted the most crucial factor involved with weight loss: the psychological relationship between food and exercise. The majority (60%) of participants cited diet and exercise to be the biggest barriers, but if that were true I promise you, weight loss would be a whole lot easier.
I’ve worked with many clients who can afford personal training, even a personal chef or tailored meal delivery services designed for weight loss, and yet despite these resources they wind up sabotaging themselves through emotional eating. If you find yourself in the same boat, focus on your feelings first, not your diet and exercise plan. Here are the top four emotions that tend to derail healthy intentions, along with strategies for altering how they impact your habits.
While some of my clients are most “on track” when they’re happy, others have a pattern of celebratory eating. It makes sense, because it’s culturally encouraged to connect food to bonding, praising, and commemorating. This holiday season if you find yourself drawn to too many goodies, either because you’re pleased with your holiday bonus, reveling in your time off, or enjoying time with friends and family, try out non-food ways to be jubilant. Rather than cooking or eating, plan a craft project or an outing, like ice skating, or a nature walk. And most importantly, find ways of expressing your feelings rather than eating them. For some of my clients, solo singing does the trick, while others enjoy group activities like organizing games, from good old fashioned charades to edgy Cards Against Humanity. When you’re joyfully occupied, you’ll be surprised how little you’ll think about food.
Many of my clients recall being soothed with food as kids. Whether it was after the loss of a pet goldfish, a skinned knee, or a mean comment from a schoolmate, many of us were comforted with foods like ice cream, chocolate, or mac and cheese. If you find yourself re-living the pattern by feeding yourself after a rough day, experiment with alternatives. Rather than giving yourself an emotional hug by eating, let out your feelings by reaching out to a friend. Or try other pacifying behaviors, like taking a warm bath, spending time with a loving pet, or watching a sad movie (sans snacks) and having a good cry. Sometimes letting out your feelings is the best way to prevent yourself from stuffing them down or using food to disconnect.
Surprising, but true: One of the regular breakthroughs my clients have is that they often reach for crunchy or chewy foods as a way to address aggression. Whether it’s frustration with a boss, coworker, significant other, or a stressful daily commute, coping through munching is a pretty common pattern. In my experience, people who tend to “anger eat” can break the pattern by finding other physical ways to let it out. Typically the alternatives involve something that keeps the brain and hands busy, like cleaning, clearing out and organizing closets or drawers, drawing, painting, or even playing video games. If you’re successfully (and healthfully) expressing your aggression, you’re far less likely to reach for foods like chips or licorice.
When I feel anxious or worried, I tend to lose my appetite. But for some of my clients, eating becomes the primary distraction that allows them to shut off the fear, at least temporarily. I had one client who told me that between meals and snacks she felt compelled to suck on candy or chew gum, because constantly engaging with eating helped her not focus on worrying.
That’s an extreme situation, but certainly many people who nervously nibble even a few times a day can consume hundreds of extra calories. If this is your pattern, try to zero in on what will best help you deal with your feelings. Mediation, deep breathing, yoga, or stretching may help some people. For others, talking through fears or making concrete lists that address what you can and cannot change about what’s making you anxious is the most effective way to cope, and curb the desire to eat.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor. She privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is also the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the New York Yankees MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. This article originally appeared on Health.com