In this excerpt from her new book, Dr. Ro’s Lose Your Final 15, the popular weight loss and health expert you’ve seen on the Dr. Oz Show shares a whole new approach to taking off those last, stubborn pounds for good!
Ready to start dealing with the various kinds of feelings and automatic reactions that trigger emotional eating? Use my step-by-step plan to understand how to restructure the thinking behind the eating.
Step 1: Take a Mindful Moment
We respond automatically to feelings of hunger. We feel hungry, we go to the refrigerator, we grab a piece of cheese or a tub of Ben & Jerry’s, and we gobble it up—all without thinking or analyzing our feelings or actions. By slowing that process down, you can begin to take control of emotional hunger. The first step toward reducing emotional eating is stopping yourself anytime you feel hungry, analyzing your feelings, and determining whether your hunger is originating from your stomach or your mind.
Instead of reflexively running off to the kitchen, I want you to take a few minutes to think about your hunger and determine whether its origin is emotional or physical. This isn’t difficult, although it does take a commitment to mindfulness, a promise to yourself that you’ll slow down and look at your feelings and actions almost as an outsider would. Ask yourself: What do I really want? Do I really need food or something else?
When you experience a feeling of hunger, sit down, close your eyes, and ask yourself:
▪ What am I feeling?
▪ Do I feel physically hungry? Am I having hunger pangs? Has it been 2 to 3 hours or
just a few minutes since I ate last?
▪ Did the hunger come on quickly, or has your stomach been rumbling for a while?
Emotional hunger tends to come on quickly. When you have a craving, a couple of things happen. You anticipate positive reinforcement when you eat—that is, you expect to feel better and to eliminate negative feelings, such as sadness, anger or loneliness.
However, those good feelings may not occur at all, or they may be immediately overridden by even more negative feelings, such as guilt and shame. If you realize you’re not physically hungry, take a minute to think about what’s going on in your head.
▪ Are you experiencing a difficult situation, such as an argument with your boss or a frustrating exchange with a friend?
▪ Are you angry or happy, relieved, or joyful?
▪ Are you bored or lonely?
Analyze your feelings and really try to label them so you can understand what’s behind
them and the action you’ve become accustomed to taking when you feel them. First, ask yourself if you’re hunger come on quickly, or has your stomach been rumbling for a
while? Emotional hunger tends to come on quickly.
Now, ask yourself what you’re thinking of eating. Are you answering the call of the chocolate bar or are thinking you’ll grab an apple? This is important because emotional hunger tends to cause cravings for specific foods—such as chocolate cake or salty snacks—rather than healthier choices, such as fruits, vegetables, or a handful of nuts.
When you’re physically hungry, you’re more likely to look for a healthy meal orsnack, rather than an indulgence.
As you work to cope with cravings, try to cut back on visual-craving creators, such as
TV ads. If you’re watching your favorite show, jump onto the treadmill or jog in place or do squats, lunges, or triceps dips on a chair instead of viewing commercials. Pay close attention to the external triggers that influence your desire for food.
After spending a couple of mindful moments examining the source of your hunger, you’ll be better prepared to make a thoughtful choice about whether and what to eat. But before you do that, I want you to grab a pen (or your smartphone) and try Step 2.
Step 2: Put It in Writing
Keeping a food journal is a crucial part of my F-15 Plan. Use whatever you like—a notebook, your smartphone, a spreadsheet on your laptop. It doesn’t matter what you use as long as you note a the important details, especially why you have a craving. The “why” is important and, believe it or not, it could date back to an old experience you had never identified as a connection to food.
When you find yourself craving food, take a minute to jot down the answers to these
▪ What am I craving?
▪ What am I feeling?
▪ Why am I feeling this feeling?
▪ How might I satisfy my craving without bingeing on a high-calorie food?
Step 3: Make a Decision
Now that you’ve analyzed your hunger and decided whether its source is emotional or physical, you can make a better choice about whether, and what, to eat. If your hunger is physical, you may be able to put it off for a while or you may realize you’re overdue for your next meal or snack, so it's time to head for the kitchen to prepare something healthy. If your hunger is emotional, it may be harder to put off. Emotional hunger is more gnawing and persistent than physical hunger. Ignoring it sometimes works, but the “just say no” strategy doesn’t always work. Instead, try these alternatives.
Eat a substitute food.
Say you’re craving something salty, spicy, and crunchy and all you can think about is having a bag of Doritos. It’s possible that eating something else salty, spicy, and crunchy will suffice, try:
▪ A few pieces of celery sprinkled with taco seasoning.
▪ Air-popped popcorn dusted with chili powder.
▪ Mashed boiled cauliflower with low-fat cheese, fat-free sour cream, or fat-free cream cheese (instead of mashed potatoes).
▪ For something sweet, try:
▪ A piece of fruit or an F-15 dessert, like my Banana Nice Cream.
▪ Sugar-free pudding or Jell-O cups with fruit.
▪ A baked apple topped with cinnamon and chopped walnuts
▪ Watermelon chunks sprinkled with chili powder.
Take on the full, Final-15 Challenge!
Substitute an Activity
Sometimes, an activity can fill the emotional need behind your craving. Need comfort?
Go to a park or some other lovely space, even if it’s to your bathroom for an herbal-scented, candlelit bath. Feeling isolated? Stroke your pet or read an affirming passage that inspires and builds you up. I also find that feelings of loneliness and isolation can be easily chased away by doing something good for someone else in need.
Beat Boredom and Lethargy
Try going for a run or walk instead of eating a handful of cookies. Feeling super-stressed or tense? Bring stress levels down with activities that match the intensity of your emotions. Go for a jog or power walk, dance to loud upbeat music, beat on a pillow or kickbox to release tension. You could also try aromatherapy. One study found that sniffing jasmine aromas helped some people curtail chocolate cravings.
Play a Video Game
Cravings are visual, and according to a study published in 2014 in the journal Appetite, visual games like Tetris help distract people from food cravings by replacing visual images in their minds of food. In the study, food cravings in volunteers who played video games were reduced by 24 percent, compared to those who engaged in no visually distracting behavior.
According to researchers, the mental processes we experience as we think about food cravings can be overridden by the mental processes needed to focus on a video game. Eureka! There’s hope for the chocoholic in each of us yet!
Have Just a Nibble
Let’s face it: Some food cravings just won’t go away unless you give in. Deprivation sometimes works, but often it backfires and instead of having nothing, you binge. When that’s the case, contain the possible damage by having a small amount of the food you crave.
Scientists say that we start feeling satisfied after just three or four bites, so eat it slowly and mindfully, allowing yourself to enjoy it fully. Stop after three bites, and see how you feel.
Once you decide how to respond to your craving, grab your cravings journal and write down the choice you made. I can tell—you’re ready to make better choices already aren’t you?
Step 4: Do a Gut Check
Around 15 minutes after you eat, take a moment to examine your feelings on the choice you made about whether or what to eat. Do you feel satisfied and peaceful? Or do you feel guilty and shameful? Did you continue eating when you were full, or did you stop after consuming a reasonable amount?
If, after 15 minutes, you feel unhappy with the choice you made, reflect on how you might have acted differently, but do it with a positive spin. Remember that the goal here is to learn from your mistakes.
I do not want you to to beat yourself up for making a poor choice; all that will do is bring you down and lead you to even more emotional eating. If you feel you made a mistake, acknowledge it and learn from it. Make a note in your food journal of any lessons you may have learned from the experience .And then, move on.
Step 5: Deal with the Feelings
Now it’s time to take a look at the feelings that triggered your emotional hunger and to brainstorm a few nonfood responses that you can use the next time you experience those feelings. If you conclude that being tired triggered your craving, for example, you may decide tostart going to bed a bit earlier or to taking naps.
If the emotion behind your craving is more complex, you may need to think about a more long-term solution. For example, if relationship stress is pushing you into the kitchen, you might consider counseling or ending the relationship.
If a horrible boss drives you to the comfort that chocolate provides, it may be time for a meeting with human resources or even a new job. And if depression or anxiety causes cravings, it may make sense for you to see your doctor or a therapist.
Whatever you determine the best solution for you to be, know this: You must deal with the problems that cause you misery. You deserve to live a life unhampered by a dysfunctional relationship with food exacerbated by unhealthy relationships with other people or yourself.
When problems can’t be immediately solved, turn to positive distractions that take your mind away from what irks you. Take that writing or knitting class you’ve been meaning to get around to. Filling your soul with spiritual nourishment may take away some of your cravings for food. When you find greater meaning in your own life, food moves to the back of the room and off center stage. Allowing yourself to be nourished by the love of family and friends, or other soul-satisfying gifts, enables you to make food just a source of nourishment again.
Whatever you do, keep in mind that if you work toward solving the root problems behind your emotional need to eat, the cravings will begin to subside. My clients too often blame themselves for giving in to food cravings, beating themselves up for not having enough willpower to say no. But when it comes to emotional eating, it’s not necessarily about willpower. Its about finding ways to cope with the emotions that lead you to food.