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Emotional eating, we are often told, is the downfall of most dieters. People restricting calories for weight loss usually fail their diets, the "experts" tell us, when they fail to keep emotions in check and eat when they are not physically hungry.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind May Be a Good Approach to Dieting

An "emotional eater" himself, Dr. David Kessler, former chairman of the US Food and Drug Administration and dean of the Harvard School of Medicine, tells us that the experts are wrong. Uncontrollable eating is not due to a defect of character. It's due to an addiction that can be overcome.



The "mouth feel" of foods that are rich in sugar, fat, and salt triggers the release of "happy chemicals" such as dopamine in the brain. The pleasure we feel after we eat sugar, fat, and salt, once foods that were in scarce supply and that could make the difference between starvation and survival, is so strong that our brains make a note of the surroundings of our "happy meal."

In ancient times, our brains might have been primed to make careful note of how to get to the berry patch that was next to the bee hive dripping with honey and the mound filled with tasty termite grubs. In modern times, our brains are primed to make us take a turn to the golden arches to get our McDonald's Happy Meals, even at the first sight of the yellow "M" on the red sign.

Type 2 diabetics have an even worse time resisting delectable food. One of the hormonal imbalances in type 2 diabetes is an overproduction of the hormone ghrelin. This hormone acts as a signal from fat cells to the brain that they need to be refilled. In thin people, ghrelin levels build up from midnight to dawn so they wake up hungry. In obese people, ghrelin levels build up during the day so that they stay hungry.

Ghrelin increases sensitivity to physical pain until eating occurs. The payoff for paying heed to ghrelin, however, is more than just satisfying the appetite. Eating settles inflammation in the digestive tract. It reverses stress-related depression. It improves memory and learning.

The benefits of eating are real and experiencing through the entire body. They make visual cues for food very hard to resist.

So to avoid the urge to eat, keep food in the cupboard. Use your remote to skip food commercials when you watch TV. Don't drive down the street that may be your town's "fast food row."

If your obesity is in part caused by bad timing or overproduction of grhelin, you will still have strong urges to eat, and you will probably experience them all the time. Keeping food out of sight, however, gives you a greater ability to choose the foods and the circumstances in which you eat, helping you stick to your diet to reach your weight loss goals.

Don't beat yourself up if you find it hard to resist fatty, sugary, salty foods. Your ancestors survived famines that made it possible for you to be born. But control your urges for "emotional" eating by following the age-old advice, out of sight, out of mind.

  • Taheri S, Lin L, Austin D, Young T, Mignot E. Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin, and increased body mass index. PLoS Med. 2004 Dec, 1(3):e62. Epub 2004 Dec 7.
  • Photo courtesy of 59632563@N04 on Flickr: //www.flickr.com/photos/59632563@N04/6057404732/