When Diets Don’t Work: Exploring Emotional Eating.

I read a compelling article about Chaz Gaddie, the owner and chef of four restaurants in Northern California who says he made a career of his “drug of choice”.  At 6 feet 4 inches and 386 pounds, Chaz was prediabetic, suffered from sleep apnea, and was taking anti-inflammatories every night to help with the pain and burning in his body.

He knew what he needed to do to lose weight, but he just couldn’t do it. It wasn’t until a patron of one his restaurants, who was also a doctor, invited Gaddie to lunch.  Over lunch, the doctor told Gaddie he needed to act fast to save his own life and gave him a brochure on gastric bypass surgery.

At first Gaddie was taken aback by the doctor’s suggestion, but it turned out to be the wake-up call he needed.  Although he didn’t opt for surgery, he did realize that he had to do something. He met with a nutritionist and began journaling.  He wrote down his feelings and by doing so learned that he ate when he was sad, angry, resentful, anxious, scared, depressed, lonely or frustrated.

Anger, frustration, lonliness and helplessness can lead to emotional eating.

Anger, frustration, lonliness and helplessness can lead to emotional eating.

Gaddie believed that the emotional eating stemmed from his childhood.  His dad left when he was not quite two years of age.  Alone, his mother raised him until she remarried. Gaddie developed self-worth issues that he tried to treat with food which led to overeating.  The overeating made him feel guilty and the guilt led to more eating.

In 2005 Gaddie joined Weight Watchers and won the Great Summer Slimdown Essay Competition by losing 127.5 pounds in six month.  That year he sold his restaurants and totally changed his life by moving to Indonesia.   He continues to exercise, eat healthy foods and keep a journal of his feelings.

Gaddie says that “the food and exercise are probably the easiest part of what it takes to lose weight.  Success lies in understanding the mental and even more so, the emotional aspects of one’s eating issues.”

Decades of Emotional Eating

Oprah was one of the first celebrities to bring emotional eating out of the closet.  I’ll never forget reading about the struggles she has with her own emotional eating in the book Make The Connection.

“I lived in the model city of Columbia, Maryland, where all the streets were named after great poets or titles or poems.  I lived on Windstream Drive, across from the great Columbia Mall.  They had some of the best food stalls known to womankind.  A whole booth sold nothing but potatoes, any kind you could imagine.

There was a pizza booth, a corn dog booth, and my favorite at the time, a giant chocolate-chip cookie stall.  On weekends I’d stroll the mall, going from stall to stall.  Sometimes I would order from every booth.

I didn’t realize at the time that by overeating, I was trying to fill something deeper, something unconscious.  If you had asked me then or even ten years later, I would have answered: I love chocolate chip cookies.  The fact that I was lonely, depressed, and having a hard time adjusting to a new job never entered my mind.”  — Oprah

Oprah has talked about her own battles with weight loss, weight gain and fad diets that are the result of years of emotional eating.  Over the decades she has been instrumental in making emotional eating a mainstream issue, and has given it a voice.

Psychologists Weigh In On What Helps Their Clients

Experts believe that 75% of overeating is caused by emotions.  All of the emotions that Gaddie mentioned – boredom, anger, anxiety, loneliness, sadness – can be triggers that lead to uncontrolled eating.

Learning to recognize why you’re reaching for a candy bar, bag of potato chips, or a tub of ice cream when you are emotionally overwhelmed is only half of the battle. Over time, self-medicating with food becomes a habit and once that pattern is established, you have to take action to change those behaviors.

In a recent Consumer Reports poll, 1,328 licensed psychologists were asked how they deal with their client’s weight and weight-loss challenges.  The respondents repeatedly identified emotional factors as the major barrier to overcoming them.

The psychologists also identified the strategies they use to help their clients who struggle with weight issues.  They listed the following.

1. Cognitive therapy – This form of therapy helps people identify and correct dysfunctional thoughts that lead to unhealthy emotions and behaviors.  For example, someone that blows their diet by eating a half a bag of potato chips and tells themselves they might as well eat the whole bag, would learn how to view this as a one-time-event and not get stuck in the failure zone.

2.  Problem-solving – Psychologists help client’s find solutions aimed at overcoming barriers to weight loss. Someone who doesn’t get enough physical activity because they don’t have time to go the gym after work would explore other options such as 10 minute workouts, walking lunch breaks, or doing exercises at their desk.

3.  Mindfulness training – Substantial research has been done on the role that in mindless eating plays in successful weight management.  Mindfulness training teaches patients how to be in the present when they are eating and to avoid the distractions that can lead to overeating.

Some other ways to gain control of emotional eating patterns are engaging in relaxation exercises, practicing meditation and joining a live or on-line support group.

Emotional eating is not only a barrier to weight loss, but also to weight management once the pounds do come off.  Re-gaining the weight and yo-yo dieting often times can be attributed to unaddressed emotional eating problems that were not recognized or dealt with during the weight-loss process.

You Are Not Alone

It’s estimated that nearly 11 million people in the United States suffer from eating disorders.  If you’re tired of dieting, weight regain, and being told you just need to eat less and move more you might benefit from the strategies cited by the psychologists.

There are also several excellent web sites that focus on emotional eating that can get you started on your journey of emotional healing. Two excellent web sites are:

  • Karen C.L. Anderson’s blog by the same name focuses on emotional eating, self love and self-acceptance.  Her blog is internationally known and was selected by the Institute for the Psychology of Eating as one of the top 50 emotional eating blogs.
  • Rachel W. Cole – Wisdom For Women Living Well-Fed Lives – Rachel has conquered her own eating disorder, and has become a certified life coach through The Coaches Training Institute.  Her blog ask the question, “What are you hungry for?”

The Institute For The Psychology of Eating has selected a list of what they’ve determined to be the Top 50 Emotional Eating Blogs.  Both Karen and Rachel’s sites are listed along with 48 other excellent resources.

You might also enjoy reading Mindless Eating and Your Waistline: Is There A Connection?

Do you know someone who would benefit from this information?  Be Social! Share! 


  1. Much thanks for including me as a resource. 🙂 Rachel

  2. Lisa Knapp says:

    Your article really hit home! I have lost and gained 100 of lbs over my life time. Never do I seem to keep it off. I have always known I was emotional eater but never really tried writing down my emotions at the same time I track my foods. I am going to try and do that so maybe visualizing those emotions causing bad eating habits will alert me. Even just writing how you feel each day I will see the good and bad days, hopefully seeing bad days and reversing the bad eating in the future. Thanks again for your great articles!

    • You’re welcome. Also, I hope you can benefit from the resources listed in the top 50 Emotional Eating web sites. There’s tons of support and help there as well.