A Cognitive Behavioral Approach to Emotional Eating

judith-beck_1024w.jpgA therapist on a listserv I subscribe to asked for a book recommendation for her patient who struggles with emotional eating. I wrote the following reply: 

If your patient doesn’t have an eating disorder, she might try the skills in one of the CBT books I’ve written for consumers on dieting and maintenance (www.beckdietsolution.com). People need the same skill set for resisting eating when it’s not a scheduled time to eat—regardless of whether the desire or impulse to eat has an emotional, physiological, environmental, social, or mental trigger.

For example, they need to learn how to continually motivate themselves to stick to a specific or general plan, how to label and monitor their experience without intervening with food, how to distract themselves (initially), how to accept the discomfort of not eating, how to give themselves credit to build their sense of self-efficacy, etc. Emotional eaters also need to respond to their beliefs about emotional eating. Two typical beliefs are “If I’m upset, I deserve to comfort myself with food,” and “If I’m upset, the only way I can calm down is by eating.”

I’ve found that my clients are often a bit stymied when I ask them how other people cope with distress without eating.  Of course, it’s also helpful to use a standard CBT approach—having patients respond to cognitions associated with their initial distress, do problem-solving, etc. Learning all these skills takes concentrated effort—and therapists have to decide when in treatment to focus on emotional eating, particularly if the patient has a psychiatric or psychological problem

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