Emotional eating is a major driver of weight gain, and often is the major stumbling block for people in their weight loss efforts.
The most common story my new clients tell me, is of all of the times they got on a diet, lost weight, and then had a stressful or emotional event derail everything. Something stressful happened, they emotionally ate, and then they were “off their diet” and had a major rebound. I’ve talked to clients who have repeated this same cycle 10, 15, or 20 times.
It doesn’t matter how many times people have gone through this cycle of dieting, emotionally eating, and then rebounding, most people just look for another diet. Ironically, what people often hope will fix their problem with emotional eating is an even stricter diet.
The “answers” that people often get from the fitness industry are usually things that have been found to relate to more emotional eating.
Control is the Problem, Not the Answer
Most of the answers that the fitness industry gives people who are trying to lose weight revolve around control. The advice people typically receive falls into three categories:
- Dietary control — Strict food rules and restraint
- Thought and emotion control — You should be able to control your thoughts and emotions
- Cravings control — You should be able to control your cravings
Dietary control, as you probably already know, has a fairly bad track record of weight loss success. (Hint: That’s why we use food skills instead.) Unfortunately, for people with emotional eating issues, stress eating issues, or intense cravings, strict dietary rules directly predict your weight loss failure.[1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]
Our society is obsessed with the idea that we can control our thoughts and emotions. We’re often told we should be happy all of the time, that we should be able to change our thoughts to be more positive, and that we don’t have to think anything negative. Social media makes it look like fitness influencers are happy every minute of the day. Often, we’ll be given terrible advice from fitness celebrities that we should “think positive” or that the key is “good vibes only.” The level to which we try to suppress our thoughts and emotions predicts our emotional eating rebound.[8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14]
Lastly, we’re often told that we should just white knuckle it through cravings. That we should be able to control cravings, distract ourselves, or push them away. Subconsciously, we think that people who have hit their fitness goals don’t have cravings. In fact, personal trainers may tell you about the ways that they suppress their cravings. But, for some reason, none of that works for you.[8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14]
How Control Strategies Create Overeating Rebounds
Acceptance-based tools have been found to be really effective for people who emotionally eat or have intense cravings.
There have been several studies where they had people carry super delicious foods with them, at all times, for between 3-7 days. .[10, 11, 12, 13] In most of the studies they used chocolate. In other studies they used salty snack foods. They also keep a diary of their consumption of these foods. They split the participants up into two groups:
- One group learns acceptance-based strategies: Mindfulness, normalization of different emotions, normalization of cravings, tools to create distance from (while still being willing to sit with) emotions and cravings, and values work
- The second group learns control strategies: Thought suppression, replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts, distracting self from thoughts, and challenging beliefs
What they have found is this: Both groups consistently eat the same number of chocolates or salty snacks during the time they are carrying them around. During the carrying, both strategies are the same.
But wait, there’s more!
When the participants came back, their chocolates and snacks were counted. In most studies, the researchers secretly marked the candies so they could see if any had been replaced… and usually a couple participants eat more than they reported, and bring a box back with a few replaced. The researchers noted the ones that were replaced, counted what was actually eaten, and ignored their food diary completely.
Afterwards, the participants got a tricky test of the rebound effect: In one study, there were told they were doing a taste test of different chocolates, to see how the week of restriction impacted what they liked. In another study, they were given a reflection to write, while there was a bowl of chocolates on the table.
The real study was this second part — seeing how much they rebounded.
In every study reviewed, the people who had used control strategies rebounded significantly more than the people who used acceptance-based strategies, eating up to four times more chocolates.
Thought Suppression Works for Some People and Not Others
One of the most fascinating things that we see in the research on emotional eating and cravings is that people fall into one of two categories.
- People who have emotional eating issues and/or intense food cravings
- People who do not have emotional eating issues and/or intense food cravings
Now, multiple studies are separating people’s eating and weight loss results, based on how they scored on emotional eating surveys or food inhibition (cravings) surveys.
We find something really, really important:
- If you have emotional eating issues or cravings, control strategies will backfire.
- For people who do not have food issues, control strategies really work
If You Emotionally Eat You Need Different Tools
For people who emotionally eat, control strategies will ultimately destroy you. If you try diet rules, you rebound and eat more. If you try to suppress or change your thoughts, you’ll rebound and eat more. If you try and suppress your cravings, you will rebound and eat more.
Notice a pattern?
The tools that the fitness industry gives you are all control strategies… and they are all related to a repeated cycle of failure. Likely, all of strategies you’ve read about, heard from friends, or even been coached on by a personal trainer, are the things that perpetuate this failure cycle. For you, these strategies really suck.
It’s not your fault that the only strategies you have been given totally suck — it’s probably all you’ve ever heard. Which brings us to our next point…
Control Strategies Work for People Who Aren’t You
The research is pretty clear that, for people who do not have emotional eating issues or intense cravings, control strategies work really, really well.
That means your personal trainer who recommended a diet — it probably worked for her. That coach who told you to suppress your negative thoughts — it probably worked for him. That Instagram Star who recommends distracting yourself from cravings — it probably worked for her too.
The strategies they used work for them because they don’t have any emotional eating issues.
Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, everyone has different things that are easy and hard. The biggest issue the fitness industry has is that most of the people who are giving advice are people who got into fitness because it was relatively easy for them. I’m not saying they don’t work at it… just that it’s the thing in their lives that comes the most naturally to them, that they are the most talented at.
On the flip-side, many of my clients are software engineers, lawyers, doctors, directors, or accountants, and have a million other things that they are good at, that personal trainers and fitness gurus suck at. Fitness experts are really good at fitness, but they may need extra help with finance. You may be great at finance, but need extra help with fitness. That’s ok.
It’s ok for them to talk about things that worked for them. And, those things really do work for them. You just have to recognize that you are different from them, and you need different tools.
Beating Emotional Eating and Getting Weight Loss Results
A few years ago, I read about a randomized controlled trial that blew my mind. In 2013, researchers at Drexel university created a 40 week study, with 128 people, comparing two kinds of treatment:
- The acceptance-based behavioral training (ABT) group learned acceptance-based strategies: Mindfulness, normalization of different emotions, normalization of cravings, tools to create distance from (while still being willing to sit with) emotions and cravings, and values work
- The standard behavioral training (SBT) group learns control strategies: Thought suppression, replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts, distracting self from thoughts, and challenging beliefs
(does that look familiar from above?)
Both groups also got standard behavioral weight loss training: Goal setting, habit change, habit tracking, and a gradual ramp up in exercise.
Weight loss at 40 weeks was better ABT group (13.17%) than SBT group (7.54%).
Six months later, they checked back in: The standard b group regained a slight amount of weight, ending up at 4.83%, while the ABT group regained a slight amount of weight, ending up at 10.98%.
For people with emotional eating issues, the ABT group lost almost twice as much weight.
The researchers replicated the study again in 2016. This time they had 190 participants, and the treatment went on six months. This time, the acceptance-based group averaged 35% more weight loss.
Researchers were able to piece out what drove more weight loss in the acceptance-based group, and found that:
- Psychological flexibility predicted weight loss [16, 17]
- Autonomous motivation predicted weight loss [16, 17]
Psychological flexibility is the skill of being able to have unwanted thoughts and emotions, and take actions that fit your values and goals anyway. Autonomous motivation is being clear about your personal values, and connecting those values to the actions you’re taking.
Update: But How Does Acceptance Cause Weight Loss?
While there’s been a ton of great feedback and hundreds of people sharing this, one question I got really consistently was, “But how does ‘acceptance’ cause weight loss?” Or, “If I just ‘accept’ things, how does anything change?”
In the Mind Your Health randomizd controlled trial, they had a mantra: “Accept what you can’t change, change what you can.” Here’s what that looked like:
- Accept — Thoughts, emotions, cravings
- Change — Eating behavior
The whole point of acceptance is that it increases healthy behavior and it decreases unhealthy behavior.
The irony is, that when people accept cravings as being normal, they have increased capacity to tolerate cravings. When people accept unwanted thoughts and emotions as normal, they don’t have to emotionally eat to make them go away.
The people who lost weight in the studies: Increased vegetable consumption, gradually ramped up exercise, reduced snacking due to cravings, reduced emotional eating, reduced meal size, ate more balanced meals, and so on. They made a ton of changes to their behaviors.
This is already a pretty big and dense article. My entire third book is going to cover the acceptance-based tools for dealing with emotional eating and losing weight. In the meantime, thought they aren’t specific to weight loss or food, they cover the acceptance-based tools for emotion regulation that will make a difference:
- The Happiness Trap, by Russ Harris
- Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, by Steven Hayes
- Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong, by Kelly Wilson
The Happiness Trap is probably the first one I would recommend — it’s clear, simple, easy to read, and people totally get it. Steve Hayes invented Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, so his book is predictably awesome. Kelly Wilson, PhD’s book is geared towards anxiety, but he’s probably my favorite speaker and researcher, I just really dig the way he writes about it also.
Again, start with The Happiness Trap, and if you dig it, maybe check out the other two.
But the biggest thing I wanted to you take away from this article isn’t a link to a book on Amazon. I want you to take away that the tools you’ve been given to deal with emotional eating are totally inadequate. You’ve gotten really crappy advice, and it’s not your fault.
When you hear people talk about control strategies, and you wonder why those never work for you, now you know.
There’s still totally hope for you, you just need better tools.
By Josh Hillis
Dieting Control Strategies and Increased Eating:
- Alberts, H. J., Thewissen, R., & Middelweerd, M. (2013). Accepting or suppressing the desire to eat: Investigating the short-term effects of acceptance-based craving regulation. Eating behaviors, 14(3), 405-409.
- Blomquist, K. K., & Grilo, C. M. (2011). Predictive significance of changes in dietary restraint in obese patients with binge eating disorder during treatment. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 44(6), 515-523.
- Byrne, S. M., Cooper, Z., & Fairburn, C. G. (2004). Psychological predictors of weight regain in obesity. Behaviour research and therapy, 42(11), 1341-1356.
- Meule, A., Westenhöfer, J., & Kübler, A. (2011). Food cravings mediate the relationship between rigid, but not flexible control of eating behavior and dieting success. Appetite, 57(3), 582-584.
- Raimo, S., Asko, L., & Leila, T. (2014). Flexibility in weight management. Eating behaviors.
- Palascha, A., van Kleef, E., & van Trijp, H. C. (2015). How does thinking in Black and White terms relate to eating behavior and weight regain?. Journal of health psychology, 20(5), 638-648.
- Smith, C. F., Williamson, D. A., Bray, G. A., & Ryan, D. H. (1999). Flexible vs. rigid dieting strategies: Relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite, 32(3), 295-305.
Acceptance vs. Control Strategies for Emotional Eating and Cravings
- Barnes, R. D., Masheb, R. M., & Grilo, C. M. (2011). Food thought suppression: A matched comparison of obese individuals with and without binge eating disorder. Eating behaviors, 12(4), 272-276.
- Forman, E. M., Hoffman, K. L., Juarascio, A. S., Butryn, M. L., & Herbert, J. D. (2013). Comparison of acceptance-based and standard cognitive-based coping strategies for craving sweets in overweight and obese women. Eating Behaviors, 14, 64-68. doi: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2012.10.016
- Forman, E. M., Hoffman, K. L., McGrath, K. B., Herbert, J. D., Brandsma, L. L., & Lowe, M. R. (2007). A comparison of acceptance-and control-based strategies for coping with food cravings: An analog study. Behaviour research and therapy, 45(10), 2372-2386. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2007.04.004
- Forman, E. M., Shaw, J. A., Goldstein, S. P., Butryn, M. L., Martin, L. M., Meiran, N., … Manasse, S. M. (2016). Mindful decision making and inhibitory control training as complementary means to decrease snack consumption. Appetite, 103, 176-183. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2016.04.014
- Hooper, N., Sandoz, E. K., Ashton, J., Clarke, A., & McHugh, L. (2012). Comparing thought suppression and acceptance as coping techniques for food cravings. Eating behaviors, 13(1), 62-64.
- Hulbert-Williams, L., Hulbert-Williams, N. J., Nicholls, W., Williamson, S., Poonia, J., & Hochard, K. D. (2017). Ultra-brief non-expert-delivered defusion and acceptance exercises for food cravings: A partial replication study. Journal of health psychology, 1359105317695424.
- Litwin, R., Goldbacher, E. M., Cardaciotto, L., & Gambrel, L. E. (2017). Negative emotions and emotional eating: the mediating role of experiential avoidance. Eating and Weight Disorders-Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 22(1), 97-104.
Behavioral Weight Loss Randomized Controlled Trials: Acceptance vs. Control Strategies:
- Forman, E. M., Butryn, M. L., Juarascio, A. S., Bradley, L. E., Lowe, M. R., Herbert, J. D., & Shaw, J. A. (2013). The mind your health project: a randomized controlled trial of an innovative behavioral treatment for obesity. Obesity, 21(6), 1119-1126. doi: 10.1002/oby.20169
- Forman, E. M., Butryn, M. L., Manasse, S. M., Crosby, R. D., Goldstein, S. P., Wyckoff, E. P., & Thomas, J. G. (2016). Acceptance‐based versus standard behavioral treatment for obesity: Results from the mind your health randomized controlled trial. Obesity, 24(10), 2050-2056.
- Sairanen, E., Tolvanen, A., Karhunen, L., Kolehmainen, M., Järvelä-Reijonen, E., Lindroos, S., … Lappalainen, R. (2017). Psychological flexibility mediates change in intuitive eating regulation in acceptance and commitment therapy interventions. Public health nutrition, 20(9), 1681-1691. doi: 10.1017/S1368980017000441
Another terrific post, Josh. How do you know exactly where I’m stuck? I’ll keep this short, but very sweet: since finding your blog five months ago, I’ve removed 7 1/2 very real and stubborn pounds–not through intense diet and exercise but by working on the way I think. Since reading this post last week and promptly reading every single book on your recommended list, I’ve had amazing days of feeling like food finally has the proper place in my life. Cannot wait to read your new book!
josh hillis says
Holy freaking wow, that is SO SO AWESOME SUSAN !!!!!
What are 1 or 2 of the things that you’re doing that is working for you?
Thanks for asking, Josh! I think I can sum it up in just one or two ideas. The first, and maybe the most important comes from your Aug 9 post When Your Weight Loss Goals Ruin You. Of course, the fact that “Susan” was the name of your mythical case study made me sit up and take notice! I pinned this post and began reading it every single day–some days, twice; I quickly noticed a little voice inside my head asking me if that snack/dessert/second portion/etc was actually moving me toward my values. I never limited what I was going to eat; I only considered if it was moving me in the direction of what I REALLY wanted.
The second thing that’s continuing to work for me actually comes from your 11/22/16 post Is Your Weight Loss Plan Making You an A-hole? I’d never been thin and not been insufferable (and I’ve been thin plenty of times lol). So, I decided this time would be different, and it has been. Never doubt it Josh: your writing is powerful.
So where am I going from here? Actually biting off a big action/skill/habit: I know what a balanced meal looks like for someone my age, height, activity level and so I’ve set that intention with the promise to myself that if I want to break that “normal” I can, I just have to write out WHY I want it. Surprisingly, I haven’t found too many overindulgences yet worth getting out the paper and pen.
Editing to clarify: the person I was insufferable to was myself. Controlling strategies like you describe in this post were all I knew. That’s the part I promised myself needed to be different.
josh hillis says
Susan, wow that’s amazing!
It sounds like the distinction between value and goals made a HUGE difference for you. It’s such a different perspective from what we’re usually taught. I totally want to acknowledge you for all of the work you put in, reviewing the differences and reflecting on what that meant for you in your life. Taking that and actually applying it to in-the-moment decisions about food is amazing. Basing your choices on what you really want is everything.
Sounds like your plan is awesome. Balanced meals, healthy portion sizes for you, is such a cool thing to take on.
This is totally wonderful to read about, thank you SO MUCH for sharing that with me. This totally makes my day =)
Andrew Brown says
I absolutely love the hidden gems in this post. Control vs acceptance, man what a hugely important and fundamental shift in what is important to focus on. Paraphrased off a speaker I love Art Berg, this concept of focusing on controlling what I can, accepting what I cannot has been in the back of my core health concepts for years. I just never took it as seriously as it must be taken to truly take my life to the next level. There are SO many things this can help make better, that I used to use food to try and fix. Sometimes all we need is to read something one more time, just one slightly different way and it clicks. This article you wrote is one of those times. Love your work as always Josh. Thank you.
josh hillis says
Dude totally agree!!!! “change what I can, accept what I cannot” is so totally foundational. In fact, it was the mantra of one of my favorite ACT behavioral weight loss studies, the Mind Your Health Project. I’m so, so stoked this post made a difference. I know you’re really into studying this stuff, and you’re super reflective about your own experience. I’m so stoked that this helped some things click =)