Dr. Denise Lamothe is a clinical psychologist, doctor of holistic health, international professional speaker and an emotional eating expert. She has joined us to discuss these many facets of her life and how we can all be healthier by making conscious food choices and learning to love ourselves and our bodies.
More of Me to Love: Please start by telling us a bit about Emotional Overeating Awareness Month, and other than awareness, what you hope to accomplish with the creation of this month.
Dr. Denise Lamothe: I formed Emotional Overeating Awareness Month because I noticed that so much of our media is focused on calories in, calories out and exercise, and people often feel like failures because they don’t understand that there’s so much more to the picture. You need to look at the emotional aspect of overeating as well as the physical, social and spiritual aspects. It was the need to look at the whole picture that compelled me to write The Taming of the Chew.
When Emotional Overeating Awareness Month first went on, the whole point was to raise awareness that we eat for more reasons than physical hunger. Though people already know this, many are not in touch with how they feel when they’re reaching for foods like sugars, fats, and carbohydrates - which are soothing kinds of foods. This year, the challenge was for people to start, before they go to get the candy bar or the ice cream, to ask themselves what they’re feeling. They could still eat what they wanted to, but we wanted to try to get them to start connecting their emotions and their internal guidance systems to become aware of the anesthetizing effects these foods were having on their emotions.
MMTL: We’re so glad that Emotional Overeating Awareness Month is growing. It’s a wonderful issue to raise awareness about because it affects us all, whether personally or because we have friends or family members with emotional overeating problems. We noticed that you are the international spokesperson for Bach Flower Essences. In what way do those connect to emotional overeating?
DL: Bach Flower Essences are very helpful at stopping emotional overeating. Dr. Edward Bach, years ago in London, was a very prominent, well-respected physician, but he didn’t believe in using medications with his patients because he felt that they were causing more harm than good. When he started thinking about how he could help people heal their emotional energy, he realized that different flowers had different properties, and if he could take the essence from flowers they would help people balance their energy. That developed into his essences, many of which greatly assist in emotional overeating.
MMTL: When was the last time that you considered yourself to have an emotional overeating problem?
DL: I don’t feel that I have a problem at this time, at all, but you know what, I don’t believe that emotional overeating problems are ever 100% gone for anyone. Part of the reason for that is because in our culture foods are designed to soothe our emotions and to appeal to us. If you have a lifelong habit of soothing yourself with sugars and carbohydrates and fats, which so many millions and millions of us do, then when you have painful feelings, it’s hard not to think about soothing yourself with food, because the darn thing is that it actually works.
I say very freely in my book that I was anorexic at one point. I was bulimic for about 7 years, and I was extremely obese for a long time after that, and none of that was any fun. People always want to know, “How long does it take? What did you do? What was the one thing?” There aren’t answers to these questions because every person is different and our body chemistries are different. It’s a process that we each go through. I think for me after all these years, when I look at food now, I’m pretty aware of what it’s going to do to me if I eat it. I’m pretty aware of what it’s made out of, and I don’t want those chemicals in my body. I have a piece of cake sometimes; I’ll never say that I won’t, but it’s always a choice when we eat things. I’ve come, over time, to choose health before a fix.
MMTL: Speaking of “having a piece of cake sometimes,” what are your thoughts on the idea of taboo foods?
DL: I don’t think it’s a good idea to have anything be taboo, but you make a conscious choice [to eat what you do]. I advise people to tell themselves, “If I want to eat this candy bar, I can. It’s not taboo.” If you think something’s taboo then it makes you want it more. I think it’s important for people to know what will happen when they eat unhealthy foods, though.
If I eat this candy bar my energy level is going to go up from the sugar, caffeine and/or chocolate that’s in it, and then my energy’s going to go “pffa” [i.e. hit the ground hard], and I’m going to want another candy bar. I’m setting myself up for cravings. I’m also setting myself up to feel different. My mood will be different. When people eat sugars and carbohydrates and fats, oftentimes they get depressed, sad, disappointed in themselves and disgusted. They think they don’t have any willpower, and when they beat themselves up, they reach for more sugars and fats to calm themselves down and to feel better. But this just starts the cycle again. So, it’s important to understand this cycle.
I tell people, if you want to have some sugar, have it at night. They’re usually shocked by that, but it’s better to have a piece of cake at night than to have it in the morning and crave it all day. So if you have sugar at your son’s birthday party, then afterward, brush your teeth and get the sweet taste out; drink a lot of water and flush the sugar out of your system. Go outside no matter what the weather - get some fresh air - and make sure that you have healthy foods that you enjoy in the house. Later, when you have cravings for salty or sweet foods, and you’re likely to, you’ll understand why you’re having them, and you’ll understand that if you can just give yourself healthy foods and push through the craving, that you can turn that cycle back to a positive one.
MMTL: How do you feel about people eating out vs. eating at home? Which is generally a healthier, better approach, or do you consider a mix of those options to be acceptable?
DL: Years ago we used to go out for a treat; we’d get reasonable portions, and we’d have a lovely meal - and it was fun. Nowadays, in our culture, people are going out [to eat] all the time. Some people go out every day. There was a study that showed that most families go to a fast food establishment at least 7 times a week. That’s a daily basis! If you’re going to go out, one of the things you can be assured of is that in most places you’re going to get about twice as much food as you need, because the restaurant industry knows that the more food they give you, the more you see that as a great deal, and so you’ll go back again. The problem is, of course, that we’ll likely overeat as long as it’s in front of us. Some people go to a restaurant and ask for a to-go box right away; they put half away, and take it home with them. I think that’s a great idea.
MMTL: We are huge advocates of the “save half for later” method if it helps you not eat past satiety or even mental satisfaction. We also advocate sharing with someone, which not only allows you to end up with a reasonable portion size, but helps you save money too. You use the term “ideal weight” in one of your articles, and we were just wondering, when you use that term, how do you mean it?
DL: When I use the term “ideal weight,” what I mean is that in order to be healthy it’s good to be in the ballpark of a certain weight. It doesn’t mean that someone who’s larger or someone who’s smaller would be striving for the same weight. It’s a very individual thing. If you have in your head an ideal weight which transfers to a number on the scale it may or may not be realistic and it may or may not be healthy. It’s healthier to have extra pounds than to keep losing and gaining like a yo-yo. That strips heart muscle. Our physiology’s different and between a person and his or her doctor, they might come to understand a range where they’re healthy. The problem with that, however, is those stupid charts that are meaningless that tell you what you’re supposed to weigh that really are doing more harm than good, in my opinion - and some doctors will stick by those.
As we age, our bodies change, and our bodies need to change. I’m working with a woman right now who’s just not going to be happy if she doesn’t lose 10 pounds. Well, she’s going through menopause. Her hormones are shifting all over the place. Her body is changing and she has a hard time realizing that it may not be realistic for her to lose that ten pounds that she had off of her when she was in her 30s and 40s. It has to do with aging. It has to do with body chemistry. It has to do with gender. It has to do with a person’s perceptions of his or her own weight and what he or she wants.
MMTL: Is it natural for a woman who’s getting older to gain weight?
DL: I’m not a biochemist, so I can’t really go into great detail about that, but in my experience, most people, woman and men, as they get older, they slow down. Their metabolisms slow down. I want to mention a book by David Kessler M.D., author of The End of Overeating. I must tell you: this book is an eye-opener. I think if people could read The Taming of the Chew, which gives them a holistic view and also look at this book, The End of Overeating, they would have an arsenal of tools and a wealth of information to help them get a handle on this stuff.
MMTL: What do you have to say about the difficulties that people face overcoming their body image issues and learning to love themselves and their bodies in the process of overcoming their emotional overeating issues.
DL: Body image is extremely distorted. I tell people, “Look at yourself in the mirror in the morning when you get up and then go in the kitchen and eat a cookie or something and then go back and look in the mirror again. You’ll find that your body is twice as big as it was in the first place.” Our bodies are impossible for us to see accurately. People will look at someone else who has the same weight and they’ll think that person looks fine, but when they look at themselves, they think they’re huge. When I was anorexic, I was so thin I was horrible looking, but I thought that I was really large. It’s startling how distorted that image can become. People need to be gentle with themselves, really work on appreciating the functions of their bodies, not turn to numbers on the scale. I tell people, “Look in the mirror. Look right in your own eyes, morning and night and say, ‘I love you,’ to yourself.” It sounds kind of silly to some people, but it helps because you have to develop self love, and the way to have a more positive image is to have a more positive self esteem level and to have that you need to give yourself some positive messages.
MMTL: What do you consider some of the primary reasons that people overeat.
DL: Sometimes it becomes a habit, and I call it Robotic Eating - and many people don’t realize how much they’re eating. Now, I don’t like when people write down their foods because I think that it leads to more obsessing about it, but if people write down what they eat for say, a week, sometimes they’re very surprised to see how much snacking and overeating they’re doing. They’re not conscious of it. It’s like, turn on the TV, grab the popcorn bowl. Get in the car, bring a candy bar with you. People tend to do these things because they get in the habit. So that’s one reason: robotic behavior.
Another reason is that, as we’ve been saying, it’s emotional. These foods will calm your feelings. We already know that. We learn that when we’re small. If we’re sad or we’re upset or if we’re grieving or angry, we’re more likely to grab a bunch of cookies than to deal with those feelings, because we don’t want to cry or express our anger. We’d rather eat.
As I said, and you’ll see if you look at David Kessler’s book, foods today are designed to cause you to keep eating them. It’s very calculated, and it’s amazing. People are being given foods that are causing them to want more and more of them.
MMTL: As a general place for people to start, could you share with us one step - a good initial step - that would help people start raising their awareness of their relationships to food?
DL: Never diet again. That would be one place to start. I’d really like to give you another one, which would be: Never beat yourself up. If you beat yourself up, you’re setting yourself up [for emotional overeating]. It never helps. As for diets, diets lead to deprivation. Deprivation leads to overeating and hence the yo-yo which is so unhealthy.
MMTL: How long do you work with clients before they can stop emotional overeating?
DL: Some people never stop overeating, but they manage it and they feel better about themselves. Some people come in for a very short time, and they get a few things straightened out that they wanted to get done, and then they leave. Some people see me for years.
MMTL: What principles do you believe that it’s important to raise children with when it comes to making sure that they don’t become emotional overeaters?
DL: It’s important to let them know that you love them no matter what. If you’re fearful that they’re going to overeat then you don’t want to start trying to restrict them. You want to offer them healthy choices. Talk to them, not about their weight, but about their health and having strong, healthy bodies. Talk to them about how society, through commercials on TV and through fast-food places, are trying to get you to buy into their products, because they’re trying to make money and they’re loading their products up with sugar and salts and fat and things that are not good for your body if you want to be healthy and strong.
MMTL: If you could recommend one resource for people to go to for emotional overeating issues, what would that be?
DL: I would send them to Emotional Eating Help. I also have a wonderful list which is several pages of tips to help children and so if anyone wants those, just email me and I’ll send those to you.
MMTL: The message that you’re spreading is so important. You have such a comprehensive understanding of - a very holistic approach. People need a well-rounded lifestyle approach, and we’re so grateful that you’re out there giving it to them.
If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Denise Lamothe, Emotional Overeating Awareness Month and her other work, please visit her website, http://www.deniselamothe.com/ and her blog, The Chew Tamers. Also, check out Dr. Denise’s 30 Daily Tips to help with your Emotional Overeating.
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