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Diet Syndromes

The Emotion Eaters

Doreen Virtue holds B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in counseling psychology; and is a lifelong clairvoyant who works with the angelic realm. She’s a prolific author who has appeared on Oprah, The View, Good Morning America, CNN, and other programs; presents workshops around the world; and also has a weekly call-in talk show on Her Web site is:

The following excerpt is taken from her book The Yo-Yo Diet Syndrome: How to Heal and Stabilize Your Appetite and Weight (Hay House, April 2010). Available at all bookstores or online at:

Emotion Eaters are often at a loss to explain why the pounds they’ve lost creep back again, and they may blame themselves for their lack of willpower. But, in truth, it’s really a lack of self-awareness that’s to blame—not being aware of what it is that drives them to eat so much. Here are the characteristics of style number two in the Yo-Yo Diet Syndrome:

Emotion Eaters . . .

. . . only overeat when they’re feeling a strong emotion, such as anger or depression.

. . . frequently overeat immediately after getting home from work.

. . . tend to eat whenever they’re bored.

. . . sometimes, out of the blue, find that they’re incredibly hungry, and they almost feel as if they’re starving for food.

. . . usually feel uncomfortable openly displaying or talking about their feelings.

The metaphysical basis of emotion eating is a belief that other people keep interfering with her attempts to fulfill her life purpose. She believes that if only her children, neighbors, boss, coworkers, teachers, parents, and lover would cooperate, she could get to work on her purpose.

The affirmation for the Emotion Eater is:

“I am the sole creator of my life. I choose now to put loving, creative, and consistent energy and enthusiastic effort into discovering and fulfilling my life purpose. I take total responsibility for structuring my time.”

One of the main “problems” that Emotion Eaters face is that they feel hungry a great deal of the time. Their solution in the past has been to eat every time they did so. Unfortunately, since they felt this way so often, this meant that they would take in a lot of food and gain a lot of weight in the process.

Identify Your Fattening Feelings

If you’re someone who eats to quell emotions, it’s important, at this point, to start paying attention to your feelings of hunger. What you’ll probably discover in doing so is that much of what you’ve labeled hunger is actually something else—anger, boredom, fatigue, depression, or loneliness.

There are huge differences between emotional hunger and physical hunger, as the chart that follows outlines:

The 8 Traits of Emotional Hunger

Emotional hunger . . .

1. . . is sudden. One minute you’re not even thinking about food; the next minute you’re starving. Your hunger goes from 0 to 60 within a short period of time.

2. . . is for a specific food. Your cravings are for one certain type of food, such as chocolate, pasta, or a cheeseburger. With emotional eating, you feel that you need to eat that particular food. No substitute will do!

3. . . is “above the neck.” An emotionally based craving begins in the mouth and the mind. Your mouth wants to taste the pizza, chocolate, or doughnut. Your mind whirls with thoughts about your desired food.

4. . . is urgent. Emotional hunger urges you to eat now! There is a desire to instantly ease emotional pain with food.

5. . . is paired with an upsetting emotion. Your boss yelled at you. Your child is in trouble at school. Your spouse is in a bad mood. Emotional hunger occurs in conjunction with an upsetting situation.

6. . . involves automatic or absentminded eating. Emotional eating can feel as if someone else’s hand is scooping up the ice cream and putting it into your mouth (“automatic eating”). You may not notice that you’ve just downed a whole bag of cookies (“absentminded eating”).

7. . . does not stop in response to fullness. Emotional overeating stems from a desire to cover up painful feelings. The person stuffs herself to deaden her troubling emotions, and she’ll eat second and third helpings even though her stomach may hurt from being overly full.

8. . . promotes guilt about eating. The paradox of emotional overeating is that the person eats to feel better, and then ends up berating herself for consuming cookies, cakes, or cheeseburgers. She promises to atone (“I’ll exercise [diet, skip meals, and so on] tomorrow”).

Physical hunger . . .

. . . is gradual.

Your stomach rumbles. One hour later, it growls. Physical hunger gives you steadily progressive clues that it’s time to eat.

. . . leaves you open to different foods. With physical hunger, you may have food preferences, but they’re flexible. You’re open to alternate choices.

. . . is based in the stomach. Physical hunger is recognizable by stomach sensations. You feel gnawing, rumbling, emptiness, and even pain in this area with physical hunger.

. . . is patient. Physical hunger would prefer that you ate soon, but doesn’t command you to eat right at that very instant.

. . . happens out of physical need. Physical hunger occurs because it has been four or five hours since your last meal. You may experience light-headedness or low energy if overly hungry.

. . . involves deliberate choices and awareness of the eating. With physical hunger, you’re aware of the food on your fork, in your mouth, and in your stomach. You consciously choose whether to eat half of your sandwich or the whole thing.

. . . allows you to stop when full. Physical hunger stems from a desire to fuel and nourish the body. As soon as that intention is fulfilled, you stop eating.

. . . is based on eating as a necessary. When the intent behind eating is based in physical hunger, there’s no guilt or shame. You realize that eating, like breathing, is a necessary behavior.

(Adapted from Constant Craving: What Your Food Cravings Mean and How to Overcome Them, by Doreen Virtue, published by Hay House, Inc., 1995.)

If you’re an Emotion Eater, you must become acutely aware of your motivations for wanting to eat. You need this awareness in order to tell whether your stomach is actually empty or you’re upset about something and just want to eat to feel better.

First, spend the next week analyzing the feelings you have when you’re hungry. The best way to do this is to keep a journal recording how you feel before, during, and after you eat. The journal is a black-and-white way of finding patterns in the emotional reasons why you overeat.

Second, the next time you feel like eating, ask yourself if you could possibly be upset instead of hungry. Don’t go to the kitchen automatically when you feel hunger pangs. Instead—and this is important—give yourself a mandatory 15-minute “time-out” whenever you think you’re hungry.

[Ms. Virtue next identifies the 16 feelings that Emotional Eaters most often confuse with physical hunger. They are anger, fatigue, depression, loneliness, insecurity/inadequacy, guilt, jealously, happiness, anxiety/nervousness, disappointment/hurt, emptiness/hollowness, grief, procrastination, fear, boredom and embarrassment. Included here is her section on fatigue.]

If anger is the number one psychological reason why people overeat, fatigue is definitely number two. That’s why I call it “fat-igue.” Some late-night overeaters use food in a vain attempt to energize themselves when they’re tired. Shift workers, those who stay up late at night, and “workaholics” are especially prone to overeating when fatigued.

Other people use food to calm the nervous tension associated with fatigue. Perhaps you’ve had a nerve-racking day at the office, combined with overconsumption of caffeine or chocolate. At night you try to sleep but find you’re too wired. That’s when cravings for carbohydrate snacks occur, because these foods trigger calming brain chemicals that help you sleep.

When we’re tired, our resolve to eat lighter and healthier foods often goes out the window. Feeling fatigued, we say, “To heck with calorie counting!” and down a quart of ice cream or a massive plate of spaghetti.

First, it’s important to acknowledge fatigue in yourself when it occurs. Learn to recognize how it feels when you’re emotionally drained or intellectually overstimulated. Once you can label these feelings as fatigue, you won’t be as likely to confuse them with hunger.

Second, remember that when you’re tired, rest will make you feel better. Overeating will not. Food may give you a temporary surge in blood sugar that is reminiscent of feeling rested, but the key word is that the respite is temporary. What’s more, an eating binge can lead to sluggish, tired feelings the next day as your body tries to break down the high levels of sugar, fat, and carbohydrates from the binge foods. Rest, regular exercise, and the mind/body methods described in later chapters are the best ways to combat feelings of fatigue. Food only makes things worse!