Welcome to “Slim Chance,” a twice-monthly series in which author Amber Petty documents the happiness and crappiness of losing weight.
Weight: 229.8 pounds
Lost in 2 weeks: .4 pounds
Total Lost: 23.2 pounds
I never thought of myself as an emotional eater: I’m not someone who typically drowned my sorrows in a pint of ice cream—ice cream was for all occasions, so why only eat Chubby Hubby when you’re sad? If anything, Ben and Jerry’s was to be used for celebration.
When I was 20, I didn’t eat any sweets from January through February 13, so I celebrated Valentine’s Day by eating an entire pint of Peanut Butter Cup. A friend asked what I was doing for the holiday, so I told him about my pre-planned pint adventure. He looked so sad. Oh, I guess you’re living the life of a fat sitcom character in the ’90s, he probably thought. I couldn’t understand the dismay. Eating a bunch of ice cream for a made-up holiday sounded ideal to me!
Eat Those Feelings
It took me a long time to realize my emotional connection with food. When I was my most depressed, I started eating more because it felt like it was the only thing I could control. I couldn’t get better auditions, I couldn’t magically have more money, I couldn’t manifest better friendships out of thin air, but I could make a delicious meal of macaroni and cheese. And for a moment, I could be happy.
Obviously, this wasn’t a great plan of action. After going to therapy and getting on antidepressants, my reliance on food calmed down a bit. But if something good happened, I’d still want to go out and eat whatever I wanted to celebrate. If something bad happened, I’d want to treat myself. If I was bored and felt like everyone had a better life than me, nachos would somehow be the answer.
I thought this was OK because it was always just a treat. Creamy pasta every day? That’s ridiculous! Buying a thing of gummy bears to reward myself for buying healthy groceries? Perfectly reasonable, I thought.
But the problem was that I was expressing all of my emotions through food. For some people, that’s probably fine. There’s nothing wrong with going out to dinner with friends to celebrate something special. And sometimes, you’re sad and you need a Nutrageous bar, dammit! But I have an addictive personality and am emotionally vulnerable. So all those little “treats” started to add up—and all my dieting plans slipped away.
Got Me Feeling Emotions
After Dr. Peeke (the lovely doctor introduced in a previous chapter) started helping me, I looked deeper into my mental and emotional triggers for eating, and I found that every time I had a big emotion, my first thought would be to eat something. Since I wasn’t binging, I didn’t think I had a problem, but when food is the first thought for comfort, it sets up a bad pattern for someone like me.
So I started being really aware of my emotions and stopped trying to hide my feelings with food. After this revelation, surely, I’d wake up feeling better than ever, finally free of the seductive call of tortilla chips and cheese products. Well, I did feel better some of the time. It was nice to be more self-aware and in touch with my mental and physical health.
But I also felt like I was losing my mind—my emotions were turned up to 11. I could sit in awe at the beauty of a hummingbird sipping nectar at my window or go into a crying fit over a conversation about Christmas plans. And my stress (the stress that’s always been there, but I’ve ignored and pushed aside) was very high. My emotions aren’t doing the Kingda Ka all day, every day. But I experienced all these emotions deeper than I’d ever dreamed of.
Luckily, Dr. Peeke let me know that I was not losing my mind. In fact, she said, it’s pretty normal to go through this mental turmoil. For one, I’m used to numbing my feelings with food.
Suddenly, I’ve taken that security blanket away, and now my emotions are out there shivering in the cold.
For the first time in my life, I have to feel my feelings and actually deal with them. That’s not easy.
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Stress Absolutely Affects Your Weight Loss
For the first time since working with Dr. Peeke, I had a week of weight gain. Suddenly, I was 232—up from 230 the week before— even though I’d eaten exactly the same way. (Note: I was 229.8 three days after my weight gain weigh-in, so it also proves that bodies are weird, and water retention is real.) But I’ve had the least amount of progress on the scale when my stress was sky-high, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Another reason you might feel more emotional when you change your diet: Comfort foods provide, uh, comfort. Science says so! “STRESSED spelled backward is DESSERTS. Kale doesn’t cut it,” Dr. Peeke says.
“When you’re feeling angst or anxiety about anything in life, you want to feel mentally soothed and more comfortable. Science shows that consuming refined sugar can actually reduce stress levels, thus training vulnerable people—people who default to food for comfort and numbing from pain—to grab sugar in times of stress.” So the fact that you want a bar of chocolate after every Trump tweet isn’t crazy.
Unfortunately, those happy effects of sugar don’t last. “You’ll feel some reduction in stress for perhaps an hour or so—then boom, cortisol levels rebound with a vengeance,” Dr. Peeke says. After that, you’ll have the added guilt of eating food that you know isn’t great for your body, which makes your stress even worse.
Even if you aren’t one to go for sugary snack during a crisis, the physical act of eating still provides comfort. “The act of chewing puts the masseter muscles into motion, warming blood in the vessels heading to the brain and facilitating the release of serotonin, a mood modulator (that makes you feel less anxious),” she says. “This is a form of self-soothing and can give rise to chewing on your nails, hair, end of a pencil, gum, and yes, whatever food’s lying around.”
So when you start stop eating things high in sugar and start chewing less overall, you’re suddenly cutting out a huge stress reliever. Your brain doesn’t get the serotonin it’s become accustomed to, so it makes sense that your mood goes in the toilet when you change your diet. It’s kind of (sort of) like being on an antidepressant then suddenly taking it away. No doctor would ever recommend a patient do that, but people are often told to eat less—and rarely warned about the consequences.
Give Yourself Some Space
Antidepressants and a reliance on Ding Dongs are not the same thing, of course. But I felt crazy for being so moody in response to a diet change. Turns out, I was just going through a pretty rational physical response. And as I stay in touch with my emotions, learn to self-soothe in healthy ways, and work to keep my stress levels down, my brain chemistry will adjust, and these mood swings will calm down.
I feel like we often aren’t prepared for the emotional side effects that come with changing the way we eat. Honestly, if I didn’t have Dr. Peeke and a column where I’d have to admit my dietary mistakes, I probably would have gone back to my old eating habits when I was feeling so insane. That’s what I’ve done before. But this time, I had someone tell me I wasn’t nuts—that this is just a phase, a part of getting healthy.
So, if you’re trying to lose weight and you’re feeling moody, sad, or straight-up crazy—you’re normal. Changing how you eat may seem like a small, simple thing, but it might reveal a world of emotions you’ve never dealt with before. And physically, your body chemistry is throwing a few curveballs your way. So, you know, give yourself room to cry your eyes out and scream at the TV!
I might be this messy, emotional person forever, but at least that’s better than the closed-off, self-denying person I used to be. And I’m starting to address some of my emotional demons head-on, so even if I never lose another pound, the fact that I’m moving toward emotional health has made all this work worth it.
Well, I’d probably be upset if I literally never lost another pound, but you know what I mean. For now, if you see me crying at a Haunted Hayride (which, yes, might have really happened), just know I’m dealing with years of emotions in a whole new way.
Amber Petty is an L.A.-based writer and a regular contributor to Greatist. Follow along as she shares her weight-loss journey in her new bi-monthly column, Slim Chance. Take singing lessons from her via Sing A Different Tune and follow her on Instagram @Ambernpetty.