The following post is from someone I’ve known for a long time, whom I admire and have great respect for. Dr. Frank Lawlis was my major professor while I was earning my PhD, and he and I have worked together for almost 25 years. He is currently the chairman of the Dr. Phil Advisory Board and is also an expert on ADD and ADHD. Dr. Lawlis is the co-founder of the Lawlis Peavey PsychoNeuroPlasticity (PNP) Center, and the author of the best-selling books The ADD Answer and The IQ Answer.
Why do people gorge on food when they become stressed, anxious or depressed? This phenomenon is known as emotional eating, and it’s always been one of my major interests as a psychologist. Part of the answer can be found in the cultures in which people are raised. I remember my father telling me to eat something that “sticks to your ribs” when I was challenged to perform a test that required a lot of concentration and energy. But I was always confused about how food stuck to my ribs. I later learned that he wanted me to eat foods high in protein and carbohydrates. Other families had spaghetti as their comfort food when they experienced grief or sadness. And I suppose 90 percent of Americans have chocolate cake for the emotional celebrations of the time.
Emotional eating is one of the biggest stress-coping mechanisms we have, and it often results in bad nutrition and weight gain. Every time our feelings get hurt, we hunt for the biggest sugar-coated donuts we can find, and it’s easy to tip the scales at 400 pounds by the time we reach adulthood. Our pancreas give up and diabetes becomes a life-long threat. I have had long discussions with my wife, Dr. Susan Franks, who specializes in bariatrics or weight issues, and she reports that emotional eating is the one major challenge to anyone trying to shed the pounds, whether he or she is on a diet plan or has resorted to surgery.
Many parents have used food to calm their babies, a coping technique that stays with us as we age. As infants, we are nursed or receive a bottle full of warm milk every time we cry, whether we need our diapers changed or want attention, and later candy becomes a currency of great importance. Let’s face it: Food has become a major health behavior in psychology as well as a factor in potential health problems.
I thought I had the answer when I published The Brain Power Cookbook. Along with co-author, Dr. Maggie Robinson, we listed over 200 recipes for good tasting foods according to the emotional and cognitive needs a person may have. For example, there were several healthy recipes listed for those suffering from depression. We also recommended nutritious meals to help combat anxiety and stress, and even to increase libido.
The next time you reach for a candy bar or a French fry, ask yourself this: Do your choices relate to culture or some personality trait? It’s been reported that aggressive people prefer hard crunchy food and more subdued people like soft mushy fare. Are you an emotional eater? If so, what kinds of food do you crave for emotional needs, such as salty, crunchy, fatty, sugary or gooey? Most importantly, does emotional eating interfere with your weight management? How would you assess your personality in relationship to your cravings? I don’t have all the answers, but I’m hoping your responses can stimulate a much-needed discussion. I’d love to hear your thoughts.