In this episode, I interview clinical psychologist Dr. Edward Abramson. He is a well known author of emotional eating books and research articles. His latest book, It’s NOT Just Baby Fat!: 10 Steps to Help Your Child to a Healthy Weight, is directed at parents who want their children to grow up with healthy eating habits.
Most people eat for emotional reasons from time to time, but it becomes a problem when a person becomes overweight or unhealthy because of it.
I was very excited to talk to Dr. Abramson because I have been a big fan of his book Body Intelligence since I discovered it while putting my weight management course together. It has been a frequent go to resource.
As you can imagine, I had many questions for Dr. Abramson.After he gave us his background he told us what led him to his interest in emotional eating.
I asked him the following questions:
- What percentage of men and women have emotional eating issues?
- How does emotional eating start?
- What can be done about it?
- What are some practical methods for losing weight and overcoming emotional eating right away?
- What is his opinion on common diets.
- Why are so many children overweight?
- What can we do about it?
- Do you recommend people eat cheat meals?
Then he explained how chocolate can be eaten without becoming a problem and that no food should be off limits.
Glenn: Okay. Well, thank you for joining me Dr. Abramson. I really became interested in you when I first found your book, ‘Body Intelligence.’ I was browsing through the books at (Pals?). And I was putting together a weight management program. And I found your book and it really hit home to me. I was really impressed with the contents of it. The title got my attention but I really like what you had to say. Before we go in to that, maybe you can give us a little brief background of your history and what brought you up to the point where you are now.
Abramson: Yeah, I’m a clinical psychologist in Lafayette, California. But for many years, I was a professor of psychology at Cal State, Chico. And I ran an outpatient hospital-based eating and weight program. And so a lot of the examples in my books come from my work in that program but in addition, I’ve done several maybe about 20 published scientific studies on eating issues and emotional eating and eating disorders. So I’ve been involved in this area for quite awhile. And currently, I’m writing a blog for Psychology Today magazine. The blog is called ‘It’s Not Just Baby Fat’ which is also the title of my most recent book.
Glenn: Wow. That’s fantastic. I do want to talk to you a little bit about that book a little bit later. But I do want to focus on ‘Body Intelligence’ right at first because it does have so much to do with emotional eating. But first, I just want to give a little shout out to Chico State. As I mentioned to you before, I’m an alumni at Chicos, of the town and…
Abramson: Yeah. It’s a fun place.
Glenn: It is great. I miss it a lot. It seems like everybody has a connection with Chico State. There’s probably 3 layers of separation between most people and Chico State I found.
Abramson: Either that or Sierra Nevada Beer.
Glenn: That’s right. So my first question is how did you become interested in emotional eating.
Abramson: You know it’s kind of an interesting problem. I mean on one hand, I have a personal interest in it because I was overweight as a kid. I wore husky clothes. And earlier on when I was a younger adult, I weighed about 20 pounds more than I weigh now. So it’s been a personal issue for me. But then in graduate school, I was looking for a dissertation topic. And I found a professor who had a (grant?). And so I started doing research on anxiety in eating. And I became fascinated with it. And that’s something that I just stuck with. I’m still trying to solve the problem.
Glenn: Yeah, there does seem to be a lot of problems out there. And I remember a conversation I had once at my wife’s work. Some people were standing around and I thought they were joking but I found out later that they were serious. We were talking about emotional eating. And they were kind of laughing around, “Oh I don’t have emotional eating. I only eat when I’m happy. If I’m sad, I don’t eat at all. And you know go to celebrations or it’s a Friday.” And I’m laughing. And they’re kind of laughing. And I thought they were in on the joke that happy is an emotion as well as sad.
Abramson: Happy is an emotion too. Sure, people sometimes use food when they’re in a good mood. And the idea is that the food will intensify this happy feelings or perhaps prolong them and make them last longer but that’s emotional eating as well. It’s not just negative emotions that trigger the urge to eat.
Glenn: Yeah. And I think that’s something that people don’t really recognize is that happy and sad and all this other emotions are still emotions. And one thing I’m wondering is do you have any sort of data or statistics. Or what can you tell me about how many people have emotional eating issues to the point where it is a weight or health issue?
Abramson: Well, in general and something like probably close to a 100% of women will eat emotionally at some time. Men, less likely, maybe only 70%. Now most of the time, it doesn’t really you know it’s not helpful if you’re trying to watch your weight or you’re on a diet you know to eat emotionally. But by itself, that’s not really a type of psychopathology but when it becomes out of control, then it’s classified as a binge and that can be part of either bulimia or nervosa or new disorder that’s in the current version of the psychiatric diagnostic manual called binge eating disorder. And there, the numbers are you know far fewer. Probably somewhere 4-5% of the population will have qualified for binge eating disorder. And you know maybe 1-2% for bulimia and nervosa.
Glenn: Interesting. How are these issues started? My thought is childhood.
Abramson: Yeah, well for most people you know we can trace back if we look at what our experiences were in early childhood. Parents used food as a reward. You know if you fall off your bicycle and skin your knee, you know maybe mom or dad buys you an ice ream cone to make you feel better. You know and if we go back even earlier in childhood, maybe the case that you know when an infant cries, it may not be crying because it’s hungry. It may be crying because it’s cold or it needs its diaper changed or it’s afraid of something. But yet, mom or dad hears it cries, then maybe inclined to soothe the child with food. So if that’s the case, then the child basically learns that whenever you know something is distressing, food makes it feel better.
Glenn: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So what can we do about it? We’re adults. And we’re having weight issues. And you conquered it yourself or maybe at least do them for the most part, you said you still are–
Glenn: You said you’re still working on it which is understandable. But what can my listeners take from this? And of course, you want them to read your book ‘Body Intelligence’ so don’t give away the punch line but–
Abramson: Unfortunately, there’s not a single punch line. If there was, I’d be happy to give it away. There are many punch lines. I think that the first thing that one needs to do is to become aware of the specific pattern. You know my emotional eating maybe different eating from your emotional eating. Some people when they’re depressed, they lose their appetite and nothing taste good. Other people when they’re depressed, you know that’s when all hell break lose. And they start eating everything in sight. So I think the first thing to recognize is the pattern. And it maybe that it’s more likely to occur, let’s say after dinner when you’re watching TV or maybe in the afternoon when you have some free time on your hands. So something like that you know being aware of your pattern is kind of the first step. And then sometimes, that’s enough. Sometimes you know people can identify the pattern and then say, “I’m really not hungry. I’m just kind of sad. I need to make myself feel better.” Or “I’m really not hungry. You know I’m stressed out. I need to mellow and calm and take a deep breath and relax rather than eat.” Not always but occasionally just knowing the pattern is sufficient. But it’s kind of a prerequisite. You got to identify what your unique pattern is.
Glenn: That’s tough sometimes. I had a lot of people asked me these questions. And they say they really can’t find these patterns. Is it always… I guess there’s no such thing as always. But do you find people can find these issues on their own, their patterns on their own? Or maybe do they get outside sources?
Abramson: There are some techniques. You know I have a book called ‘Emotional Eating’ and I’ve got some specific suggestions in there. The most common emotions to trigger eating in addition to happiness, which we already talked about, are stress or anxiety, depressions, sadness, anger, boredom, loneliness. And you can keep a log which helps. You don’t have to write down everything that you eat. I mean if you’re having dinner, you know that’s probably not emotional eating. But you can keep a log which you know just do on a 3×5 card and keep it with you. And when there is unstructured eating, make a note of the time and the place, approximately what you’re eating – it doesn’t have to be in any great detail – and then how you’re feeling. And at the end of the week, you can look and see what kind of patterns immerged. Maybe you have to do it for another week before a pattern immerges. But you’ll find it that there is sometimes of the day that are more likely or the times that are less likely. And some feelings are more likely and others less likely. And you’ll get kind of a sense of what your unique pattern is.
Glenn: Well, I think that’s a great idea. But I’m also thinking it takes a very motivated, self-aware person to do it to follow through and to change it or to follow up on this and to really want to make the change. And one reason sad diets are so popular because people want to put that on to somebody else. “Well I followed this program and it worked or it didn’t work.” Either way–
Abramson: Yeah, well…
Glenn: –it’s not your responsibility.
Abramson: Well, that is why the book’s called ‘Body intelligence.’ I mean it takes a certain amount of mental activity to do this. If you’re just waiting for the magic (bullet?) to come along or the miracle diet that will somehow do it for you without you know any effort, you’ve got a long wait. It doesn’t work like that unfortunately.
Glenn: There are many, many, many who believe that that is just around the corner that they won’t have to work for it.
Abramson: Well, you know the reality is that humans have evolved over hundreds and thousands of years in which the food supply was very iffy you know. And so as a result, our prehistoric ancestors have many overlapping mechanisms that were designed to conserve energy. You know fat is just stored energy.
Abramson: And so that was very adapted way back in prehistoric times and maybe even up until 100-150 years ago but it’s not adaptive now because food is not in short supply. We can get it whenever we want it. And so the idea that there’s going to be a magic bullet that will take care of everything is probably a little unrealistic because there are just so many different mechanisms that our body has to store energy that even if we targeted one or two of them, you know there would still be others that would make us very good at storing energy.
Glenn: I’m definitely in your camp in your way of thinking. And we run really parallel in this thought process. In fact, I’m not differing. I don’t have any issues of anything you said at all except the practicality of helping people who are not yet into this line of thinking. Is there anything that you can say for somebody who’s been a dieter? And I call it a hobby dietist. And they’re not just ready to take (the own us on?) but they’re frustrated with where they are and where they’ve been. How can I bring this up?
Abramson: Well you know it’s been estimated that we can cut down or reduce 200 calories a day without even noticing it. And you know again, it’s going to take a little bit of effort but if you look at how you eat, you probably can find 200 calories that you can cut back. And overtime, that will add up. It won’t be overnight. But if you give up you know a can of Coca-Cola, that’s probably a 150-160 calories right there.
Glenn: So structural changes.
Abramson: Yeah. Yeah. But again, it requires effort at least. I’m not aware of any automatic painless effortless way of losing weight. If you have one, let me know. I’d be happy to learn about it.
Glenn: Now, what is your thought on some of these different – I hate to call them diets – but these different ways of eating, these different philosophies? So there’s the paleo, there’s some of these other that are not strictly diets but more of a philosophy or technique. There’s the zone. There’s some of these other ways that people eat for longevity rather than weight loss per say.
Abramson: Yeah, well that’s a different issue. I mean if we’re just talking about health per say, independence of weight loss, probably the Mediterranean diet has the most empirical support for you know talking about weight loss. Truthfully, it probably doesn’t make much difference. You know there was a professor. I think it was at Kansas State a few years ago who lost weight on 1800-calorie-a-day diet. He ate nothing but junk food.
Abramson: You know he had Twinkies and snickers and potato chips. And that was his diet but he only had 1800 calories of them. And he lost weight. So you know I don’t think that there’s any magic combination of foods that produces weight loss. But rather one thing that is definitely a factor is portion sized. There’s ample evidence that we just eat more than we say our parents did or our grandparents did. We exercise less you know. We don’t have to get out of the car to open the garage door.
Abramson: Or get up from the sofa to change the channel so we’re expending fewer calories but we’re eating more. So I think the simplest thing to do is to cut back on portion size. I tell people that they should use salad plates for their dinner rather than dinner plates. On an 8-inch plate, they’ll be able to get more than enough food but it will be less than if they serve themselves on a 12 inch plate.
Glenn: Great idea. Yeah. I probably got that one from you because I’ve been telling people that myself.
Glenn: I also like using the little tiny baby forks and spoons.
Abramson: There we go.
Glenn: Because if the fork is tiny, there’s only so much food you can put in your mouth at once.
Abramson: Yeah. You know it takes about 20 minutes between the time you start eating and the (inaudible 18:04) is released and signals your brain that you’re not so hungry anymore. So anything you can do that slows the pace of eating means that you’ll be satisfied having consumed fewer calories.
Glenn: Very nice. Very nice. I’ve been a fan for that myself. Now Dr. Abramson, I like to switch gears a little bit here. And I know you’re latest book is called ‘It’s Not Just Baby Fat – 10 steps to help your child to a healthy weight.’ Now we both know that there’s a huge amount of overweight children these days. There wasn’t so many 20-30 years ago. Why do you think their weight has overall been increasing?
Abramson: Oh well you know just a whole myriad of reasons why kids are getting fatter. You know the obvious one is when we look at how we eat, the proportion of families sit down dinners has decreased. The proportion of you know drive-through, fast food meals has increased. The amount of physical activity kids get you know with their gameboys, iPods, and et cetera, et cetera, has decreased the availability of gym classes in many school districts has decreased. I mean the number of hours spent watching television has increased. You know there’s ample evidence that the number of hours of screen time is positively correlated with BMI. The more time kids spend sitting, watching; the more likely it is that they’re going to be fat.
Glenn: And what is your book addressed? I mean you obviously give some sort of background like you just did. And so your book talks to people about how they can help children or can you give a little run down on your…
Abramson: Right. Right. I mean one thing to recognize is that to help parents. They are kind in a difficult spot because on one hand you don’t want to watch your kid gets fat because now we have their health risk but there are very real psychological consequences. You know fat children are discriminated against, shunned in school but on the other hand, sometimes putting a kid on a diet is really counterproductive. If you look at the history of, for instance, young women who have eating disorders, one of the things that is very common is that mom who perhaps had her own weight issues, really made a big deal out of daughter’s eating. As a result after several years, the daughter develops an eating disorder. So on one hand, you want to be concerned and help the child to develop healthy eating habits but on the other hand, if you’re overly involved, that’s a risk factor for an eating disorder. So it’s a tough spot to be if you’re a parent. I tell parents to banish the word diet from their vocabulary. Instead, talk about healthy eating and to not forbid any food. Yes, Twinkies potato chips or whatever you know are junk foods but by absolutely forbidding, you increased their desirability. And when the child does indulge, the likelihood of the binge has increased. Instead, I think we tell kids, we should tell kids, that these are foods that we only eat on rare occasions but it’s not absolutely forbidden.
Glenn: Well, that makes a lot of sense. I have not read your book yet, the ‘It’s Just Not Baby Fat,’ but I’m going to go out and buy it today because I have two young children, 6 and 8 years old. And the eight is a girl. And so I’m hypersensitive to her relationship with food. I’m doing my best with what I know so far to walk that thin line in the middle, not over, not under emphasize things. And I’m certainly not talking about weight. My focus is certainly on health.
Abramson: Good. Good. Good for you. And you know girls do not need to hear their mothers being pre-occupied with their own body issues.
Glenn: Yeah, my wife is conscious of that as well. And so it’s come up before. I think it’s great that you’re putting that out there.
Abramson: Yeah. You know even if mom has a weight concern or is heavy, daughter still doesn’t need to hear mom you know obsess about does this make (butt?) look big or you know, what diet she’s on or not on. The other thing is parents need to model the appropriate behavior. So if you want your child to be active, you need to be active.
Abramson: And it doesn’t have to be you know joining a gym or doing anything overly strenuous. But you can go for a walk with your child or toss a ball or dance with your kid. But let the child see you being active and participating with you know…
Glenn: That’s a great tip. That’s great information. I do that with my kid as much as I can. We ran to the park over the weekend. And we did a bunch of pull-ups and push-ups and some other things and play it on the playground equipment. And then we have a nice walk balk. It was really a good time. And they got some play. And I got some exercise. And we all got to move around and I think.
Abramson: And you know kind of bonding experience. The kids enjoy with mommy and daddy you know and doing something interesting.
Glenn: I have a question that’s not necessarily related to the book that we’ve just been talking about. What is your opinion on cheat meals or cheat days? I know some people talk about “Oh this is my cheat day or my cheat meal.” And they use that as a (carriage?) on a stick to get through the whole week. Then maybe on Saturday, they eat whatever they want all the stuff that’s been forbidden for the rest of the week. How do you feel about that?
Abramson: Yeah, well you know I have mix feelings. I mean I don’t think that any food really should be forbidden. But if you want to, the foods that needs to be limited, if you want to put them all on one day, I guess that’s okay. But you know there are ways as eating high caloricly dense foods to minimize the damage. So that for instance, a lot of people say that they crave chocolate or they really, really, really like chocolate and I will tell them don’t forbid it.
Abramson: But rather eat it as a dessert rather than as a snack, you know eat as a dessert. You’re not hungry because you’ve just had your dinner. And there’s some evidence that if you eat a food, a desired food, when you’re not hungry, it will actually decrease the strength that you’re craving. On the other hand, if you eat when you’re hungry, you tend to gobble it so you’ll eat more than you need. And you’ll eat it faster than what makes sense. On the other hand, if you eat it as a dessert, you can have a smaller portion and really focus on it and enjoy it and get what you need now, the food having consumed fewer calories.
Glenn: Great advice. I love it. I love it. Now, I want to shift gears a little bit. I have a couple of questions before we go that I’d like to ask you. First, is what’s next for you?
Abramson: I don’t know.
Glenn: Where are you headed? Do you have another book? Are you…
Abramson: I have a proposal out but I have to see if I get much response. I just do a blog for psychology today magazine. I just put one up. So you can go to psychologytoday.com website and look for it, ‘It’s Not Just Baby Fat.’
Glenn: Okay. I’ll do that.
Abramson: This was the one I just put up was about anorexia and bulimia in boys rather than in girls.
Glenn: Okay. I will check that out and I’ll include a link to that in the Show Note’s. Now…
Glenn: Yeah, go ahead.
Abramson: The other thing I do which may not probably is not sitting for most of the audience is I do continuing education workshops for therapist, nurses, pharmacists, dieticians, social workers, hospital administrators, et cetera. And this is so they can get continuing edu credits to maintain their licenses. And I do this through an outfit called the institute for Natural Resources. And so if anyone who’s interested in going to their website, I’ll be doing some in April.
Glenn: Great. Great. So a question that I ask everybody is what keeps you motivated. And this is in regards relating to health and fitness and nutrition.
Abramson: You know in terms of my own personal wellbeing or in terms of my work in writing and professional achievement.
Glenn: No, your personal wellness, health, fitness, activities. When you’re you know you need to exercise, you know you need to eat well or something that’s betterment and you’re currently not doing it, what kicks you in the butt and get s you going?
Abramson: Well you know much of my early life, I was very sedentary. And at one point, I joined the gym. And it was really hard. I didn’t like going but I persevered. And at this point, if I don’t go to the gym, after a week or so, I feel kind of weird. And so that motivates me to keep going and you know I kind of set goals for myself and I go with a friend and you know we spend time catching my breath. We catch up on gossips and whatever else. So that keeps me motivated going to the gym. In terms of eating, you know as I said earlier, there’s nothing that’s off limits. And so I don’t really feel deprived. I know that some days, I can indulge more than other days. But you know I also know I’m not getting any younger. I actually don’t know anyone who’s getting any younger. And my health is pretty important to me. I’m planning on being around for awhile. And I’d like to be healthy for as long as I can. And so that keeps me going.
Glenn: You’re here. It’s not just about longevity. It’s about wellness.
Abramson: Yeah, right. I mean you can… I don’t want to be live a long life and be miserable and sick for the last you know 15-20 years. I’d like to be healthy for however long I can.
Glenn: So are you saying that you would like to live fit?
Abramson: Yeah, that sounds good.
Glenn: Okay. Dr Abramson, that’s about all I have for you today. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. And…
Abramson: Yeah. I’ve enjoyed it.
Glenn: Have a great day.
Abramson: You too.
Glenn: Have a great day.
Listen to This Episode Here
Links Mentioned During The Show:
- He currently writes a blog for Psychology Today
- You can find more information or contact Dr. Abramson at www.dredabramson.com
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