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Beating emotional eating

By Matt O'Neill, MSc(Nut&Diet), APD

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When tackling a client who has a strong emotional relationship with food, you'll be aiming to:

  • encourage long-term healthy eating and physical activity
  • correct any restrictive eating behaviours
  • build self-esteem and enjoyment of eating.

Here are some suggestions for achieving these objectives:

Share your concerns

Approach clients from your point of view, 'I am concerned about your well-being' or 'I feel that your eating and exercise routine may not be helping you achieve your goals'. This language lets them know you care, but doesn't say you know how they feel.

Ask if they need help

Get an OK to proceed (not exactly sure what you mean there) and see if they want to partner with you to look for emotional solutions (which may include referral to another health professional). Can the second part of the sentence read:
Ask your client if they would be receptive to looking for emotional solutions together. This may include referral to another health professional.

Build trust

Build trustworthy, confidential and non-judgmental relationships with your clients - they have to respect you before taking your advice. Keep in mind, it can take time to develop a good rapport with some clients.

Avoid terminology

Avoid using terms such as `bingeing', `fasting', `purging' with clients you suspect may be having these experiences. Describe the actual behaviour in non-threatening language. For example, 'There are times you may eat much more than you feel comfortable' is a much less threatening way to describe bingeing.

De-emphasise weight

Avoid placing any emphasis on body size, weight, shape or physical appearance. Giving praise for a low body weight or lean physique can make it harder for clients to accept themselves. Give praise for what clients do, rather than how they look.

Chunk changes

Ensure that any dietary or exercise modifications you make are very small. For example, having (are there some words missing here?) breakfast one day this week, not every day. Changing the whole diet at once will be too overwhelming for clients to accept and adhere to.

Don't get in their hole

Psychologist, Dr Phillip McGraw, from the Oprah Winfrey television program, recommends not `getting in the hole' with your client. Instead, hold out a stick, a rope or a ladder (your advice) for them to use to climb out of their hole. Getting in the hole with them can be psychologically draining and professionally inappropriate.

Rewarding Results

It is very rewarding to see a client reduce their negative emotional bonds with food. You may notice the following:

  • decreased self-criticism, especially about their body and eating habits
  • increased variety and quantity of food, without weight gain
  • improved vitality and outward energy
  • greater social interactions and willingness to eat out more.
By addressing emotional eating we can help our clients attain the healthiest weight they can. Improving emotional wellbeing is also an important goal which, when achieved, will mean our clients feel good about themselves and they keep exercising with us.



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