Guest Post: Emotional eating & fear of the scale

5 Ways Emotional Eating and Scale Dread Can Sabotage Weight Loss

by Linda Spangle RN MA


If we viewed food as merely fuel for our bodies, most of us wouldn’t have weight challenges. The fact is that food gives us pleasure. It also gives us comfort. And certain foods trigger powerful memories from our youth.

Emotional eating is when we overeat or eat unconsciously because we’re angry, stressed out, tired, bored, or depressed, and it sometimes makes us feel better, at least temporarily.

We also have emotional associations with the scale. Perhaps we were overweight as a child, and now dread stepping on the scale. That scale number feels like a wagging, judgmental finger. It’s also common for people who struggle with weight management to feel self-conscious and ashamed to step on the scale at the doctor’s office.

Emotions are powerful saboteurs in the battle of the bulge. Fortunately, by understanding the role emotions play in eating and weight management behavior, we can change negative behaviors and attitudes.

Here are five behaviors that work against us when we’re trying to lose weight, and some strategies to change them.

Eating unconsciously.

You’re under the gun at work–too much pressure! So you start munching on chips while you work furiously to catch up. Or maybe you get into a fight with your spouse, and now you just want to eat a bag of cookies. When anger, stress, and frustration trigger a need to eat chewy or crunchy food, you have what I call “head hunger.” Instead of grabbing for the food, ask yourself, “What do I really need to chew on?” Look at those feelings, and deal with them. Sometimes vigorous activity, such a 25 jumping jacks, will relieve the need to chew and crunch.

Eating for comfort

“Heart hunger,” on the other hand, is caused by the emotions of lack or emptiness: sadness, loneliness, boredom, or restlessness. At times like these, we usually crave comforting foods to “fill the hole” that we feel–soft foods like ice cream or macaroni and cheese, or foods that trigger pleasant memories, such as mom’s noodle kugel or grandmother’s apple pie. The way to get through such moments without eating is to ask yourself, “What do I need?” Do something self-nurturing, such as calling a friend or taking a hot bath or a nap.

Eating out of obligation.

How often do we eat because we’re at someone’s house and they baked cookies just for us? Or we feel we have to finish everything on our plate so the food doesn’t go to waste? It’s okay to cut a wedge off a cookie to taste it, but tasting is very different from consuming a whole cookie, which you’ll feel bad about later. As for wasting food, all food becomes waste, one way or another! Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re “supposed” to eat when you’re not really hungry. Use food as nourishment and fuel, not as a way to relieve guilt.

Avoiding the scale.

When used as the helpful tool it was designed to be, your scale is a wonderful weight-loss ally. It helps you track your progress and keeps you “honest.” However, many people hate being weighed at their doctor’s so much that they avoid getting needed checkups. Don’t let the dreaded doctor’s scale get in the way of your health. Instead, you can tell the nurse you prefer not to be weighed. Or you can close your eyes and ask the nurse to record the number but not tell you. Or you can weigh yourself at home and then ask the doctor to record that number at the end of your consultation.

Hating the scale.

Many of us have negative emotions–such as shame, embarrassment, hopelessness, low self-esteem, or even self-hatred–that we associate with our innocent bathroom scale. Weighing yourself every day on the same scale at the same time can really help with weight loss. Be aware, though, that the number on the scale will go up and down for many reasons that have nothing to do with real weight gain. Some things that affect the reading are time of day, water intake, extreme temperatures, stress, and illness. However, if you’re following a healthy eating plan and getting regular exercise, your weight will go down. Don’t get mad at your scale because of past memories. Just stick with your program.

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Linda Spangle RN MA ( is a weight-management specialist recognized nationally as a leading authority on emotional eating and other psychological issues of weight loss. She’s the owner of Weight Loss for Life, a healthy lifestyles coaching and training program located in Denver. Spangle’s newest book is Friends with the Scale: How to Turn Your Scale into a Powerful Weight Loss Tool (SunQuest Media, 2014).

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