For many of us, the start of a new year usually means the start of a new diet. We are bombarded with ads promoting diet programs guaranteed to help shed unwanted pounds. And, they all work. But for how long? One of the reasons that the weight-loss industry is so profitable is that we keep coming back for more. Why is it that we just can’t seem to keep that long-term commitment with weight-loss?

Although many of these diet or weight loss programs have the basics right: better choices, fewer calories, more exercise, one of the reasons that we seem to always be drawn to old patterns is that these programs never really address the emotional issues behind why we are constantly battling the bulge.

Every one of us has an intimate and emotional bond with the foods we eat. It may be healthy or dysfunctional, but make no mistake, this significant, long-term relationship impacts the choices you make when it comes to food. Understanding how you relate to food is often the lynchpin to losing unwanted pounds and keeping them off. Consider how the following typical food associations might be affecting your eating habits:

  • The Association: Comfort — Probably the best-known association to food is that it is a source of comfort. The reason that certain foods like chicken soup, macaroni and cheese and apple pie are called “comfort foods” is that when we eat them we feel a sense of calm that goes beyond the taste. During times of emotional stress and unease, we tend to turn to these foods instinctively for comfort because these foods usually have pleasant associations from childhood. However, when we blindly over-eat these favorites to feel better, it can be a big problem. This is known as emotional eating.
  • The Association: Connection — Some foods we eat are all about the connection with important people in our lives. If you are feeling disconnected from loved ones because of a change in your life circumstances or loss, seeking out these types of foods may temporarily help you to feel a sense of connection, but will expand your waistline.
  • The Association: Identity — The biggest issue most people have when it comes to food is about how we see and define ourselves. For example, you may want to lose weight and feel better about yourself, but when you start to perceive the changes in your figure and the way the world views you, you may become uncomfortable with the “new you.” This discomfort may lead you to instinctively head back to old patterns of eating to recognize yourself and feel safe in your old identity.

The Solution: If any of these ring true, you can decide to change your relationship with food and eating habits to get the satisfaction without getting the extra pounds.

One thing that all of these associations have in common is that they are about the past: previous experiences of comfort, prior connections with others and a past relationship with yourself.

Instead of eating out of emotional need, consider creating. Using your innate creativity to strengthen the emotional bonds that may feel worn can give you a new way of feeling emotionally sated, so you are less likely to turn to familiar and unhealthy foods to fill the void. There are so many ways you can be creative that will give you a healthy emotional outlet instead of turning to food during times of stress.

If you are feeling emotional unease because of a change of circumstances or location, consider writing, drawing or taking photographs to express yourself. If you are experiencing pain of loss, consider developing something new to soothe your pain. If you feel lonely or sad you can go out into the garden and plant something, or just pull weeds for a time. Keep a large box of crayons in your house with a large pad of paper and just “play” on paper. Get a journal and write down your feelings instead of turning to the refrigerator. Go outside for a walk. It is well known that exercise can help to combat feelings of anxiety and depression. You also get much-needed Vitamin D by being outside and that, too, will improve your mood. Consider making a collage of photos and memorabilia. If what you create is edible, give it to a friend or to others in need. That way, you form a new connection and transform the negative feelings into a positive experience.

If the association that you are struggling with is about identity, consider painting a picture or writing a story about the new you. Getting to know this person in your mind’s eye before your take her out on the streets will help you gain more comfort with the change in identity and will reduce your impulse to run back to the kitchen for sweets.

It’s time to walk down a different street and start a new relationship with food. By understanding how you relate to food and how you feel about what you eat, you can make better choices and feel good about yourself. This will put you well on your way down a new path to a healthy relationship with food and a healthy you.

Dr. Ben Michaelis is a clinical psychologist who specializes in helping patients achieve mental health and well-being through creative expression. His clients include authors, musicians and a wide range of artists and professionals. He is an adjunct professor of psychology at Columbia University and on the medical faculty at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. Dr. Michaelis is the co-founder of the Downtown Clinicians Collective, author of numerous articles and studies and has been featured on Salon.com and in Entertainment Weekly.

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