Sunday, January 31, 2010

Can men be emotional eaters? Off the record...

For those who have never seen one, a focus group is a mainstay of market research that infinite companies use to gather infinite opinions on infinite topics.  I've been to a million over my ten years at Weight Watchers.  There are few that were as memorable and fascinating as the ones where men spoke about weight loss.  

Usually, the discussion starts off where the different men around the table start tentatively sharing their experience with being overweight.  During the first ten minutes, there is a lot of predictable chest thumping and joking along with proclamations such as "I've got too much pillow in the middle, but it's OK because I'm just gonna start hitting the gym" and "What does it matter if I'm heavy?  I'm married." or "I don't eat cuz I'm sad.  That's for chicks."  

Truth be told, men have a pretty humorous way of talking about weight, possibly because they are a little uncomfortable with the subject matter.  Comedy is a great way to skirt around a touchy subject.  

What was interesting about these focus groups is how the conversation would change over the course of 60 to 90 minutes.  By the end of the sessions, there was pretty heavy discussion about underlying emotions about being overweight, and how the condition made them feel about themselves.  These guys kept it together, and there was no weeping, but the conversation got pretty personal and very real.  

The conventional wisdom is that men have a very different take on weight issues than women.  Men are from Mars and women are from Venus.  Men eat because they just like to eat while women eat because eating is connecting to a myriad of other issues.  Is conventional wisdom true?  Are men and women all that different?  Can men be emotional eaters?  

So ask me the question.  Am I an emotional eater?  

Before I answer that question, let me first provide an honest and important caveat. I've been working at Weight Watchers for the better part of a decade.  You can't spend this much time at this company, spending this much time talking about weight issues, without developing estrogen deposits.  I'm a much more sensitive dude than I used to be, and arguably, some of my inherent manness has been obscured by frilly drapes. 

But go ahead and ask me the question anyway.  Am I an emotional eater?  Damned straight I am.  

The word "emotion" covers a lot of ground:  happy, sad, bored, stressed, relaxed, frenzied, etc.  Do I create ritual acts of combining crying and ice cream eating?  No (or at least I would never publicly admit to such a thing).  Do I eat for a million reasons that have nothing to do with physical hunger.  Most definitely.  So what are my emotional trigger points for unnecessary digestion?:

  • Boredom: This is a big one for me.  I don't eat much when I'm in the midst of a flurry of activity, running from meeting to meeting or running errand after errand.  However, put me in a place of stasis, and I get ravenous.  This is almost always the trigger for a good grazing session.
  • Stress:  If I really analyze it, I would have to say Yes to this too.  When I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders and the fates are conspiring against me, I am not above a little bit of food-based self-medication.  I deserve this bit of nasty food because life isn't being fair.  Putting something gross into my system would surely make me feel better.  BTW, it does make me feel better...  for about 3-4 minutes.  
  • Reward:  This is a BIG yes.  I have done great things this week!  I deserve a giant reward in the shape of a calorie bomb.  
  • I want to be happy:  like most people, I've somehow convinced myself that the act of eating has the capacity to create a state of prolonged joy.  At least for a few minutes.  
  • I want something to look forward to:  I always look forward to my next meal.  Somehow, it will be one of the highlights of the day.  Even though the meal eating process may only last 15 minutes.  Kind of sad.  
So what to do with this self-examination?  Knowing what my trigger points are seems the right start to winning this battle.  The next step is identifying ways other than food for addressing these trigger points.  Somehow I need to rewire my neural synapses to recognize that eating is not the salve or reward that I think it is.  This is easier said that done, but I do believe I can learn to do it over time.  

Dealing with eating issues is not just about managing the calorie deficit equation.  I never cease to be amazed by how complicated the topic of weight is and the degree to which eating is connected to a million emotional issues other than the need for basic sustenance.  If it were just about calorie deficit, we could all just buy a diet book, get educated, and be done with it.  Behavior change is so much more complicated, but it can be solved.  That's why Weight Watchers exists.  That's why I have to admit that going to meetings has been a big help to me in making changes in the way I live my life.  And it's not just because I'm in touch with my feminine side (though I am).  It's because weight issues are about fundamental human nature, which is not gender specific.  

Ask any guy and he will tell you the same.  Unless he denies it.  If so, give him a hug and let him have a big cry and maybe a spoonful of ice cream.  

Other brave men care to jump into the truth telling pool?  Please do share.  




  1. Thank goodness for Weight Watchers. It sure does help me stay focused and keeps me faithful (most of the time)on my weight loss journey.

    BTW, hope you don't mind me saying so, but a larger type would be welcome.

  2. Im not a man but I give you such HUGE KUDOS for being so honest and putting it out there.

  3. Yeah, huge kudos for admitting it's not just a girl thing.

    At first reflection, I was like, "hell no I don't emotionally eat..." because I too don't cry into my ice cream, and then after thinking - yeah, I can be guilty of it too. I try to make it positive for me by instead of boredom/stress eating something like chips or candy, I'll cozy up to my desk in the afternoon with a raw bag of mixed veggies. It's a great way to get more good food in, but since the TENDENCY is still there, I have to watch it.

  4. Thanks for the article.

    I can definitely relate to the "I'm not an emotional eater" issue. However when I look at the whole world listed above - I can definitely relate. But for me... I just never wanted to be told that I couldn't eat whatever the heck I wanted to. Once I took responsibility for what that created (nearly 300lbs) and saw the impact that had on me and others - I found a way to transform that. I'm now nearly 70lbs lighter and running in my first ever 5k on sunday. More info on my WW journey on the linked blog article.

  5. I love Weight Watchers so much, I've come back after almost 30 years(I'm doing the program online and love it)and learning the points system has been fun. Very good blog-I know women are usually credited for being emotional eaters, but men can be too-because it's an addictive behavior. My husband works for TNT in programming and every week we watch "Men of a Certain Age" and one of the characters, I think his name is Owen, is dealing with that issue-A LOT on the show....I like the way they're handling it. Anyhow, it's great to be back at WW and thanks!

  6. For me most of these reasons are similar triggers.

    Boredom is not necessarily a trigger, but stress is a big one. I find myself just sayting "to hell with it today" and then just dive head first. Unfortunately, I have let stress put back 30 pounds back on. Although I was still weighing and my scale was staying within a range, but clothes were not fitting right. I got on a differnt but reliable scale and I could have been sick because the scale indicated what I secretly feared.

    Every so often I'll use food as a reward. But it's isn't a regularly occurring thing. It kinds of depends on what the next meal may be (what we're having). I also don't really use food to make me happy, I have freinds and God for that.

  7. Hard for me to believe this is even a question... of course, men are emotional eaters. If we weren't, then we would only eat when we are hungry and we would all be thin. Well, now I AM thin, but only after 155 pounds lost on Weight Watchers. I am still an emotional eater, but knowledge is a wonderful thing. Most of the time I recognize it before I act on it and then I make a conscious decision about how to act. Usually NOT eating is the best answer (as they say, if food isn't the problem, food isn't the answer) but sometimes I WANT to eat... so now I just eat a ton of vegetables... a pound of broccoli usually hits the spot. I try to do something else... like go work out, or call a friend... much more productive responses to whatever was triggering me.

    ANYWAY... Weight Watchers taught that all to me and I LOVE how being thin feels!!!

  8. I love WW and I think the topic is important. But the picture is of a French man in 1940 watching the Nazis march into Paris. It is not appropriate even if most folks don't know the origin of the snap.

  9. Mea culpa on the previous image that I included on this post. I did not know the origin of the photo. I had thought it was taken from an old movie. Upon discovery of the actual origin, I quickly took it down and replaced with the above graphic. If the original photo is still showing up, it must be residual cache. Thanks for the head's up on this.


  10. I totally agree that men overeat due to emotional factors. For me it has always been Stress and Boredom. I have lost a lot of weight on WW but still fight these urges but lately I feel I have turned the corner and won the mental battle. I give a lot of credit to me WW leader for her insight and encouragement. I also give credit to the Binge eating thread on the website. Staying motivated to stay on plan and recognizing emotional hunger is the way to do it.

  11. You are spot on with the emotional eating chief.
    I ate when I was bored, frustrated, happy, angry, you name it. WW has helped me identify this and for the last 20 weeks, I've been able to get a handle on it. I've been keeping a journal of my time at WW and who knows, when I'm done, I may have a great story to tell....68 pounds so far and another 100 to go.

  12. hey there,

    just stumbled upon your blog and post and while i know this one is older than where we are now-march-i actually wanted to write in response to how you said going to the WW meetings really helped you get in touch with feelings, etc and to talk about emotional eating if i remember correctly. one of the main reasons why i am now doing WW online is because i felt that the meetings actually didn't get enough into the emotions of food and eating. that it was all about staying OP and not enough conversation about the struggles and talking about our feelings and sharing. i found that since i have deep emotional eating behavior and that really when i said in a meeting that "i am here to learn how to eat because i am a great athlete and workout all the time, but i can't eat to lose weight to save my life" i didn't really get much help. i ended up deciding that the Binge eating threads on WW online were much better BUT i find this to be disappointing as i really feel that emotional eating is really why we're all here. and i feel that more should be addressed about that in meetings than what currently is.