By Denise Foley
Did you buy six boxes of Girl Scout cookies this year because you couldn’t say no to the world’s cutest 7-year-old in a Brownie uniform? Did you take that extra helping of your sister-in-law’s whole wheat carob cake because you didn’t want to hurt her feelings? When your BFF is waffling over ordering dessert, do you agree to share it with her even though you don’t want it – and then match her bite for bite?
If you could answer yes to any of these questions, you may suffer from sociotropy – the scientific term for having the need to please others. While that might make you the right candidate to broker peace in the Mideast, excessive niceness is a recipe for excessive girth. And it’s only one of the character traits that can lead to unhappy mornings on the scale.
We all know the major triggers of emotional eating: anger, loneliness, rejection, guilt. Most of us, at one time or another, have taken out our fury on a bag of crunchy corn chips or tried to beat the blues with a pint of cookie-dough ice cream. But new research shows that certain personality types are also prone to making a frosted donut a chosen alternative to therapy. Besides the sociotrope, there’s the thrill seeker and the worka-choco-holic – and each type needs different strategies for coping without the extra calories.
The People Pleaser: You Eat for One, But It’s Not You
In a recent experiment at Case Western Reserve University, researchers screened volunteers for their “gotta be nice” qualities, then invited them to a meeting with a staff member (actually an actor) who casually passed around a bowl of M&M’s. When the bowl came their way, students who’d scored higher on the sociotropy scale dug in, taking more than the students who were less concerned with others’ comfort or with matching how many the actor ate. “They didn’t want him to feel bad by eating fewer,” explains study head Julie Exline, Ph.D.
We often eat more when we’re around those who are eating a lot – that’s one reason studies show that people whose friends are overweight are more likely to be heavy themselves. “Then, if you have a people-pleasing thing going on top of that, you’ll feel even more pressured to follow others,” says Exline.
After overeating comes depression, and not just because you can’t zip your jeans. “When your motivation is to please other people, you’re letting them tell you what’s important to you,” says Exline. “I describe it as ‘silencing your own voice.’ ” The goal, then, to avoid piling on those unpleasing pounds, is to find that voice.
1. First, Consider What You Want
If you’re not truly hungry, “Lay on praise, then state your boundary,” suggests Karen R. Koenig, a psychotherapist and author of Nice Girls Finish Fat. You might say, “Those pastries look delicious, but I’m so stuffed from lunch that I’m going to take a pass.” You can smile at that cute Brownie, give her the money for two boxes of cookies, then ask her to donate them to troops overseas.
2. De-nice Yourself…A Little
Of course, you’re going to be fighting an enemy that has outposts in your head, as writer Sally Kempton famously said. Even if you were the biggest tomboy on the block, you probably grew up believing that caretaking was in your future, if not somewhere in your genes. “But changing isn’t as hard as you may think,” says Koenig. “It’s really about learning a new life skill.”
Practice saying a (polite) no to the salesperson on the phone (start with the robocaller if you’re a tough case), then work your way up to strangers offering samples in a store and coworkers tempting you with holiday goodies. After that, you’ll be ready to take on your cousin when she pushes a second helping of pie at you.
Are you eating out of boredom? The Thrill Seeker: You’re Bored and Want Candy
What you probably want is a jolt of dopamine, says Susan Carnell, Ph.D., research associate at New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital. That’s the brain chemical that drives excitement, pleasure, and motivation – including the motivation to eat. “The dopamine system evolved with the very purpose of making adaptive things like eating feel rewarding so we wouldn’t forget to do them.”
These days, says Carnell, drugs, thrill seeking, and food cravings have hijacked the brain’s reward system, leading to addiction, accidents, and overeating. Recent studies have found that ingesting sugary, fatty foods sparks dopamine production in the brain in much the same way drugs like heroin do, lighting up the neural reward center in imaging studies. “It’s just a matter of degree,” says Carnell. “Food gives a relatively mild high compared to skydiving and heroin. But it’s the easiest route to reward.”
Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of research on boredom eating, but a small 2011 Bowling Green State University study hints at how prevalent it is. In the study, 139 young men and women reported eating out of boredom more than out of other states of emotion linked to overindulging, such as anxiety or depression.
Older studies, approaching boredom from a slightly different direction, have suggested a connection between having what scientists call a “novelty-seeking personality” and being overweight. In a review from Washington University in St. Louis, obese people were more likely than thinner folks to be novelty seekers; they also had great trouble dropping pounds. One reason: Being high in novelty-seeking can make you more likely to overeat as well as to try and enjoy drugs. Cocaine, a cupcake – it’s all the same when you’re looking for a kick.
Joking aside, if your life seems like one big yawn, there are things to do other than hitting the fridge.
1. Seek Out a Thrill
Make a list of activities that can fill in the boring blanks. “To stimulate your neural circuitry, it has to be something that makes you feel excited and motivated,” says Carnell. You could, for example, take a class. Dopamine is the chemical that fosters learning and memory, so the novelty of doing something new scatters the chemical throughout your brain. Whether it’s knitting or scuba diving depends on you and the level of excitement you think you need.
2. Shake Up Your Life Regularly
Get off the bus at a different stop and hoof it the rest of the way to work, checking out the sights you’ve only seen from a window. Plan your dream vacation or home-remodeling project in detail, as if you’re doing it soon. Need to lose weight? A single program may not help you, particularly if you get bored counting calories, carbs, or points. So try one and, after the thrill’s gone, try another. Likewise, alternate physical activity – walking one day, Zumba the next.
Busy lives can contribute to weight gainThe Worka-choco-holic: You’re Overworked, Overwhelmed – and Overeating
Those are the “three O’s” that are the downfall of driven women, says psychologist Melissa McCreery, Ph.D., which explores how women’s busy lives contribute to emotional eating and weight gain. The “O’s” can all lead to stress eating. “But there’s more to it than stress,” says McCreery. “Women who balance many responsibilities struggle with putting themselves first. It takes time. Food is an easy Band-Aid, while real self-care can be more time-intensive.”
But solutions come in many sizes – and even small changes may be enough to avoid the extra pounds that can come with extra work.
1. Think “Doable”
You don’t want to add more stress to your life. For example, take five minutes to transition between work and home. If you know you won’t find quiet – everyone will be “starving” or clamoring to tell you about his or her day – sit in the car and listen to music or meditate before going into the house.
2. Connect With Yourself
When you’re stressed, take five again – five seconds – before digging into the Nutella. “Ask yourself what’s going on and if there’s anything else you want to do besides eat,” says McCreery.
Make a list of small breaks that don’t involve chewing: calling a friend; playing a game on your cell phone; tossing a toy for your dog.
3. Say It Out Loud
A recently published Greek study found that people who were trying to learn a new skill did better when they spoke to themselves using cue words. When you’re stressed, voicing your plan to do something other than eat – “I’m going to sit down and read for five minutes” – will change the direction of your thoughts, says McCreery. “It takes you off autopilot and puts you more in control.”
If that doesn’t work, instead of blaming yourself, be curious. Think about what went wrong and what you could do next time. Overachievers are smart; harness your own wisdom, and you’ll find your answers there.
Getting enough sleep can deter emotional eatingGo to the Mattress
No matter what your personality, if you’re tired, you’ll be tempted to look for a quick hit of energy – the kind that lives in vending machines or behind drive-through windows. Many of us know this from life experience, but now, using brain-imaging technology, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, have confirmed that people who have been sleep-deprived suffer impairment in the parts of the brain involved in making appropriate food choices. The solution: Make sleep time sacrosanct. When you can’t log enough hours, try these next-day tricks: Give your brain a rest every 45 minutes or so. “No matter how busy you are, you’ll be more productive if you take breaks,” says psychologist Melissa McCreery, Ph.D. And find other quick ways to boost energy – move around, go outside for some fresh air, or listen to upbeat music on your iPod.