Do you eat because you are hungry? While our automatic response may be “yes, of course,” many of us, in fact, eat due to stress or to deal with other unwanted emotions. The truth is, the choice to eat is not always about physical hunger.
Perhaps the biggest challenge with a food addiction is that it is relatively acceptable when compared with other substance addictions. It is possible to be an emotional eater without anyone ever knowing about it. It does not impact your ability to drive a car, and likely will not result in financial ruin. Coworkers probably won’t notice because they, too, are grabbing donuts from the break room. And at family celebrations you’re “supposed” to overeat.
In The DBT Solution for Emotional Eating: A Proven Program to Break the Cycle of Bingeing and Out-of-Control Eating, authors Debra Safer, Sarah Adler and Philip Masson employ dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) to address and manage emotions that tend to surround our relationships with food. They validate the reality of emotional eating, and aim to help readers understand the links between emotions and food.
A food disorder is loosely defined and can manifest in a number of ways, including binge eating, stress eating, or comfort eating. As the authors stress, the goal of the book is less about labelling or naming behavior and more about helping people manage their eating habits.
The beauty of DBT as a therapeutic technique is that it is thoroughly researched. This is not some fly-by-night method that has recently surfaced, or a technique that does not have any scientific rigor. The DBT method, as used in this book, encourages people to examine their feelings and focus on three primary DBT skills; mindfulness, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance. These skills will be familiar to those who have used DBT for other problematic behaviors.
The book starts with a brief introduction to what the DBT approach looks like, and how the first step in recovery is declaring a desire to stop emotional eating. This does not mean people can simply will the pattern away. Instead, it is about making a commitment to do the work required for healing. Next, the authors offer techniques for using DBT with emotional eating, and teach people how they can coach themselves through the steps of the process.
Charts throughout the book help readers understand how triggers happen and the resulting responses that then become habit. By recognizing that once negative behavior becomes a habit, it is hard to stop, the authors validate how difficult it can be to break the pattern of emotional eating. And the real-life stories throughout the book make it relatable for readers, while helping them to see that they are not alone. After each principle or idea is introduced, there’s a short exercise to help readers reinforce what they learn so there’s no mindless reading.
The section on planning for the future and preventing relapse is worth reading over and over again. Once people learn DBT skills, it does not mean that the recovery process is easy. Like all harmful behaviors, it is easy to relapse into emotional eating, especially since food is something we cannot go without.
Readers are encouraged to have a self-care and prevention plan to minimize the likelihood of restarting the pattern of emotional eating. This is where the skill of distress tolerance is key; it’s about learning a way to cope — other than with food — during times of high stress and difficult emotions.
For example, a reader dealing with a really tough personal crisis who finds themselves at a party where food is in abundance will need to employ healthy skills to calm down rather than immediately going to the buffet table.
Although this is written for the layperson, it is based on a scientifically-backed treatment method. This book is not written as a reference book for people to find sections that apply to them and it was not written for clinicians who want training on DBT. Rather, it is intended for people to go through each chapter in the order in which they’re presented, and complete the exercises.
Professionals who work with clients who engage in emotional eating may find the homework exercises helpful to assign at the end of a treatment session. The lack of emphasis on in-depth theory and research makes this an excellent guide for practical application.
The DBT Solution for Emotional Eating: A Proven Program to Break the Cycle of Bingeing and Out-of-Control Eating
Debra L. Safer, MD, Sarah Adler, PsyD, and Philip C. Masson, PhD
Paperback, 278 pages