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Breaking the yo-yo syndrome

Published Oct. 11, 2005

If you are one of the hundreds of people who has gone on yet another diet during the last year, you probably know first-hand the frustration of starving yourself only to gain all the weight back, perhaps even adding a few more pounds in the process.

I call this the yo-yo syndrome, the unfortunate cycle of weight gain and loss that may cause a lifelong pattern of despair. People stuck in this negative routine desperately want to lose weight, but they just can't seem to maintain weight loss. You might say they can't control their obsession for food.

Obviously some people have a genetic disposition to morbid obesity, and I am not referring to such cases. These individuals need to be identified at an early age so that special medical intervention can take place.

I also am not referring to people who want to lose the few pounds that have crept up on them over time. A certain amount of weight gain as we age is perfectly normal.

I am referring to people who have had repeated failed attempts at dieting and who need to lose weight for health reasons. People who binge with food continuously; people who have low self-esteem related to their weight.

For these people, food controls their lives.

Some people grow up eating the wrong food. They need guidance to learn how to modify their diet. As an adult, they need to change eating habits learned in childhood. But for some people, an obsession with food is more than bad eating habits.

As infants we learned that eating was a comforting experience. Eating stopped the discomfort of hunger pains and made us feel good. But as we matured, food became more than simply a means to curb hunger, provide energy and maintain health.

Eating became a major focus for many important social occasions. Sometimes it developed into a powerful psychological release of emotions.

Many emotional triggers can cause food to take on a larger meaning, but most people have no idea what those triggers are.

The first step is to identify what triggers eating binges. In a weight management program I teach for compulsive overeaters, we talk about what feelings are present right before eating. Over time, as you evaluate your reasons for eating, the emotions that trigger food binges become clear.

Instead of binging, you need to find other ways to resolve your feelings and to deal with them in a constructive way. Go for a walk. Call a friend. Read a book. Learn to be more assertive. Join a group to meet new friends.

Some people use weight as a barrier to avoid social interaction. Subconsciously, these people use weight as a means of making themselves unattractive and preventing people from "getting too close." Often, this type of individual was a victim of physical or sexual abuse as a child.

For most people in the yo-yo syndrome, food is used (or abused) to meet their needs and to comfort themselves. It substitutes for satisfying personal relationships. Individuals who cannot express feelings so that their needs are met in a healthy way, often turn to food for comfort.

Food can feed feelings of low self-esteem, typically in women but sometimes in men as well. A recent study of the correlations between age, sex and self-esteem, showed that 70 percent of girls sampled at age 9 have good self-esteem, but by age 16, only 29 percent felt good about themselves.

Most people carry out their obsession for food clandestinely. Eating habits are planned very carefully and secretly by food shopping at several stores or stopping at several fast food places. They never overeat in public. It is apparent that they do not want anyone to know how much food they consume.

In my support groups, I emphasize separating weight from the special person inside. We work on uncovering the inner person and on building self-confidence.

Although I may recommend one of the many over-the-counter diet plans to help people get started losing weight, quick loss diet plans are not a permanent solution. People must learn to make healthy eating choices.

And when your emotions get the best of you, reach out for help.

Molly Alcott, who holds a doctorate in psychology, is a weight management specialist at the Center for Women's Health at Bayfront Medical Center.