Sherri-Charlotte ObserverIf you’re worried about gaining weight during this indulgent time of year, you know cutting calories and increased exercise can help.

What you might not know, Sherri Clarke says, is that these could be temporary solutions that don’t get to the root of the problem.

“Sometimes overeating goes a lot deeper than willpower,” says Clarke, founder of recently opened Lifexcel Carolina in the Ballantyne area. “Emotional eaters will eat when they’re not physically hungry.

“If you decide to eat cookies not because you’re physically hungry but because you’re lonely – guess what? At the bottom of that cookie jar, you’re still lonely. Now you’ve got two problems instead of one.”

Clarke’s experience as an emotional eater, or “food needer,” as a teenager is part of the reason she opened the business, advertised as the only one in south Charlotte to offer exercise, nutrition and behavior coaching in one facility. She de-emphasizes the conventional one-size-fits-all, calorie-counting approach in favor of a personalized program that offers certified personal trainers, registered dieticians and a mental health professional.

A North Carolina native, Clarke, 44, experienced the emotional connection to food at an early age. She was 13 when her father suddenly died of a heart attack at 48. “I got my hands on the only drug I could … and that was food,” she says.

“I knew I ate when I wasn’t hungry, but I had no clue why. It was kind of a dark secret I kept for a long time – until I got into college at Carolina and saw a dietician.”

She then realized that the eating began shortly after her father died.

“As I progressed, I got my bachelor’s in exercise science, got a master’s in nutrition, became a registered dietician. All that time (which included 10 years in pharmaceutical sales), I wondered, ‘Why does nobody recognize the emotional connection with food and treat it on an outpatient basis?’ ”

Such services are available on an inpatient basis, Clarke says, but that’s very expensive and often only for the overly obese.

“What about the people who are only 20 pounds overweight, 30 pounds overweight?” she says. “They need a place they can go that they can afford.”

New clients are asked to fill out a form that helps determine whether their eating is emotionally driven. If so, it’s recommended they get behavior coaching from Claire Jones, a licensed clinical social worker on staff.

Clarke says the business accommodates insurance for the behavior coaching. If insurance doesn’t cover it, it’s $90 an hour. In-home personal training prices range from just over $47 a session to $56, depending on how many sessions; one-on-one in-studio prices go from $40-plus to $48. Group therapy sessions and nutrition seminars are planned as the business adds more customers.

Not everyone with a weight issue is a food needer. Clarke says it’s about 50-50 so far among her clients since opening in early October; the other half are food lovers who want to manage their weight in response to a life change. Lifexcel Carolina offers six- and 12-week programs for food lovers, and 12-week programs for food needers.

Regardless of the reason, Clarke’s business addresses a problem that shows no signs of going away.

According to the latest figures from the National Center for Health Statistics, about 34.9 percent of Americans in 2012 were obese, which is roughly 35 pounds over a healthy weight. For children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the percentage of those ages 6–11 who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2010. The percentage of adolescents 12–19 who were obese increased from 5 percent to 18 percent during the same period.

Kim Smith, another staff member who, like Clarke, is a registered dietician, has expertise with overweight children. “The more research that psychologists do, it just seems that our emotions can negatively or positively impact our situations when it comes to weight loss or weight gain,” Smith says.

Clarke says her business is getting a lot of calls from parents of overweight kids. One came from Naomi Livesey of Waxhaw, who contacted Clarke before the business opened about her 10-year-old daughter, Abby.

Clarke and Smith met with Abby and determined her situation isn’t connected to emotional factors, which made her case all the more puzzling.

“And Abby could not be more active,” her mother said. “She’s always running all over the place, not someone who sits around and plays video games.”

Since having Abby keep a food diary to record what she was eating and when, Livesey has noticed strong results. “Her (body mass index) is back at a normal range,” she says. “Her doctor was very happy. We’ll keep with the program into next year to keep the progress going.

“You can tell this will be a lifelong thing for her, not a quick fix.”

Clarke said she only can help people committed to losing weight.

“People have to be ready,” she says. “I can only help the people who are sick and tired of being sick and tired of being overweight. They’ve tried everything.

“I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy. I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it.”

Originally published in the Charlotte Observer