Updated: Nov 9, 2019
Emotional eating is the gorilla in the room. It is a problem nearly everyone has, but hardly anyone talks about. People would rather count things (points, calories, pounds) than face the real issues they have with food and feelings.
Emotional eating is one of the most common food issues I see with my clients and in the general population. This behavior is what derails the most passionate diet efforts (which is why diets don't work ). Healthy eating advice rarely covers the most important aspect of eating...non-hunger or emotional eating.
Many people do not think they emotionally eat because they do not recognize an emotion. You may think stress eating is done when you know you are stressed and you choose to go eat because of that. The sneaky thing is, you don't usually know you are emotional. The purpose of the food is to avoid the feelings.
Here is the scenario: you are watching tv (or on the computer, or at work, or on the phone with mom), when suddenly, and without hunger pangs, you want to eat something. You are not aware of any emotion. But if you look closely, you are not hungry...so why do you want to eat?
People say, "I just love food," or "It was there, calling to me." When people understand the food and feelings connection, this doesn't usually happen. You become clear on the fact that food does not have any kind of hold over you. It is, in fact, an inanimate object. There is something going on underneath the urge to eat when you are not hungry.
People are typically unskilled at determining their feelings. We are taught from an early age to escape any uncomfortable feelings through any means necessary. So we stuff, often with food.
Emotions commonly associated with eating:
~ Sadness or depression
There are many emotions involved in emotional eating. Even positive emotions can invoke an eating response. This is because when you are not comfortable with feeling, even feeling good is hard to handle.
Using food doesn't fix anything. It provides only a temporary relief, usually followed by the more of the same feeling compounded with guilt about overeating.
Stress eating is one of the most common types of emotional eating. Many people tell me they do not feel particularly stressed. They will say that nothing really stressful has happened recently. I would argue that our lives are inherently stressful.
There is a certain amount of underlying anxiety that many people experience on a constant daily basis. From work to kids to finances, stressors are pervasive in our culture. We just get used to them because they are so commonplace.
Food is used to calm and soothe and even numb these anxieties. Certain nutrients in food release the same chemicals in our brains that mood regulating medications stimulate. So using food is a very effective way of controlling emotions...temporarily.
The problem is many people rely on food, unknowingly, as their only way of coping. This leads to a host of problems, including but not limited to, weight issues. Then the focus is on weight control, and there is little insight about the cause of the eating.
Binge eating is a characteristic of binge eating disorder , though many who do it don't realize it. There are many people of all shapes and sizes who struggle with binge eating. This can appear to be just an issue of emotional eating, but binge eating disorder has a major impact on your life.
Binge eating disorder often develops as a result of dieting. After the psychological and biological deprivation of diets, people often feel a complete loss of control with food. Because of the emotional regulation food offers, this develops into an addictive behavior.
Typically criteria for binge eating disorder is as follows:
*Eating, in a discrete period of time (e.g., within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances
*A sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (e.g., a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating)
The binge-eating episodes are associated with three (or more) of the following:
1. eating much more rapidly than normal
2. eating until feeling uncomfortably full
3. eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
4. eating alone because of being embarrassed by how much one is eating
5. feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty after overeating
6. Marked distress regarding binge eating is present.
7. The binge eating occurs, on average, at least once a week for three months.
8. The binge eating is not associated with the recurrent use of inappropriate compensatory behavior (i.e., purging) and does not occur exclusively during the course of bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa.
Historically to meet criteria, binges were to occur at least 2 times per week for 6 months. There are a lot of people who meet that criteria. I believe the reported percentages of those affected with BED are inaccurately low, based on my professional experience.
Emotional eating, stress eating and binge eating are difficult to deal with alone. You may tend to feel totally out of control with food. Research has shown it can be overcome with help. Effective methods include nutritional counseling and emotional eating programs . I've seen firsthand the improvement in the quality of life through overcoming overeating. Do not continue to suffer alone. You can take your life back from compulsive emotional eating.
7 Strategies for Coping Without Food
1. Journaling--use a journal to help you do the detective work of determining what you are feeling. You can start by just jotting down 1-3 words that describe what you feel right now. From there you can try to figure out what brought the feeling on, and ultimately, what you can do about the triggering event. Sometimes there is nothing you can do, and you must 'sit with the feeling' until it passes (and it will).
2. Phone a Friend --venting to a friend or loved one can go a long way in helping ease your intense feelings. It can help you name your feelings and understand their source. Your friend may offer advice, and you can decide if you need this or just a supportive ear. Sometimes you just need to talk it out (and sometimes you have to make that known to the listener).
3. Nurture Your Self --what makes you feel cozy and cared for? Some soothing techniques are: a warm bath, a cup of tea, soft music, a blanket, etc. Find out what works for you.
4. Yoga or Meditation --this is not for everyone, but it can be a really helpful tool. Yoga for relaxation not only calms the mind, but allows you to feel connected to your body. Meditation is a tool many people overlook, but it helps you release the constant barrage of your negative thoughts. Both of these strategies can train you to calm your mind throughout your day as well. Escaping your own thoughts can be quite a vacation.
5. Distractions --this is only a temporary fix, but may do the trick long enough to keep you from using food. It is not my favorite tool because you are not addressing the real issue, but it can be helpful in emergencies. This can be anything from gardening, to web-surfing, to playing with your children. Make a list of things you like to do, and have it handy as a reference tool.
6. Be Present with Mindfulness --use your senses to bring you back into the moment. Often our thoughts run away with us. Notice what you see, hear, taste, feel, and smell to ground you back into the Now. No matter your mind is going on about, you are fine right here, right now.
7. Be Creative
--it can be quite soothing to express your feelings through art, music, dancing, etc. Whatever form of creativity you enjoy, use it to help you work through your emotions.