Updated: May 13, 2020
I know emotional eating is a topic that makes some people uncomfortable but I believe is important to talk about it as part of a holistic approach to health and weight management. Maybe you are struggling with this, or maybe you’re wondering if you are an emotional eater so my goal is to shed some light on this topic as well as offer some strategies for those of you who are feeling alone with it and hopeful to find a way out.
What Is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is when we resource to food under other circumstances than physical hunger, more specifically, when experiencing an emotional state such as: stress, loneliness, boredom, frustration, happiness, etc. Now, we may obviously be both physically hungry and experiencing an emotion at the same time this is because, we humans, are emotional beings. But in this case I am referring to when we regularly eat as a way to avoid, cover or distract ourselves from experiencing emotions that are uncomfortable.
Eating because we are experiencing what we usually to consider “positive”emotions such as happiness, excitement, joy, celebration, etc may also belong to the category of emotional eating. A classic example of this is when we seem unable to stop picking food from the table at a birthday party even though we are well passed the point of satiety. However, this may also happen because we’re simply distracted from the experience of eating, in which case practicing mindfulness can be a very helpful tool.
I want to make it very clear that there is no inherent problem with emotional eating. However, the challenge becomes when we NEED to resource to food in order to cope with our emotions. If we are unable to manage our emotional life without food or other substances (e.g. alcohol, drugs, etc.), if emotional eating turns into compulsive or binge eating that leaves us feeling in a state of physical, mental or emotional distress, then at this point, emotional eating has become problematic.
Observations from Clinical and Personal Experience
Usually, emotional eating goes hand in hand with other physical ailments. In fact, at the root of almost all weight related visits I get to my nutrition practice, I find the following interconnections:
Blood sugar and/or gut imbalances (often both)
Dysregulation of cortisol, due to extended periods of high stress
Emotional eating that is perceived by the client as problematic/out of control
The reason why these are interconnected is becasuse emotional eating (in the form of over-eating and/or binge eating) which is typically charaterized by the consumption large volumes of nutrient-voided, refined, sugary, highly-processed foods, leads to blood sugar and gut imbalances, which further contribute to cortisol imbalances and the dysregulation of adrenal function, which is intimately connected to emotional eating.
Strategies for breaking the cycle of emotional eating
Overcoming emotional eating that feels out of control or that is having a negative impact in your life is posible but it requires the willingness to delve a little deeper into your emotional life. While there are some tested techniques I have used for years both personally and in practice, it really comes down to being curious and willing to sit with some of the discomfort of life.
If you are eager to get started, I have a few tips for you:
Stop dieting: dieting is often at the root cause of over eating, compulsive and binge eating. Dieting leads to an unhealthy relationship with food and with your body. If you have no idea how to live life without dieting and want further help in this area, I invite you to check out my program Undiet Body & Mind
Focus on balancing your blood sugar level and improving your gut health: I share countless tips and resources in these areas so feel free to check my FB or Instagram accounts for more for tips and inspiration
Take an inventory of your emotional states as they relate to eating: Get to know your triggers: what situations, people, places or times of the day trigger you to eat foods that don’t serve you
Diversify your tools to cope with emotions so that food is not the only option: I’m not talking about bubble baths or drinking tea to distract yourself from wanting to eat. I’m talking about finding out what bring you joy and pleasure that besides food. Some of these for me are: long walks, a great conversation with a friend, down time.
Lastly, be patient with yourself: Emotional eating is often rooted in life experiences that date back many many years. It would be unrealistic to want to solve this puzzle overnight. Stay curious and be kind with yourself in the process.