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Do We Need to Stop Fighting Against Emotional Eating?

By Erika Hirsch, MA, MFT, ATR

October 29, 2013


When people talk about changing their relationship to food or losing weight, I often hear the complaint, “I wish I wasn’t such an emotional eater”. If you look around on the Internet for articles or websites on emotional eating, even people that want to help negatively reinforce this. Oprah’s website lists the “Cure for Emotional Eating”. Other websites claim to show you “How to Gain Control of Emotional Eating” or “How to Overcome Emotional Eating” and of course, the ultimate, “The Trick to Staying Slim if You’re an Emotional Eater”. It has become very common in our culture to see emotional eating as an enemy, a disease, and a powerful force beyond our control that we need to trick in order to overcome. The images that come up in a Google search for emotional eating are an even bigger reinforcement of this; tortured looking women with messy hair and smeared chocolate all over their faces, hunched over piles of candy or cake frosting. Emotional eating has become an enemy that takes away all of our self control and leaves us powerless.

What if we approached emotional eating not as an enemy, but as a helpful source of information? Biologically, our brains are hard wired to make eating as rewarding as possible. The part of our brain that is focused on survival is also looking for information regarding potential food supply scarcities. If your cortisol levels go up because you are experiencing stress, your brain will probably think to itself, “Well, it looks like there is a chance that we need extra energy to deal with this, especially because whatever is going on might involve famine and we should just make sure we get enough to eat so we can survive it”. This part of the brain hasn’t received the memo that there is a grocery store or restaurant on every corner; it hasn’t fully caught up with our modern lives. When it comes to survival, the human brain doesn’t like to take any chances, it feels stress and it will link it to survival in some way. Instead of recognizing that biological function that we all have, we reject it and pretend that somehow there is a way for us to be Zen-like robots that just eat for fuel and don’t have any temptation to eat “unhealthy” foods that give us enjoyment. Somehow the love we have for kale should overthrow any love we might have had for cupcakes or cheese, and if that doesn’t happen then we have failed. We are weak for finding enjoyment in food. Does this seem unrealistic to anyone else? Why are we fighting so hard against our own brains? Certain foods give us a spike in serotonin, which makes us feel better when we are stressed out. This is not a crime; it is not a character flaw. We should understand it and be informed about it, but it is counterproductive to see it as a sign of failure.

Instead of condemning emotional eating immediately after we identify it, I believe that we need to observe it happening without judgment, and then ask ourselves a series of more in-depth and compassionate questions before we determine if the situation is a problem or not:

-Is my body legitimately deprived of something? Food, sleep, or something else? Many times we turn to food when we really are looking for a soothing routine at the end of a long day. This is not a reason to feel guilty, but it is informing us that we need extra support or comfort to deal with our everyday stress.

-The food I’m craving will make me feel better for a little while, but then what? What am I looking for in the long term? We often turn to food multiple times to chase that serotonin spike that comes when you first start eating that desired food. When we only use food to help ourselves emotionally, it never feels like enough. That is not because we are weak; it is because it is true. Food will never be enough to help us feel better, we need to look to more direct ways to deal with our feelings that will sustain us longer than food can.

-Do I need to get outside of my head? Is something causing me stress that I need to deal with? Maybe talk to a friend and vent it out? Keeping stressful thoughts locked up in our own heads often is not enough. Writing or talking out a problem utilizes different parts of our brain, making it more efficient in working through the problem.

-What else, besides eating, could help me feel better? Instead of focusing on the guilt associated with eating when stressed, move on and focus on what could be done next. Often our guilty feelings keep us focused on the “damage” done by the foods that we have indulged in and we then ignore the original emotions that still need care and attention.

-Do I need a break but am denying myself for some reason? Often food is what we turn to when we need a break but feel that it is more important to power through whatever is going on at the moment.  Even a short amount of time that is dedicated to taking a real break (not checking your phone, email, or watching TV) can be very helpful.

If we immediately tell ourselves that food is a “bad choice” in dealing with our feelings, then we start a cycle of negative thoughts about ourselves. We judge ourselves, feel guilty, and feel like food is now off limits and we can’t have it. This usually leads to some kind of emotional rebellion where we decide we will have the food anyway, and not just that, but keep eating more because damn it, we want to and nobody can tell us not to! Following the rebellion comes the guilt aftermath. We are rebelling against ourselves, and it isn’t helping. If we look at food as just one of many ways of coping, without intense negative judgment, then we can accept it and move on from it. It is much more productive to look at emotional eating for what it is, a temporary way to boost our mood. Sometimes it has a purpose; sometimes it is just a distraction from something bigger. If we can accept that, then asking ourselves what else could be done to help us feel better doesn’t have to feel like we are depriving ourselves. That mindset will decrease the urgency that the food craving has, and we are now able to look more directly at what we are really feeling in that moment and what can be done about it. The goal is to look at what we need, address it directly, and give us positive feedback for doing so. Only then can we start to create a more positive relationship with our emotions and with food.

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