Emotional Eating

Emotional eating is something that many of us do—we’re stressed, we’re feeling badly, or, maybe we don’t know why just then that we’re doing it—but we find something, usually quickly, to munch on or to swallow. We eat, impulsively at first, and then more and more in response to something other than simple hunger.

There must be something that can be done about this, right? There are few health benefits to eating to quiet the pain, except for just that--the immediate benefits of quelling hurt, quashing a bad feeling, or worse, the feeling that hath no name—-a sensation of I don’t know what that finds itself momentarily soothed by the process of ingestion and the relieving physical and chemical cascade which ensues.

This ‘I don’t know what’ apparently was a key factor in emotional eating in a relatively recent study.

Titled “Emotional Eating, Alexithymia, and Binge-Eating Disorder in Obese Women” and published in the medical journal Obesity, investigators in France determined there appeared to be a causal link between something called alexithymia and emotional eating in overweight women.

Alexithymia is a word which literally means having no words for feeling. This, in French, happens to be my favorite pretentious vague expression, je ne se quoi.

Perhaps it was for this reason the study was conducted in France? Or maybe to dispel the urban myth that French women never get fat, even in the face of daily supplements of triple cream brie and goose liver?

Joking aside, in their population of Binge Eating subjects, it was this alexithymia--a difficulty to identify emotion—-which appeared to be the single most important factor in driving emotional eating.

These subjects in the study had binge eating disorder—an eating disorder which you can think of as just the first half of Bulimia Nervosa. Bingeing without purging.

If you have Binge Eating Disorder eating takes place impulsively--in one fell swoop you could find yourself eating multiple pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream—with aptly named flavors Chunky Monkey and Chubby Hubby—-without even thinking about it.

What triggers a binge? Some people are able to describe some external triggering event—-but rarely the feeling.

How do you fix this? In some ways it’s like having to teach someone who is completely deaf how to appreciate music. You can point to the notes on the page, but ultimately something is missing in their experience.

In my view in emotional eaters, alexithymia is more of a state-dependent issue and less of an inflexible personality trait. That is, something about the situation yields having no words for how they’re feeling just then--in the moment. In other words, this is treatable.

The elusive feeling could be anything from a sense of being about to explode, to a sleight from a trusted friend, to a stress which persists like a dull ache but resides just under the surface of awareness, or, like one of my patients who gave up an Oxycontin addiction in exchange for one involving Whoopie Pies.

This last example, begs for a discussion about the addictive nature of refined sugar—and where the chemical reward pathways in the brain could play a role--but in this individual, psychologically, some important mechanisms for coping and self-soothing seemed grossly absent.

Interestingly, the regret often for the emotional eating begins during mid-bite. Luscious clouds of white cream are barely licked by the time the emotional eater is already, in the back of his mind, getting down on himself for doing something he knows is not good for him.

It is in this very spot—at this critical time--that a window for treatment opens up: where there is a small crack, so the crowbar of good psychotherapy—even self-directed behavior modification—can force an opening into the bright light of a whole grain high fiber or otherwise healthy solution.

The French study suggested that obese women who have difficulty identifying and communicating their feelings also have a tendency to eat in response to emotions.

Think about it. Isn’t it just easier to do something automatically than to sit still with an uncomfortable feeling? Or easier to act rather than talk about feelings?

It may be that by acting or doing you avoid necessary self-analysis, the work of figuring out what is motivating you, how truly poorly you feel at a given moment. Often the issue concerns a particular problem unrelated to food.

The issues unrelated to food might be your ticket

to improving an automatic and intractable seeming dilemma in driving your emotional eating.

In my view, emotional eaters are just that—they are eaters of not just large bags of Doritos. Emotional eaters are eaters of emotion.

Do you eat your emotions? Ask yourself this. Do you swallow your feelings so effortlessly there’s so there’s not a single little tiny trace of emotion left on your lips, even if there’s still a line of powdered sugar between them?

What can be done? There are solutions for emotional eating.

It’s unrealistic to hope that the enduring pattern of bad feeling—even an anonymous one—will simply never return ever again.

So when the feeling comes, the action needs to be modified. This is the first and best approach. First you can make it physically impossible to reach for the usual culprits—the soft foods like ice cream, chips, the bread, the cookies, whatever, pick your fat or carb laden poison, and make them non existent in the household. To the best of your ability—households with kids tend to harbor a ton of snacks, so you may need to segregate your snacks from your childrens so you can’t easily dip into theirs when you’re having a je ne se quoi moment.

Instead pick healthy but palatable items that have something of nutritional value—and which have something like fiber in them so that you can feel full fairly readily.

Go ahead, eat cereal, but toss the Captain Crunch and have some delicious healthy cereal on hand that, you, as an adult, have decided beforehand would be an acceptably good tasting healthy cereal to use at a stressful time.

This would be, in my case, something called Uncle Sam cereal, or Suisse Muesli—all of which have no added sugar, and are packed with fiber. All of which taste really good.

Reach for fruit, vegetables, --I’m you know the basics already—and I’m not a nutritionist—but you need to figure out what you can realistically binge on without wreaking havoc with your body.

This is just the beginning—the core change will take place as you also determine finally what you are truly deep down hungry for. For many this is love—and love as a euphemism for sex, or relatedness, even just bare bones attention from someone.

Or perhaps the hunger—which has become a meld of physical animal hunger—and a yearning for something larger, maybe something spiritual—something lofty and abstract related to your existence on this planet—but which, ultimately takes shape as a run of the mill reaching for stale Ritz crackers on some top shelf of an over-worn cabinet.

Whatever the hunger is, whatever feeling triggers the impulse, there is still hope that a solution could be found—an improvement made. This is because, in my view, in real life I don’t see anyone as purely absolutely without words for emotions—there is always some window of understanding of what the feeling feels like, what the experience of the impulse looks like—even if only to others.

And so from this spot begins a personal investigation—with understanding—either by yourself or with a therapist—you position yourself to start reaching for something you really want, something you genuinely crave, and so giving a rest to a now tired reflex of reaching for comfort from a nutritionally depleted and unsatisfying cereal box.

This blog post originally appeared as a podcast, Optimal Living with Dr. Jeremy Spiegel. Optimal Living is sponsored by Casco Bay Medical, The Northeast’s Most Thoughtful Practice, offering psychiatric evaluations and medication management, short and long term psychotherapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) for PTSD, opiate addiction treatment (Suboxone), and evaluations and recommendations for medical marijuana. Casco Bay Medical is located in New York City, Greater Boston, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine. You may listen to the podcast here: www.cascobaymedical.com

About the Author

Jeremy Spiegel, MD

Jeremy Spiegel, M.D. is a psychiatrist and medical director of Casco Bay Medical, with offices in Greater Boston, Massachusetts and Portland, Maine.

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