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Mary E. Pritchard Ph.D.
Mary E. Pritchard Ph.D.

Healing from Emotional Eating

Eating With Heart: The Five Steps to Freedom From Emotional Eating

Emotional eating seems to be almost a loaded phrase in our society today. While many of us eat for non-hunger related reasons at some point in our lives, diagnoses of emotional eating are harder to pinpoint. However, psychologists are reporting a growing trend in cases of emotional eating and are connecting it with our growing obesity rates. For example, studies suggest that individuals who are overweight and obese may be more likely than normal weight people to use food as a coping mechanism.

So the question becomes, if you find yourself eating for emotion- or stress-related reasons, how can you stop? When someone tells me they’re an emotional eater, I ask three questions:

1) When do you emotionally eat? Is there a time of day that it strikes? For most people, the answer seems to be afternoon and evening. Although some people report nighttime eating – they will actually wake up and go eat in the middle of the night.

2) What do you eat? Emotional eaters tend to crave one of four things in my experience: high fat foods (e.g., Fried chicken, Sausage, Hot dog, Fried fish, Bacon, Steak), Sweets (e.g., Cake, Cinnamon Rolls, Ice cream, Cookies, Chocolate, Donuts, Candy, Brownies), Complex Carbohydrates (e.g., Sandwich bread, Rice, Biscuits, Pasta, Pancakes or Waffles, Rolls, Cereal), or Fast Food (e.g., Pizza, French fries, Hamburger, Chips). Sweets and Carbs seem to top that list, as do a combination of Sweet and Fat (e.g., Oreos).

3) Why do you emotional eat? What emotion actually triggered the episode? Was it boredom, anger, shame, fear, guilt, loneliness, etc.? The answer to this question seems to vary widely for my readers, but shame and guilt seem to come up quite often as do reports of using emotional eating as a form of punishment.

The answers to these questions should give you some insight into the circumstances that lead you to emotional eating. Of course, the bigger concern is how to stop. It boils down to this: if you are using food as a coping mechanism, you need to find another, more productive way to cope.

Emotional eating usually falls into one (or both) of two common (but usually ineffective) coping strategies: avoidant or emotion-focused coping. Avoidant coping is just what the name implies – you avoid dealing with the stressor. Eating when you are stressed so you don’t have to deal with the problem is an example of avoidant coping using food. As you might imagine, avoidant coping is rarely effective as the problem is still going to be there once you’ve stopped eating.

Emotion-focused coping using food can be equally ineffective. When we engage in emotion-focused coping, we are attempting to make ourselves feel better by addressing the emotions the stressor provoked rather than the stressor itself. So if you get in a fight with your significant other and, instead of talking it out, decide to comfort your hurt feelings by consuming a chocolate cake, that would be an example of emotion-focused coping using food. Again, not super helpful in this situation. While you might feel better after eating (or not – you might feel guilty if you eat something you have labeled as “bad” or eaten too much), you still haven’t fixed your problem.

You see where I’m going with this, right? Most of the time our problems are within our control to fix, and eating is likely not going to help. Thus, what we should be doing is focusing on how to fix our problems. That’s where problem-focused coping comes in. As the name implies, the basic premise of problem-focused coping is this: “Have a problem? Fix it.” So if you have a fight with your significant other, wait a little bit to calm down and then go back and talk it out. Don’t turn to food to comfort yourself because that’s not actually addressing the problem.

I know, I know. That sounds great, but how can you make that change? I’m going to warn you: it’s not going to happen overnight. If you’ve been turning to food as your primary coping mechanism for 40 years, you can’t expect it to go away overnight. I wish it was that simple, but for most of us, it’s not.

Luckily, my friend Laurel Inman has a solution. In her book, Eating With Heart: The Five Steps to Freedom From Emotional Eating, Laurel outlines the path to freedom from using food as a coping mechanism. Trained in intuitive eating techniques, Laurel leads readers through five simple steps that anyone can use to make peace with food and re-learn how to trust themselves around food. I highly recommend her book to all of my clients as a valuable resource. And for those of you who think Laurel’s book comes out of an ivory tower, rest assured; this book comes from Laurel’s own journey with food. She has used this program to heal from her own battle with emotional eating and also to help her clients heal from theirs.

To find out more about Laurel and her 5 step program, check out her website at

About the Author
Mary E. Pritchard Ph.D.

Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.

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