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Jason Lillis Ph.D.

Escape The Emotional Eating Cycle

How to let go of your struggle to use food to feel better.

My son recently had a health scare that required a major surgery. It was successful and he is recovering well, however the seemingly endless medical tests, the surgery itself, and the subsequent week stay in the hospital was a harrowing experience. I found myself feeling more stressed than I can remember. After being discharged from the hospital I needed to pick up a host of medications and I found myself gravitate, almost unconsciously, to the candy section of the pharmacy, where I picked up three different kinds of chocolate! I actually opened a bag in the car and started devouring it. I’m not really a chocolate lover. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike chocolate, but I don’t find myself eating it on a regular basis either. This is perhaps one of the most obvious examples of the all too common phenomenon known as “emotional eating.”

Emotional eating comes in many forms. As in my example, you may be exposed to an immediate, intense stressor and find yourself eating unhealthy, delicious foods to cope. Eating chocolate can help you feel better right now, allowing you to escape or reduce your stress temporarily.

There are also less obvious examples. Have you ever been to a party and found that you were the only person even trying to “be good?” You may have thought, “it’s not fair” and experienced a sense of deprivation. Eating cake or cookies in that situation could be considered emotional eating because eating provided an escape from feeling deprived. In other words, the eating helped change how you felt in that moment.

Emotional eating, at its core, is a stance that says, “It’s not OK to feel how I feel.” There is certainly nothing wrong with feeling good, however we have gotten to a point in our society where the slightest tinge of discomfort is viewed as the enemy—something that needs to be rooted out and extinguished. This is simply not realistic.

Humans experience a range of emotions, mostly out of our control. For example, try to fall madly, deeply in love with the next person who walks past you. Can you? Unlikely. Or better yet, make sure you feel absolutely no anxiety the next time you are being evaluated at work, or you are on a first date, or someone is threatening you. Very difficult, if not impossible, for most people. Our emotions are more often a response to specific circumstances and what is going on around us. How we then respond to our emotions is another matter.

Researchers have found that frequent attempts to control or change how we feel can be harmful. This is easy to see with a behavior like emotional eating. Let’s say someone makes fun of your weight or how you look at the gym. You might feel sad, embarrassed, and/or angry. Eating a comfort food, such as pizza, ice cream, or cake, can make you feel better right now, in effect changing how you feel. But you also know that you will probably feel even worse later, perhaps guilty, hopeless, disappointed in yourself, not to mention bloated or physically uncomfortable; setting up a vicious cycle because now you again need to do something to feel better (maybe eat some more!). In this case, trying to find relief from the embarrassment actually created more unwanted, negative emotion.

The alternative is what I call “getting a little more comfortable with being uncomfortable.” We can all benefit from this, myself included. Instead of pushing away unwanted feelings, you can invite them in. They are probably going to be there anyway. Welcome them, like old acquaintances. Make room for them to travel with you on your journey. You may find that when you stop putting so much effort into changing how you feel that you have more flexibility in choosing what you want to do. If it’s “OK” to feel stressed, then you can eat a salad, go for a walk, engage your family or friends, complete and important work task, even as you are feeling stressed. In other words, you can feel bad and do good at the same time. This can be liberating, as you find more and more you are free to choose behavior based purely on your own values and goals, as opposed to having to feel a certain way before engaging in values-consitent behaviors.

Researchers have designed weight management interventions around this concept using techniques called mindfulness and acceptance. Mindfulness simply means paying much closer attention to how you feel and what you are thinking right now. It’s similar to meditation, but is more focused on tuning in to your moment-to-moment experience. Acceptance techniques teach you how to allow yourself to feel a normal range of human emotions while focusing on engaging in behavior that is consistent with your goals and values, without trying to change or control your emotions. In other words, acceptance skills help teach you how to get a little more comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Studies suggest that this may be particularly helpful in losing and maintaining weight loss for people who tend to emotionally eat. Evan Forman and colleagues showed in a series of studies that individuals who were susceptible to emotional eating were less likely to eat chocolates that they were assigned to carry around after receiving mindfulness and acceptance training. Also, overweight and obese individuals who are more prone to engage in emotional eating lost more weight from a treatment that incorporated these techniques versus one that did not. But it’s not just weight; these techniques are helpful in other areas, improving quality of life for people who are suffering from depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and a host of other problems.

I opened by talking about a rather extreme example of stress with my son, but it is amazing how quickly an incident can turn into a habit. I found myself in the following weeks having more dessert and paying much less attention to my food choices, more than happy to get that “feel better” effect from tasty foods. It took a conscious effort to both pay attention to what I was feeling (stress, fear) and allow myself to feel those emotions without so much struggle in order to start to break the emotional eating cycle. If you find yourself in a similar pattern I urge you to consider journaling and seeking out resources that teach and support the development of mindfulness and acceptance-based skills. With practice, you may find yourself engaging in less emotionally eating as you become a little bit more comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Dr. Jason Lillis is author of The Diet Trap: Feed Your Psychological Needs and End the Weight Loss Struggle available on Amazon and where all books are sold.

Source Articles:

1. Comparison of acceptance-based and standard cognitive-based coping strategies for craving sweets in overweight and obese women. By: Forman, Evan M.; Hoffman, Kimberly L.; Juarascio, Adrienne S.; et al. Eating Behaviors Volume: 14 Issue: 1 Pages: 64-68 Published: JAN 2013

2. The Mind Your Health Project: A Randomized Controlled Trial of an Innovative Behavioral Treatment for Obesity By: Forman, E. M.; Butryn, M. L.; Juarascio, A. S.; et al. Obesity Volume: 21 Issue: 6 Pages: 1119-1126 Published: JUN 2013


About the Author

Jason Lillis, Ph.D., is assistant professor of research at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University.


The Diet Trap