Most people think emotional eating is due to a lack of self-control. However, in my extensive work with eating disorders and disordered eating, I would say that is rarely the case. If emotional eating were a simple issue of discipline, we could easily find this discipline without torturing ourselves over meal plans, paying money for special diets, and constantly obsessing about who is eating what and when. And, of course, there would be no eating disorders.
What I have to say on this subject matter is not original; however, sometimes a reiteration of the information can serve as a helpful reminder. Over and over again, I see the following five factors that contribute to emotional eating.
Emotional eating can be a direct result of not being conscious of what or why you’re eating. Therapists call this unconscious eating. Unconscious eating is when you’re done with your meal, and you continue to pick at it, slowly eating the remaining portion that you intended to leave behind. It can also be putting peanuts or crackers or any other food in your mouth, just because it’s in front of you.
The solution? Try to remain mindful of what and when you are eating. I know it can be tedious to focus completely on your eating, especially at first! Start slowly and avoid self-judgment as you try out a new way of being. For more on mindful eating, see this article.
2. Food As Your Only Pleasure
I’ve often asked people what they would have to feel if they did not binge or overeat, and the common answer is, “I would have nothing to look forward to.” And at the end of a long and hectic day, a big bowl of ice cream can be especially effective in temporarily soothing our exhausted, hard-working selves. Why? According to many sources (e.g. this article), eating sugars and fats releases opioids in our brains. Opioids are the active ingredients in cocaine, heroin, and many other narcotics. So the calming, soothing effects you feel when you eat ice cream and BBQ potato chips are real. And breaking these habits can be like kicking a drug habit.
The solution? Find other ways to reward and soothe yourself besides food (and other self-destructive behaviors). Will these other ways be as effective at soothing you as food? Absolutely not! The things you come up with will help somewhat, but in order to truly give up emotional eating, you are also going to have to practice tolerating difficult feelings. Which leads us to #3.
3. Inability to Tolerate Difficult Feelings
In our culture, we learn from a young age to avoid things that feel bad. Unfortunately, the ways we have found to distract ourselves from difficult feelings are not always in our best interests. Without the ability to tolerate experiencing life’s inevitable yucky feelings, you’re susceptible to emotional eating.
The solution? Practice letting yourself experience difficult feelings. I know, much easier said than done! I know you don’t like feeling mad, sad, rejected, and bored. And people often ask me, “What’s the point in feeling mad? It doesn’t change anything.” Well, it may not change the source of your anger, but it will prevent you from having to blunt your feelings with behaviors you’d like to stop — like eating.
4. Body Hate
It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s true: Hating your body is one of the biggest factors in emotional eating. Negativity, shame, and hatred rarely inspire people to make long-lasting great changes, especially when it comes to our bodies or our sense of self. Many people tell me they will stop hating their body after they reach their goal weight. I say you have to stop hating your body before you can stop the emotional eating cycle.
The solution? Unfortunately, this one is multi-layered, complicated, and unique for each person. To truly make permanent progress in this area requires more than what is possible for me speak about in a blog post. Sorry, friends!
Letting yourself get too hungry or too tired is the best way to leave yourself vulnerable to emotional eating. When your body is hungry or tired, it not only sends strong messages to your brain that signal it to eat, but when we’re hungry and tired, we’re not on our A game. This leaves us less equipped to fight off cravings or urges.
The solution? You guessed it! Get plenty of sleep, and eat several small meals during the day. (I’m a genius, right?) I know you’re going to tell me that you don’t have time, but if your goal is to stop emotional eating, you’re going to have to make those two things a priority. There is no way around it.
Emotional eating is a powerful and effective way to find temporary relief from many of life’s challenges. If it didn’t work so well, no one would do it. In order to stop this cycle of emotional eating, you have to make a commitment to reach deep inside yourself to find a place of grit and strength, and hopefully the above reminders can assist you in your journey.