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5 More Unusual Ways to Stop Emotional Eating

You might know one way to stop emotional overeating, but do you know all five?

Key points

  • Most people never bother to define exactly what emotional overeating is, so they seriously struggle to stop.
  • "Comfort eating" is a misnomer that can mislead individuals to overeat more, not less.
  • It's critical to first translate passive language into active language in order to gain more control.

I've recently come through a very difficult summer involving a death in the family, other significant loss, and the need for personal surgery, so the pressure to "emotionally overeat" has been something very top-of-mind for me. That said, I held my own, just like I've told literally hundreds of successful clients, because "if you have six problems and you overeat, you'll have seven problems."

With the topic so close to my heart, I thought it would be a great time for a post on ways to stop emotional eating.

  1. Define Overeating: Like my grandfather used to say, "If you don't know where you're going, you'll probably wind up somewhere else." What does overeating actually mean? Most people reflexively define this as "eating when you're hungry and stopping when you're full." The problem is being hungry and full are very subjective experiences, and both the Big Food and Big Advertising industries have a humungous profit incentive to ensure our hungry and full meters remain broken. (This is accomplished using hyper-palatable concentrations of sugar, starch, fat, salt, and excitotoxins to hit the bliss point in the reptilian brain without giving us enough nutrition to be satisfied, and then using visual and auditory stimuli in advertising which are proven to hit our evolutionary nutrient-seeking buttons.) The defense is to rely upon an externally verifiable and objective measure for at least four to six months until your hungry/full meter can restore itself. For example, perhaps overeating means going back for second portions, so you make a rule for yourself that a meal includes only one plateful, no more than one inch high.
  2. Define Emotional Eating: Along the same lines as #1 above, a clear definition of emotional eating is required if we want to target its reduction. One very effective definition is to think of emotional eating as impulsively crossing the clearly defined overeating line you defined above due to whim, craving, or feeling. For example, if you want to change your rule, it's best to write down specifically how the rule might change (e.g., "I may only have seconds on weekends"), and why you want to change it. Then put it aside and don't let the change take effect for at least 24 hours. This provides you with the flexibility you desire but ensures you're eating by design, not on an emotional whim or impulse.
  3. Stop Calling It "Comfort" Eating: Most people think of emotional eating as "comfort" eating, or eating to "numb out" and escape an uncomfortable feeling. But most of the foods we eat at these times don't only make us numb, they actually get us a little high. See, we didn't have chocolate bars, muffins, pizza, bagels, chips, and all these bags, boxes, and containers on the Savannah. These are unnatural concentrations of starch, sugar, fat, salt, and excitotoxins that we aren't evolutionarily prepared to handle. They overstimulate the taste and pleasure systems in much the same way as drugs. We're not emotionally eating only for comfort, we're eating to get high with food. This reframe is critical because it prevents you from feeling too sorry for yourself and getting carried away. Besides, if food really "numbed us out," wouldn't the dentist offer to inject us with a bagel when (s)he ran out of Novocain?
  4. Recognize the Two-Way Interaction Between Food and Emotion: Yes, the nervous system has trouble conducting the emotions when the digestive system is overloaded, and for this reason there is a kind of anesthetic effect of excess food. But did you know pleasurable food also reinforces the emotion that preceded it? Consider anxiety for example. Anxiety has physical correlates: Elevated heartbeat, perspiration, faster respiration, elevated blood pressure, galvanic skin response, etc. Animal studies suggest if you monitor these physiological components and reward the animal with a sugar treat each time one of these is elevated, the animal learns to produce it more often. For example, baboons can be trained to have consistently higher blood pressure in this way. So we might think we are reducing anxiety by "comfort" eating, but what if the comfort eating is what's reinforcing elevated anxiety in the first place?
  5. Replace Passive Language With Active Language: Did you ever hear someone say "XYZ food triggered me," as if they themselves had nothing to do with the decision to eat it, and some automatic, unconscious process took over? That's not actually what happened. In more active language what happened was XYZ food reminded them of a previous pleasurable experience and so they actively decided to reverse their previous best intentions and eat it. The benefit of replacing passive language with active language is while the former may make people feel less guilty by abdicating responsibility for the indulgence, it does so at the tremendous price of eliminating the space between stimulus and response, which is the only space where we exist and can exert conscious control over our decisions. Passive language says, "I couldn't help myself, the devil made me do it." Active language says, "I have free will and a choice in the matter."

For more tips, tricks, and insights into how to stop overeating, see "How to Stop Binge Eating in Three Unusual Steps."

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