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Appetite

Emotional Eating Is All About Emotions, or Is It?

Binge eating and emotional eating have many contributors and healing strategies.

Key points

  • Binge eating and emotional eating are often associated with intense negative emotions.
  • A new study suggests that having difficulty handling strong emotions isn’t solely to blame for binge eating.
  • The science of habit formation and effective coping skills may be the key to decreasing disordered eating behaviors.

By Gia Marson, Ed.D.

DjelicS/istockphoto
Source: DjelicS/istockphoto

Food is central to life and an important facet of any society. It is not only a vital source of nutrition, it’s a way to engage and connect with others–a way of celebrating, comforting, mourning, bonding, and socializing.

Because our eating habits are woven into the fabric of our daily lives and traditions, it’s likely that disordered eating–such as binge eating and emotional eating–is influenced by a combination of strong emotions, our environment, and our relationships with others, among other factors. A new study supports this theory.

Emotions, eating, and coping are connected.

A recent study of more than 300 women found the following results:

  • Negative emotions such as guilt and sadness can increase the risk for eating disorders such as binge eating.
  • The way in which a person responds to their emotions can impact the development of binge eating and emotional eating.
  • Behavioral responses depend on the individual’s ability to regulate their emotions.
  • Increasing social support and decreasing environmental stress may decrease the impact of negative emotions on binge eating and emotional eating.

In other words, these findings indicate that what we think of as traditional emotion regulation strategies–such as identifying and reframing cognitive distortions–do not fully resolve problems with food.

Researchers suggest that coping methods that impact various life domains may help treat and prevent binge eating and emotional eating.

Are you vulnerable to binge eating and emotional eating?

Most people use food as a way to regulate emotions. Around the world, people rely on food as a method of self-soothing, a way to cope with feeling sad, stressed, anxious, or any other uncomfortable emotions. When this behavior is occasional and temporary, it’s usually not a concern.

However, when people see no other way of dealing with their emotions than with food, emotional eating or binge eating can become problematic. If you have difficulty handling negative emotions and you aren’t using more-effective strategies for coping with distressing feelings, you may increase your risk of losing control of food at times.

Insight is necessary, but practice makes the change permanent.

Information alone does not reliably change behavior. This is a common mistake people make, even well-meaning professionals. The assumption is this: If we give people the right information, it will change their attitudes, which in turn will change their behaviors. I call this the ‘Information-Action Fallacy’… In order to design successful habits and change your behaviors, you should do three things. Stop judging yourself. Take your aspirations and break them down into tiny behaviors. Embrace mistakes as discoveries and use them to move forward.

–B.J. Fogg, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything

Learning and practicing more-effective coping skills until they become automatic is one excellent way to be less vulnerable to emotional eating and binge eating. It is possible, then, that combining the psychology of eating with habit formation may better equip you to transform your relationship with food.

Apply new coping skills to combat binge eating and emotional eating.

The following are some proven-effective ways to regulate the kinds of distressing emotions that can lead to problematic eating behaviors. Keep in mind that doing these skills once or twice will not decrease disordered eating. Rather, they are meant to be practiced, one small step at a time, on a daily basis until they become a trusted habit.

Internal Coping: Strengthening Emotion Regulation

  • Use acceptance techniques. Change your experience when you eat by embracing your body’s messages, preferences, variety, and satisfaction. Start a habit of noticing your hunger and fullness cues. Refrain from judging foods or your appetite as good or bad. Slow down and observe how each food looks, smells, tastes, and feels in your body.
  • Increase your awareness. Emotions happen all the time because the human experience is an emotional one. Begin a habit of creating greater emotional awareness by labeling your emotions once a day. Remind yourself there are no good or bad emotions, even if some are more unpleasant. Observe when an emotion precedes an urge to eat in the absence of hunger.
  • Notice negative emotions without reacting impulsively. Emotions such as guilt and sadness are part of our internal landscape, and pushing them aside often leads to disconnection or overwhelm. Instead, make a habit of holding space for negative emotions when they start to show up. Pause before reaching for food to cope. Consider what might support you in the moment instead, such as texting a friend, going for a walk, or listening to music.
  • Let go of guilt about emotions. Guilt is meant to cue you when your behaviors interfere with living in alignment with your values. However, feeling guilty for an honest emotional reaction invalidates your truth and is unfair to you. Practice a habit of labeling guilt when it shows up. Let go of judging yourself for having negative feelings. Have faith that if you accept your emotion when it comes, it will naturally soften and recede over time.

External Coping: Reducing the Impact of Environmental Stress Triggers

  • Describe your optimal relationship with food. Visualizing how you want to be around food is a good starting point for heading in that direction. Make a habit of noticing the times of day and situations that block the path to your optimal vision. Identify which environmental triggers are changeable and which are not. Practice taking tiny steps toward positive change.
  • Reduce physical stress reactions that may raise cortisol levels and increase appetite. From lack of sleep to financial worries, there are many stressors in our modern lifestyle. Make an inventory of your stressors, then write out things you can do to relieve the stress. If the stressor is changeable, start a habit of new behaviors that reduce the presence of the stressor in your environment. If it’s unchangeable, practice reacting differently in a way that supports self-compassion and your well-being.

Relational Coping: Increasing Social Support

  • View setbacks as learning opportunities. All growth and change come through an imperfect process, making mistakes a natural part of learning and developing. Begin a practice of reframing the way you view mistakes. Let go of the mindset that mistakes are caused by a lack of willpower or that they’re something to be ashamed of. Sharing slip-up experiences with others can remind you that making mistakes is expected and normal.
  • Stay or get connected. Talking to others about your challenges or mistakes has been proven to reduce isolation, self-criticism, emotional eating, and binge eating. Start or deepen a habit of surrounding yourself with friends and family who can offer support during hard times.
  • Seek out experts who can help. Therapists can facilitate emotional well-being through skills that improve awareness, acceptance, and coping. Dietitians can offer you information and practices for a healthy gut-brain connection and a more finely tuned interoceptive awareness. Seeing an expert on a regular basis can help you to regulate your body, mind, and mood.

Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.

–Charles Duhigg, The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

If you are ready to change your relationship with food, start today. Create a vision of your optimal relationship with food and break it down into a series of small actionable steps. Begin with the simplest one first. You can create a more attuned relationship with food with one tiny action at a time.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

de Bruin, W. E., Ward, A. L., Taylor, R. W., & Jospe, M. R. (2019). 'Am I really hungry?' A qualitative exploration of patients' experience, adherence and behaviour change during hunger training: a pilot study. BMJ open, 9(12), e032248. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2019-032248

Klatzkin, R. R., Gaffney, S., Cyrus, K., Bigus, E., & Brownley, K. A. (2018). Stress-induced eating in women with binge-eating disorder and obesity. Biological psychology, 131, 96–106. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2016.11.002

Mikhail, M. E., Fowler, N., Burt, S. A., Neale, M. C., Keel, P. K., Katzman, D. K., & Klump, K. L. (2022). A daily diary study of emotion regulation as a moderator of negative affect-binge eating associations. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 55(10), 1305–1315. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.23768

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