How to Put An End to Our Emotional Eating

Why you may not be seeking comfort from comfort foods.

Posted Jun 25, 2010

When I'm feeling bad - whether it's anxious, depressed, or simply frustrated - I often find myself wanting to seek comfort in the arms of a pint of chocolate ice cream or a bag of Doritos. I know I'm not alone. Psychologists call this emotional eating, and it is thought to be one of the major contributors to obesity in our country.

Americans are stressed out, and seeking treatment for anxiety and depression in record numbers. Experiencing all of those bad feelings each day leads us to consume more and more high-calorie junk food, to try to make ourselves feel just a little bit better (ignoring the fact that binging almost inevitably leaves you feeling even worse).

At least, that's how most of us, including the psychologists, think emotional eating works. Only we are wrong.

Feeling bad does NOT make you more likely to reach for comfort food. It's turns out that it's how you deal with your bad feelings that determines whether or not you'll be brushing the potato chip crumbs off your pants.

Recent research shows that experiencing anxiety, depression, or anger is only associated with emotional eating when we try to suppress our feelings - to control them by not expressing them, by keeping them to ourselves and trying to push them out of our minds.

Aside from being a really lousy strategy for dealing with emotions for a whole host of other reasons, suppression is really hard to do. It relies heavily on, and often fully exhausts, your capacity for self-control. This leaves you unprotected - completely vulnerable to temptation. And that is why we reach for "comfort" foods - they are the sweet and salty snacks that we normally have the self-control to resist. But if you're using up all of your willpower trying to suppress your fear or sadness, then when the junk food appears you are practically a sitting duck.

So, how can we deal with our feelings in ways that don't leave us vulnerable to temptation? You can engage in what psychologists call cognitive reappraisal, which is really just a fancy way of saying "thinking differently." Try following these steps:

1. Don't hide from your feelings - take a moment to examine them. In particular, focus on what's causing them. Why are you feeling so anxious, so frustrated, so down?

2. Next, try to think about the cause of your trouble in ways that diminish its impact:

a. Be objective (Would other people react this way? Am I over-reacting? Am I blaming myself when I shouldn't? Am I being too pessimistic?)

b. Put it in perspective (In the scheme of things, is this really a big deal? If things don't work out this time, is it really the end of the world?)

c. See the silver lining (What have you learned? How will you take this knowledge with you and use it to grow and improve?)

Tackling your feelings head on, and thinking about them in ways that will actually help you to cope with the circumstances that caused them, may sound hard, but it actually uses less self-control than suppression.

New studies show that when people use this strategy to cope with their feelings, they don't succumb to the call of the cookie. And of course, they tend to feel better much more quickly. So it's not just a good way to stick to your diet - it's a good way to become a happier person, too.