How to Get the Most Out of Emotional Eating
Dr. Pavel Somov describes how to mindfully eat for comfort.
Posted October 19, 2017
You've probably been there: Stressed and hungry and trying to resist the urge to shove "forbidden foods" in your mouth. Maybe you had an argument with someone, or an especially taxing day at work, or maybe you're just feeling more anxious than usual.
You know the sensible thing is to cook the fish and vegetables you'd planned for dinner, but you know they won't hit the sweet spot like leftover birthday cake will.
Deciding on a compromise, you open a bag of vegetable chips as you take out the dinner ingredients. After a few handfuls, your willpower gives out and you take the cake out of the fridge. "I'll just have a couple bites," you tell yourself.
You take bite after bite, swearing each one will be the last, followed inevitably by, "Maybe just one more." At this point you're standing hunched over the cake, feeling compelled by an invisible force that overrides any resistance.
When you're finally able to tear yourself away, you feel vaguely sick, which isn't as bad as the shame and regret.
If parts of this scenario resonate with you, you're not alone. Most of us at some point are drawn to food as a way to feel better.
If you Google "emotional eating," most of the hits are about ways to "stop" or "overcome" it. The overriding message is that emotional eating is bad, and must be controlled.
My fellow Pennsylvania psychologist Dr. Pavel Somov has a very different idea, which he describes in his book, Mindful Emotional Eating. He suggests that eating can actually be a very healthful means of coping when we use it the right way.
According to Dr. Somov, emotional eating is unavoidable, whether we're trying to relieve pain or enjoy pleasure. The problem isn't emotional eating per se, but mindless emotional eating (or overeating). As in the scenario described above, we get very little pleasure from the experience and way too much shame. It's a lose-lose.
There's a better alternative, which Dr. Somov describes in his book. Since emotional eating is inevitable, we might as well make it as enjoyable as possible. The first principle is simply to accept that we eat to cope. In his words, emotional eating is "a legitimate coping choice, not a coping failure."
Dr. Somov also recommends:
- Starting emotional eating by taking a moment to relax. Take some time to settle into the experience, rather than rushing through it. You might feel your feet on the floor, the surface you're sitting on, and your hands where they're resting. You could also feel the breath as it fills your lungs, and notice the sights and smells of the food you're about to enjoy.
- Following a routine for eating that has discrete start and end points. Destructive emotional eating tends to be mindless and impulsive. We're often standing in the kitchen and eating directly from the container, and there's no pre-determined endpoint. Bringing deliberateness to the experience makes it more conscious, controlled, and enjoyable. Set a nice place for yourself. Make the presentation aesthetically pleasing.
- Breaking up the routine at times to keep the mind engaged. On the other hand, Dr. Somov suggests we can keep ourselves focused on the process by mixing things up, like sitting in a different chair or holding the utensil in our non-dominant hand.
- Carefully choosing foods that will maximize enjoyment. The foods we eat mindlessly are often not our first choices as comfort foods; more likely they're just what's available. Greater attention to emotional eating can help us choose foods that bring the greatest amount of pleasure.
- Avoiding foods with a high regret potential. A signature of mindful emotional eating is that it leads to a net increase in well-being. Thus it makes sense to pick foods that won't leave us feeling sick or cause a sugar crash an hour later.
- Emphasizing quality over quantity. The amount of comfort we get from eating isn't directly related to how much we eat, but rather to how much enjoyment we get from it. For example, there's more to notice and appreciate in a piece of really good chocolate than in a whole bag of unsatisfying low quality candy.
- Focusing on the experience of eating. Our minds are good at wandering to anything other than what we're actually doing, which contributes to feeling scattered and uncentered. By focusing on eating when we're eating, we not only enjoy it more but we allow the mind to rest.
Dr. Somov suggests several reasons emotional eating might be a good way to boost low mood and find pleasure. For example, some of our earliest associations are between food and love, like when a mother nurses a crying baby who just got a shot.
Eating is also a full sensory experience, which can usher us into the present as we focus on the sights, smells, tastes, textures—even the sound—of our food.
Additionally, we engage the parasympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system—the one that helps us "rest and digest"—when we eat. Eating is therefore an inherently calming activity (provided we don't infuse it with unnecessary shame and regret).
With attention and practice, mindful emotional eating can even be the antidote to compulsive overeating, as existing research has shown.
If we're seeking comfort and trying to soothe difficult emotions, why not be kind to ourselves and do it the best we can?
Intrigued by these ideas? Consider planning an enjoyable session of mindful emotional eating this week. When would be a good time to do it? What foods would you pick?
O'Reilly, G. A., Cook, L., Spruijt‐Metz, D., & Black, D. S. (2014). Mindfulness‐based interventions for obesity‐related eating behaviours: A literature review. Obesity Reviews, 15, 453-461.
Somov, P. (2015). Mindful emotional eating: Mindfulness skills to control cravings, eat in moderation and optimize coping. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing and Media.
Somov. P. (2017). Mindful emotional eating: A humanistic, harm reduction approach. The Pennsylvania Psychologist, September, 20-21.