Emotional Eating is the use of food and food thoughts as a distraction from any thought, feeling, or situation you would rather not tolerate. Binge eating on carbs works. That's why we keep doing it!
If you are an “Emotional Eater” you have probably developed a habit of using food to distract, self-soothe, briefly “check-out”, and/or seek some relief from the present moments of your life. You may have “FOOD THOUGHTS” to escape any or all intensity of feeling.
” If I do not want to be mindful, I can escape, go mindless with a food thought.”
You may be conscious of this coping strategy…or you may not yet be aware why you are often food focused despite wishing you were not. Here are some examples of what emotional eating might look like….
- Feeling bored? You think of the ice cream in the freezer instead.
- Feeling angry with your boss? Suddenly you find you’re thinking about the cookies in the break room. Thinking about the cookies feels much better to you than staying focused on how angry you are at your boss!
- Kids driving you crazy? Flash on the image of a McDonald’s chocolate shake and before you even realize it you’re in the drive-through lane.
- You just found out you’re getting the promotion you’ve wanted for over a year. You’re really excited! It’s great news! But how are you going to handle all that extra responsibility? FOOD THOUGHT!!!
- Its Friday evening and you’re facing a weekend with no plans. The next thing you know you’re on the phone ordering a large pizza.
- I want to eat something sweet. I can’t stand fighting this feeling anymore. It’s just too hard. It is just easier to give in and start again tomorrow.
A food thought can be used in reaction to… and as a defense against any life situation. Focusing on food helps you manage your mood. If you’re filling your head with a food thought then there is no longer any room in your consciousness for whatever the feeling was that you wanted to escape. Food thoughts help you successfully “disconnect” from thoughts and feelings. This becomes a habit….a biochemically reinforcing habit. You develop this habit because it works! Turning to carbs really does calm us down. But it is a frustrating habit to have because of the negative consequences. This habit often leaves us feeling like we are “bad” or “out-of-control” or that we “lack willpower” and it often leads to more emotional eating. But emotional eating is not about being out of control. Often, it’s about a lack of other tools and skills for emotional regulation. And although we don’t always make the connection, often emotional eating happens as a direct reaction to the nutritional restriction and sense of deprivation we experience when we go on yet another crazy diet!
Emotional eating happens on a continuum. Some people do it little, some do it a lot. People may be at different places on the continuum at different points in their life, even at different points in their day.
Why Do Some of Us Come to Use Food to Regulate Mood?
There are many reasons we know about; carbs that lead to calming brain chemicals (serotonin), gaps in emotional regulation and distress tolerance skills, our cultural obsession with an unachievable body weight and shape for most, emotional and neurochemical impact of chronic dieting and the deprivation that results, seemingly unlimited access to high sugar/high fat foods… and there is so much more that still needs to be researched and better understood. The medical and scientific communities have finally taken a serous interest in this subject. So, we’re hopeful more answers will be coming in the foreseeable future. It makes sense, on many levels, that food would come to play a nurturing role in our lives. Think about it….
Typically, the very first nurturing relationship we have in our life is connected to food. When an infant is hungry, the infant cries. Mom or Dad soothes, comforts, and connects with the baby through feeding.
Maybe as you grew, you had caregivers who gave you treats whenever you scraped a knee or cried because a kid at school was mean to you. Maybe your grandmother showed you how much she loved you by baking your favorite cupcakes. Maybe the only time you were allowed to eat as many sweets as you wanted was at your birthday party…
Consciously or unconsciously, some of us start to connect feelings with food. Now add what we’re learning about brain chemistry…Food, Mood and Brain Chemistry are connected. According to this theory some of us appear to have a particular “sensitivity” to the very foods we tend to binge on, namely carbohydrates. These are sweet and starchy foods like breads, pastas, chips, candy, etc. (It seems it is no accident that we rarely binge on foods like celery.)
Continuing with the theory…Carbohydrates work for some of us as “a mood regulator”. According to MIT’s Dr.Judith Wurtman, when eaten, carbs lead to the production of an amino acid called Tryptophan. Tryptophan helps the brain boost a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) called Serotonin. Serotonin is the calming chemical in the brain. Our Serotonin level also plays a role in appetite, appetite suppression, stress, anxiety, and depression. WE EAT CARBS BECAUSE CARBS WORK! Many people who binge on carbs report a calm and relief feeling during and soon after a binge (short-lived though it may be because the guilt and shame are usually close by).
Hence the theory…We get hooked or “addicted” to food because food works. Overeating on potato chips or pasta or cake is a self-reinforcing behavior. You eat. Then you feel better. If you had a chronic headache you’d keep turning to aspirin for relief because you’d know that aspirin would do the trick. On some level, we know food will do the trick, too. (At least for a little while.)
When Does Emotional Eating Become a Full-Blown Eating Disorder?
- When food and food thoughts are being used to manage any and all intensity of feeling
- When these coping behaviors feel like they have taken on a life of their own and they are now impacting the person’s mental or physical their ability to live the life they wish to live and/or their ability to function healthfully…to socialize, go to work or to school, etc…
Eating Disorder and its consequences experience a great deal of emotional distress. Distress over eating behaviors and/or weight can become all-consuming. Clinically, we also see a fair amount of depression, anxiety, black-and-white thinking, problems with impulse control, and sometimes obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
Earlier, we talked about the carbohydrate/serotonin brain chemistry theory. With clinical depression and emotional eating disorders in mind, let’s now take that “sensitivity” theory about carbohydrates and mood regulation one step further.
If an eating disorder is suspected, whether it’s Binge Eating Disorder, Bulimia or Anorexia, a person should be evaluated by a licensed mental health professional. Eating disorders rarely go away without treatment.
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A Weigh Out
I was stuck in a self-defeating cycle! I felt out-of-control with food! I was either overeating or dieting. In either mode, I felt I was never good enough. I had willpower and stick-to-itiveness in many other areas in my life. So why couldn’t I apply that same resolve to my eating habits?
I wasted so much time, energy, and money. I was obsessed with my weight. Living like that was miserable. Today, I understand that weight was not the problem. The real problem was that I was an “emotional eater”.
Emotional Eaters use food to manage feelings. We use food to self-soothe. People who have struggled with it, and the professionals who treat it, call it by many different names; compulsive overeating, emotional eating, and food addiction. No matter what it’s called, people USE food because food works!
- Food works as a tension reliever
Both eating food and thinking about food work as distractions from uncomfortable feelings. Being food-focused takes the edge off any feeling that a person would rather not feel or tolerate boredom, stress, anxiety, anger, loneliness, etc.).For example…You’re feeling bored. Suddenly you find yourself thinking about the cookies in the pantry. As soon as you start to think about the cookies, you are no longer focused on feeling bored. Food and food thoughts can be used in reaction to and as a defense against any intense feeling or stressful life situation. The use of food to manage mood becomes a self-reinforcing habit. (Today, scientists are also focused on the biology & brain chemistry of overeating. There may also be many physiological reason why we keep turning to food even when it feels self-defeating to do so.)
- Emotional Eating happens on a continuum
Emotional eating is normal. We all celebrate with food. When something sad occurs, friends and neighbors arrive with cakes and casseroles. It’s only when emotional eating begins to have impact on one’s emotional and/or physical well-being, and it’s used as a person’s primary strategy for mood regulation, that it becomes a problem. When eating becomes a primary coping strategy, it greatly impacts a person’s quality of life. At the most extreme point on the emotional eating continuum, there may be a diagnosable eating disorder present-such as bulimia or binge eating disorder-and often, clinical depression as well.
- Here’s how food works as a mood regulator:
- First, an emotional eater experiences an uncomfortable feeling. For example…You just had
a fight with a family member and you’re feeling
- Next, you have a FOOD THOUGHT and you find
yourself reaching for a bag of chips. (You may or
may not be conscious of when or why you are having a food thought.) Once you are focused on
the chips, you are no longer focused on how angry
you feel. The use of food as a distraction works…
- You eat the chips, warding off the anger, for a little
while. Then, the anger comes back. Now, in
addition to the anger, an emotional overeater has
to deal with the guilt and shame he/she feels every
time he or she eats chips (or any other food that
he or she has labeled as “forbidden”).
- First, an emotional eater experiences an uncomfortable feeling. For example…You just had
- This is the self-defeating cycle–the trap for an emotional eater. Until you develop healthier coping strategies, and you overcome the “good food vs. bad food” beliefs, the only way to avoid the guilt and the shame that results from emotional overeating–is more emotional overeating! Everytime time we swear we’ll be “good” on a diet today, and then turn back to food for comfort, we feel like we have “failed”. Then, to “stuff down” our frustration, or shame, or desperation, we turn back to food.
- So, what can you do if Emotional Eating is a problem for you? Make a conscious effort to become more aware of (more mindful of) how and why you use food as a distraction from other things in your life. Most importantly, find resources for learning new skills for emotional regulation (very few of us are lucky enough to come by these skills naturally). If you need support to develop ways to self-soothe without using food, seek professional help. Hire a skilled Emotional Eating Coach or a Licensed Psychotherapist who specializes in emotional eating issues. The focus of any such intervention should be on the development of self-care and distress tolerance skills — on improved emotional, physical, and spirtitual well-being — on learning how to shift away from dieting and toward intuituve eating and improved fitness. Only then can movement toward a healthier, more fit body occur naturally. Remember, dieting is a trap for an emotional eater. If a person is using food to distract from any thoughts, feelings, or sensations that he or she would rather avoid, then dieting (which is all about restriction, not mood regulation) promises to be a set-up for more feelings of failure. If excess weight is due to the use of excess food to self-soothe, then dieting is destined to lead to more emotional eating and likely more weight. Take a risk! Seek out a new way to break this frustrating, self-defeating cycle. It’s worth it!
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