Would you call yourself an emotional eater? Do you feel like emotions send you out of control when it comes to eating? If so, you are not alone. However, when it comes to what actually causes emotional eating, you might be surprised.
Most clients I talk to about emotional eating are looking to control or stop it, because they feel out of control with food when their emotions are heightened. And generally they’re referring to negative emotions and high pleasure foods – no one’s celebrating a promotion with a broccoli binge; they’re eating their stress away with a tub of ice cream. So, what’s going on?
The truth about emotional eating
Emotional eating can be a normal reaction to diets and restriction. That’s right––normal.
The research into restrictive eating, whether through starvation or self-imposed dieting, consistently show that restriction leads to increased eating binges, preoccupation with food and an increased reaction to emotions using food. It’s the very thing we are using to control our food that is making us feel ‘out of control.’
But it goes further than this––emotions actually increase eating in restrictive eaters. They turn off the appetites of people who don’t restrict. It’s not the emotions causing the eating, it’s the mindset and behaviors of the eater, namely the restriction. People who don’t restrict actually eat less in response to emotions.
So, if it’s not the emotions, what is actually going on?
If we aren’t eating enough food, our body is going to start getting pretty fixated on it. This is a survival mechanism so that in times of famine we actually seek out food. The human race wouldn’t have lasted long if we all just lounged in the shade and didn’t bother to go hunting or gathering when we needed food.
As luck would have it, we are born with a feedback system that triggers our ‘go hunt’ drive when food is low. These days it triggers our “go to the fridge” drive when we are on a diet. This is what we are actually “doing battle” with when we restrict food – not surprising that restrictive eating plans all end up failing at some point; we just can’t compete with our body’s inbuilt drive to survive.
The other thing going on is the disconnection to our body. When we follow external rules and cues to guide our food intake, we don’t cue into our body. What happens over time is we get less sensitive to our internal food drive and more sensitive to external cues and triggers. And, as mentioned above, the research shows people who use external cues (aka restrictive eaters) are the ones that end up reacting to their emotions using food.
The perfect storm hits when we couple our body’s drive to survive with a stressful day or a situation that has us feeling a little vulnerable. We’re led to believe it’s a lack of willpower or the out of control nature of emotional eating, but it’s just that our inbuilt body cues can’t be ignored any longer: cue “emotional eating”, which is actually survival eating as far as our body is concerned.
And of course, the foods we reach for are generally the foods that the “diet” has told you is off-limits. This is the forbidden factor at work. Forbidden foods become all the more alluring to the restrictive eater, especially when there is an external trigger like emotions.
The truth is that emotional eating is normal. Unless you are a robot, chances are you felt emotions while eating today. There is nothing wrong with emotional eating. The reason it feels so “wrong” or “out of control” is because of all the dieting rules.
Emotional eating can actually be a good thing
It’s important to note that emotional eating can actually be a useful tool to help soothe us. It does have a place in our self care toolbox. However, we want to build our connection to our body so that we can eat in a way that actually nourishes us and gives us what we need. Often I find with clients there are a couple of things going on that can lead to the feeling of ‘out of control’ emotional eating:
When food is the only option for comfort. It’s important to have a variety of strategies that help us take care of ourselves. Food can definitely be part of this, but we don’t want it to be our only strategy.
When we use food in a disconnected way. It’s important to cue into our body when we need comfort and ask “what do I need in this moment to feel taken care of?” If it is food, it’s also good to check in around what will actually make you feel comforted in any one moment. It may not always be the big sugar-hit that dieting has made us believe is necessary (then again it might) – the key is connection to your body, not the external rules and prompts.
4 steps to change your relationship with emotional eating.
1. Ditch the diet rules and calorie restrictions.
Learn to listen to your in-built hunger and satisfaction cues to help guide your food intake. If you give your body the fuel it needs, it’s less likely to feel the need for any famine induced survival eating (or bingeing).
2. Eat all the things.
Unconditional permission to eat is really important. This helps with restriction but it also takes away the forbidden factor. The reason people don’t binge out on broccoli or apples is because they’re not forbidden foods. When you are eating build, your connection to food in the moment and flex your mindful eating muscles.
3. Stop trying to control emotional eating.
Repeat after me: emotional eating is not the problem. Look to the factors behind the emotional eating (not the emotions as such but the restricting) and also remember that it’s OK to eat when feeling emotions (phew, no frontal lobotomy required).
4. Build up your self-care tool box.
This is not to stop or replace emotional eating but to give you options when you need to take care of yourself. Sometimes food will be the best option available to soothe yourself and sometimes it’ll be something else. When you have a toolbox full of self care options (including food) you can find the right tool for the job.
Ready to ditch the restriction and embrace the emotions?
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Bacon, Linda 2010 Health at Every Size: the surprising truth about your weight. BenBella Books, Dallas.
Bongers, P & Jansen, A 2016 Emotional Eating is not what you think it is and emotional eating scales do not measure what you think they measure. Frontiers in Psychology. V7 p1932-6
Peneau, S et al 2013 Sex and dieting modify the association between emotional eating and weight status. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. V97:6, p1307-1313.
Polivy, J 1996 Psychological consequences of food restriction. J Am Diet Assoc. v96 p589-592.