In all my years as a health provider for women, I think I can count on one hand the number of women for whom emotions played absolutely no part in their relationship with food. Our emotions and how we eat (and when and what) are so intertwined that I think it is virtually impossible for a woman to get healthy — and, eventually, to lose weight — without first addressing her emotional attachment to food. Here’s how emotional eating may be affecting you and your relationship with food.

What is Your Emotional Relationship with Food?

Each day I hear all kinds of stories about women’s emotional relationship to food. For many of my patients, these memories, particularly the early ones, are fond ones: the ice cream truck on a hot summer day, traditional holiday meals celebrated with family. These stories underscore how food can be used to make us feel comforted, connected and loved. In many families food is the only currency of love, a legacy many women unwittingly pass on to their own daughters and sons.

But just as often, the opposite may occur. Mealtimes may have been excruciating exercises in power or parental control. How many children sit down to a meal only to hear, “I have a bone to pick with you?” How many are forced to sit at the table until they eat everything on their plate? Who wouldn’t eventually lose their appetite after being fed a regular diet of criticism and shame every evening?

The Teen-age Experience

As women move into their adolescence, stories often morph into tales of deprivation and triumph over food, the perceived enemy. One of my patients describes how she and her friends ate one meal a day all through their senior year in high school, squeezing each other’s hands in support, so they could fit into tiny little prom dresses in June. Another remembers coming home and lambasting herself if she ate more than half a container of yogurt for lunch. Often adolescence for girls is the entry into what may become a lifetime of self-loathing, all for wanting and needing to do something that is a vital necessity — eat!

Our society has few rituals in place to make teen-aged girls feel comfortable with their emerging curves and hormonal surges. As a result, a girl’s burgeoning body, her promise of fertility and womanhood, can feel threatening—more so to herself and her parents than anyone else. And if a woman never finds a way to feel comfortable with her grown-up shape, either through romantic love or emotional work, this discomfort parlays into an ongoing struggle with food and self-esteem. Thus, habits of emotional eating can develop at any age where stress is prevalent.

When Eating Becomes a Struggle

Eating disorders aren’t the exclusive domain of young women. In their book, Runaway Eating, Cynthia Bulik and Nadine Taylor help clarify why huge numbers of women in their 40’s and early 50’s now find themselves coping with midlife stress through unhealthful eating patterns, including binge eating, yo-yo dieting, calorie restriction and compulsive exercise. While a woman at this age may not consider herself anorexic because she eats regularly, her obsession with maintaining control (and not just of her food intake) can be just as destructive. Emotional attachment to ritualized denial — of food, of pleasure, of money, of rest, of sex — is anorexia in another guise. It is an effort to erase a part of yourself or your life that weakens your sense of control.

And women aren’t the only ones doing the erasing. Just look at what has happened to dress sizes in the past 40 years — for those of you who still sew, you know your pattern is really a “12” even though designers are sewing size “6” labels into your clothes these days. And what’s with size “0,” “00” and “000” anyway? Do women need to fully disappear to be truly attractive?

No Woman is Immune to Emotional Eating

At least 80% of the patients I see have some form of emotional issues with food — and what I’ve learned over the years is that most of them grew up in dysfunctional families. If you see yourself among the ranks of these women, it may reassure you that you don’t have to suffer alone — you are part of a wide continuum, at either end of which lie extreme over-eaters and under-eaters — and just by reading this article you are taking another step toward healing.

So now that you know that age has nothing to do with an emotional attachment to food, let me assure you that it has nothing to do with your level of education or socioeconomic bracket, either. What does vary among emotional eaters is how an individual has learned to respond to stress. Some women become hyper-responsible or obsessive-compulsive, and use food as a form of control over themselves or others. Others are sensate types and cope by taking it all in, learning to soothe and stuff their feelings with food. In every case, though, what we’re talking about is preoccupying yourself with food to prevent yourself from feeling unwanted feelings — including but not limited to the big ones: pain, despair, and shame.

Food as Reward, Comfort or Control

Many of us as children were rewarded with sweets for being “good.” During times of high stress, many women unconsciously mimic this reassurance by rewarding themselves with comfort food that’s filled with sugar and simple carbs. There’s a physiological pull at work here as well. Sweet treats trigger the release of serotonin, the feel-good hormone, but only temporarily.  In fact, in some clinics, sugar is used to increase serotonin levels to control overeating — but don’t try this on your own!

Comfort food and junk food may help us feel good in the moment, but tend to feed a vicious cycle of guilt. The insidious part of this is that, somewhere, deep in our subconscious we are drawn to recreating these feelings of guilt and shame because they feel familiar. Familiarity doesn’t mean that ultimately they are good or healthy — only that they are a part of a pattern and serve some psychological purpose. Most women who struggle with emotions and food actually “hunger” for deeper sustenance — a psychological yearning they feed with food. I call this your “black box.” Recognizing that you have one, and that no amount of food will fill it, is a great first step to dealing with your emotions and food. Most talk therapy is about learning to recognize this void and the subconscious patterns that keep it empty.

What I notice is that women get angry at themselves for “pigging out,” blaming food instead of the upsetting situation (or person) that triggered the emotional eating. It’s harder to control your emotions than your food, and food doesn’t talk back. Deprivation has a false appeal, too. It promises a great way to exert control over yourself and the people around you. For some women, depriving themselves of food feels very virtuous while it lasts, but often ends in binge eating.

Examine Your Feelings

Next time you find yourself using food as a soothing mechanism or control device, ask yourself, what set me off? What was I feeling in the beginning and how do I feel now? Many women don’t realize the degree to which food issues are impacting their long-term health. Finding someone to discuss this with can help you unravel and reverse these health-sabotaging behaviors.

The Physical Downside to Emotional Eating

Emotional eating often has undiagnosed but very real physical underpinnings. Hormonal and neurotransmitter imbalance can spark insatiable cravings that contribute to overeating. A range of tests are now available to help us diagnose neurochemical imbalance. I’ve had good success in treating these patients with targeted support in the form of amino acids, vitamins and mineral cofactors.

Food sensitivities can also be entwined with food addiction: we crave the foods we are sensitive to because we’ve grown used to the abnormal biochemical state those foods produce.

You don’t need a lab test to find out whether you have food sensitivity. Just stop that one food for five to seven days, then reintroduce it and track how you feel before and after. Once your body grows accustomed to behaving in a certain way, it tends to want to stay there, even if it’s not the healthiest place to be. In fact, if you can’t stop eating, it may be a sign that your body is inadequately absorbing your nutrients — which is a form of starvation!

Chronic overeating, anorexia, and bingeing/purging are special conditions that usually require professional assistance and are best treated in a holistic manner. Finding a therapist or support group is a great way to start. Enlist the help of your healthcare practitioner as well — that way you can tackle your issues on all fronts. If you’re eating patterns lie at the extremes of the emotional eating spectrum, don’t wait to get help — your health depends on it.

Alternatives to Medication

There are many alternatives to antidepressant and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) medication to help you get a handle on disordered eating behavior. The key is finding what works for you. You may find that following a specific plan helps you to develop the mindfulness you need to break old patterns, for example:

  • Some of my patients have had good success with Overeaters Anonymous (OA). It’s a great forum for learning about your personal issues, but understand that this is a program that requires portion control. Some people prefer Food Addicts Anonymous (FAA), but again, this program uses a structured food plan.
  • Geneen Roth, author of Feeding the Hungry Heart and When Food Is Love, runs workshops around the country specifically designed to help people with eating disorders and other food-related issues.
  • Emotional Freedom Techniques are another method shown to be very helpful for eating disorders. The basics of this technique are simple, effective, and can be applied by anyone.
  • First Line Therapy, a comprehensive program that involves total body analysis and ongoing coaching, is the method we use with the greatest success in our practice.

Be Gentle with Yourself

So keep one thing in mind if you recognize emotional eating in yourself: you are not alone. Almost every woman at one time or another has faced some of these concerns. The important thing to realize is that many of these adverse patterns are set in childhood and can be very difficult to break without help.

I encourage you to remember that we humans are adaptive creatures: just as we learn negative coping mechanisms, we can unlearn them — it just takes more mindfulness. To really overcome eating issues, like emotional eating, we must support the whole system. And to do that, we need to develop a deeper understanding of all the reasons behind them. Regardless of your emotional history or your biochemistry, talking this over with someone you trust is the first step toward letting go of the past and learning to care for yourself in the way you deserve. Remember, if you want to take the long-term approach to weight loss and good health – don’t leave out the emotional piece.