So many women I know – clients, friends, family members and colleagues – spend time berating themselves for their food choices. If only I had some willpower, I could finally lose that weight they tell me. There was once a time I believed that myself. I struggled with my weight, but I couldn’t seem to stop making poor food choices. It wasn’t until I realized that these choices were about deep rooted emotional trauma, not willpower, that I was able to see food for what it was. Then I could make the necessary changes that allowed me to not only shed those stubborn pounds, but feel better than I ever have.
I think we all know consciously that food is fuel, and the primary purpose of eating is to give our body the energy it needs to survive. But in our culture, food is so much more than that; we eat to celebrate, we eat to console ourselves, we eat when we’re bored or angry. We reward ourselves for accomplishments with sweet treats – even when the accomplishment is giving up sugar for a month! Does that make any sense at all?
I see this cycle of emotional eating in women struggling with weight loss. Why is it so easy to slide right back into bad nutrition choices when we’ve worked so hard to make good ones? Well, most often, it’s because the emotional issues lurking under the surface – the ones that prompt us to make unhealthy choices in the first place – haven’t gone anywhere. We stuff them down, push them back, ignore them for as long as we can – and then fall right back into the same old emotional trap.
What is Emotional Eating?
Eating for any reason other than to satisfy physical hunger is likely connected to emotions – good or bad. Most often, women think of negative emotions when they think of emotional eating. We use food to self soothe, to feel better in painful situations, to bury anger, frustration or hurt. We use food as a distraction when there’s something we don’t know how to deal with. We turn to convenience foods when faced with the stress of everyday life, grabbing whatever is handy without giving it a thought.
But emotional eating can also come from good emotions – especially with the tendency to mark happy occasions with special food and drinks. When you get a promotion, you might go out for dinner and drinks with colleagues. A birthday celebration doesn’t seem complete without cake and ice cream. Children are rewarded with treats for good behavior.
We’ve been using food in these ways for so long that our bodies are trained to respond with cravings when faced with these emotional triggers. And that can lead to a cycle that’s incredibly difficult to break.
Are You On a Constant Roller Coaster Ride?
Some people are roller coaster junkies. They crave the high that comes as they rush down a steep incline, or loop de loop upside down and around turns at high speeds. But those feelings don’t last long once the ride is over, so they want to ride again and again.
The same kind of thing happens with emotional eating. Although the food may temporarily stifle difficult feelings, when you’re not addressing them, they’ll return, sending you back to seek comfort in food. Even good feelings perpetuate this cycle when the reward is food.
The high from foods consumed from an emotional place doesn’t last long, and the guilt that often lingers when the high dissipates can send you right back to the kitchen for more comfort. These cravings are driven by chemical reactions in your body – and sometimes no amount of desire or “willpower” is strong enough to fight off these reactions.
Is it any wonder, then, that weight loss is so hard?
Physiological Reactions That Prompt Emotional Eating
It may seem like emotional eating is “all in your head,” triggered only by psychological factors. But it’s a little more complicated than that. Your body is full of hormones and chemicals that send signals – including hunger signals. When hormones are imbalanced, the messages being relayed can get jumbled. Your brain could be sending an urgent call for food, even if you aren’t really hungry.
I’ve talked a lot about chronic stress and cortisol in prior newsletters. Chronically high levels of cortisol can have a major impact on other hormones, including those that drive hunger signals. Leptin, in particular, can cause big problems when trying to lose weight if your brain doesn’t receive the message to stop eating.
If you’re dealing with leptin resistance, your body doesn’t respond properly to leptin, even when you have plenty. That could make emotional eating even harder to control, since your body is sending the message that you really are hungry. One study showed that high stress markers and high leptin levels was connected to high reports of emotional eating.
Research has demonstrated a complex and reciprocal relationship between mood, food, and obesity. Stress reduces the amount of serotonin, a chemical directly connected to mood. High sugar/high carbohydrate foods boost chemicals that call for the release of more serotonin, which in turn makes you feel better temporarily. Your body learns that certain foods make you feel good, so you end up constantly craving these unhealthy choices. It’s the same chemical cycle that causes addiction to alcohol or other drugs.
Clearly, then, curbing emotional eating is more complicated than simply telling yourself to stop. It will be difficult, and it will take a lot of hard work and commitment. But it can be done.
10 Tips to Help You Stop Emotional Eating
Recognizing that you’re eating for all the wrong reasons is an important first step. But the real question is What can I do about it? Avoiding those unhealthy choices is easier said than done. Often, the help of a professional therapist or more formal program is necessary. But to get you started, keep these ten tips in mind for stopping emotional eating:
1. Don’t Rely on Food for Rewards or Celebrations
Food is so much more than nourishment in our society, and often we’re celebrating with food just because that’s what we’ve always done. If you grew up getting a special treat every time something good happened, it’s no wonder you turn to food even when you’re feeling great. But there are far healthier ways to reward yourself for a job well done.
When you finish a big project, have an amazing parenting moment, or land a big client, try finding a non-food reward you’ll enjoy just as much – or even more! Take a nap, spend an hour doing whatever you want online, watch a favorite movie, call a friend to tell them all about your success. Savor the actual achievement, not the sweet treat that follows!
2. Write Everything Down
A food diary is a wonderful way to track not only what you’re putting in your body, but when and why. If you are methodically tracking what, how much, and when you are eating, as well as how you feel when you go in search of food and if you have physical signs of hunger before you eat, you can really begin to see patterns emerge. Get as detailed as you can – instead of writing down apple, 7 am, feeling fine, record it like this: small apple, 7 am – one hour after waking up; stomach grumbling, mood happy and ready to tackle the day.
It’s also helpful to record how you feel after you eat. Did the apple satisfy your physical hunger? Did you stop eating, or did you immediately feel like you wanted something else? These questions can help identify which foods satisfy you (and how long you stay satisfied) and which might be a balm for sadness, anger, or other strong emotions.
3. Reduce Stress
Stress reduction is truly one of the most important pieces of the overall health puzzle – and has a big impact on emotional eating. When you find yourself stressed, anxious, and reaching for a bag of chips or a box of cookies, take a few minutes to breathe deeply, walk around the block, or do a few yoga poses. That might just be what it takes for the impulse to pass.
Long term stress management is essential as well – so find healthy techniques to add to your daily routine. Whatever you choose, it shouldn’t make your life feel more crazy – find something you can immerse yourself in, that allows you to fully enjoy the moment and leaves you feeling energized and alive.
4. Assess Hunger Level and Choose Snacks Wisely
Since emotional eating isn’t about hunger at all, taking a moment to ask yourself what’s really going on can sometimes be enough. Are you bored? Find something stimulating to do. Sad? Call a friend, or dance to an upbeat tune.
If it’s been a few hours since you had something to eat, and your stomach is grumbling, then you might actually need food. And once you’ve established that, you can make healthy choices about what to eat – an apple with almond butter will satisfy true hunger much better than a piece of cake!
5. Reach Out to Others
If you’re trying to manage difficult emotions on your own, you may well give in to emotional eating. Call a trusted friend, join a support group, or work with a therapist to help you work through the feelings. There are some great programs and techniques available to help you get to the root of your emotional trauma, including EFT and The Hoffman Process. I highly recommend both when you are ready to dig in and really find out what’s going on.
6. Don’t Beat Yourself Up for Slipping
Remember that cycle I talked about? You can break it when you give yourself permission to learn from setbacks and keep on trying. Every moment is an opportunity to begin again. So if you ate doughnuts instead of a healthy breakfast, you don’t have to spend the rest of the day making poor choices. Forgive yourself, make a plan for the rest of the day, and move on. And don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back when you make healthy choices!
7. Avoid Temptation
It’s far too easy to console yourself with food when your cupboards and refrigerator are full of ice cream, cookies, chips, and other comfort foods. Know your weaknesses and don’t keep them in your house! It’s best to avoid the grocery store until you are in the right frame of mind (and not physically hungry).
8. Eat Mindfully
Have you ever reached for a bag of chips when you were feeling down, and suddenly found yourself at the bottom of the bag without even really remembering eating them all? This kind of of unconscious eating might mean you’re consuming far more calories than you know – which can stop weight loss in its tracks!
Sit at a table to eat, and pay attention to every bite you take. What are you feeling? How does it taste? Do you want more, or is one bite enough? When you’re really aware of what you’re eating, you are likely to not only eat less, but enjoy it a lot more!
Pay close attention to the choices you are making, too. If you force yourself to eat the same things over and over, deprive yourself of all treats, or limit calories too severely, you could actually be increasing those cravings. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing!
9. Embrace Your Emotions – ALL of Them!
Sure, it’s tempting to shove what we perceive as negative emotions aside. But here’s the thing: all emotions serve a purpose. Our emotions aren’t bad or good. Whatever we feel is what we feel, and these feelings are a message. We need to listen to them, no matter how uncomfortable that might be, to be our best selves.
We need to confront them, and dispute them if the message is untrue (i.e., you’ll never be loved, you are worthless, and any number of other horrible things women tell themselves). The personal power you realize you have when you allow yourself to feel and understand your emotions is amazing!
10. Get Plenty of Sleep
When you are tired, it’s tough to make great choices. Sleep deprivation has a big impact on your hormones including increasing ghrelin (which tells you when you’re hungry) and decreasing leptin (which lets you know you are full). That means that you’re getting signals in two directions that it’s time to eat – whether you are actually hungry or not!
Leave the Ups and Downs of Emotional Eating Behind
The highs that come from comfort foods often aren’t worth the lows that follow. When you recognize that your eating is coming from emotions rather than hunger, you can finally change the pattern. Stopping emotional eating won’t be easy, but the way you feel when you leave the cycle of guilt and shame behind is worth it! Be patient and kind with yourself – the change won’t happen overnight. Small steps forward are better than no steps at all.
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD