Emotional Eating-FAQ’s

I’ll be talking with Dahlia Kurtz about emotional eating tomorrow on CJOB in the afternoon.  A great topic…something that affects so very many of us.  I’m not sure we get a lot of folks coming to the counselling office saying, “Help me, I eat too much”…but we get a ton of folks that are struggling with depression, anxiety, relationships, careers, and so on, that go on to say one of the ways they cope is by eating comfort food and that this then becomes a further issue in their lives because of the weight gain, or because they are ashamed of their unhealthy behaviors. It comes up often…so here is a quick primer on emotional eating.  This is long…but trust me, this is a loaded topic and it could have been a lot longer!

What is “emotional eating”?

It is eating for reasons relating to how a person is feeling emotionally.  Eating serves to soothe, comfort,
mask, cover, numb–eating for reasons other than nutrition.  Emotional eating is about using
food to make yourself feel better emotionally, not because your body needs the calories, proteins and other nutrients in the food.  It’s feeding feelings and not your belly.

What does emotional eating look like?

Emotional eating occurs when:

  • a person continues to eat when you past being satisfied  In fact, sometimes a person may feel uncomfortably full, but continue to reach for more food
  • feeling the powerful urge to eat (often arising quickly) that isn’t “stomach hunger”
  • when you are reading for “comfort foods”, typically high in sugars/high fat…you find yourself going back to the same foods when you are in similar situations
  • when you eat in a distracted manner, and mindlessly eat greater amounts than what you might need for a snack (ever opened a bag of chips to snack on a few and before you know it the bag is mostly gone?)
  • when you eat to distract yourself from an unpleasant task at hand (munching on food while trying to slog through that big term paper)

Quote on poster for emotional eating in Winnipeg that looks at self hatred around overeating for emotional reasons

Why do people engage in “emotional eating”?

I could write a book to answer this…but that has been done. One of them is sitting on my bookshelf and it is 3 inches thick.  Serious.
The long and short of it: Eating makes us feel better. We start our lives by learning that when we are upset, our parents calm us with milk/formula.  Children suck on pacifiers or suck their thumbs to soothe themselves, because mouth action feels good.  We are wired to enjoy pleasure with our mouths.
Eating is something we do as part of connection…and so we often associate food with meaningful memories of warmth and nurture…birthday parties, Christmas, Thanksgiving, celebrations, funerals…where people connect, they usually eat…and that feels good.  We associate eating with feeling good.
Eating to soothe ourselves works well because:
  • we can do it most anywhere, and while doing something else…when our children are napping, when we are at home or out or at work, at a computer while we are working
  • it’s safe…we can do it while driving, and it doesn’t impair our judgement or ability to process information like consuming drugs or alcohol would
  • it’s easy…it doesn’t take a lot of effort, like exercise.  We might feel better after a run around the block, but it’s harder to get out of the house than it is to open the refrigerator
  • the benefit is immediate (mmmmm…that chocolate tastes good and I’m feeling better already!) while the negative consequences (of obesity, diabetes or heart disease) can take decades (i.e. “forever”) to develop

Does emotional eating work?

Heck. yeah.
Why do you think it’s such a problem?  If it didn’t work so well, it wouldn’t be such a pervasive problem in our culture. For me, Ruffles cheddar and sour cream potato chips and/or a piece of chocolate cake can make the stresses of the day vanish…for a time.
Problem is that it works only in the very short term.  There are clear ways in that not only does it not work, but it actually works against you.

How is emotional eating a problem?

Emotional eating creates significant problems:
  1. Emotional eating is a solution for dealing with boredom, stress, distress, emotional pain, anger…but it leaves a person feeling stuffed, bloated…and still dealing with boredom, stress, distress, emotional pain and anger after the eating is done.  We treat it as a solution when it is not
  2. Emotional eating serves to distract, shield or numb us from that which is distressing.  So food acts as a “band aid”, covering up the issues, which prevents a person from feeling their feelings and then acting on them.  So…a person might be upset that their marriage isn’t working, and they aren’t feeling loved…so they comfort themselves with Ben and Jerry’s on the couch in the evening, filling the hole where they wish the love was with ice cream. It allows them to not tend to their discomfort and ask themselves and their spouse what’s going on…it saves a person from the difficult conversations…but it also hampers their ability to improve their lives.
  3. Emotional eating isn’t healthy, and has the effect of us feeling out of control, even hijacked by the part of us that ordered the extra large plate of nachos.  That feels lousy to do something for ourselves that ultimately is destructive…often after a person has said, “I’m not going to over eat”. That creates a feeling of failure.  Folks feel like they have screwed up…worse yet, they can feel that they are a screw up.
  4. When a person feels ashamed of what they have done, they may talk to themselves in a very critical way.  An emotional eater may feel self hatred.  They create difficult feelings of distress because they have overeaten…which, you guessed it, can create a need to feel better…by over eating some more.  This cycle can only be described as vicious
  5. Emotional eating also creates the obvious problems…it often increases a person’s weight, creating problems with mobility, joint pain, self image and self esteem issues.  It can create health problems with diabetes, cardiovascular issues, and a whole host of other problems by eating too much food of a type that isn’t good for our bodies.

Is the issue of emotional eating harder for men?

Interestingly, the answer may be “yes”.  It is definitely more difficult for men to acknowledge that they are emotional eaters.  You see, the top values for men in our culture are to be good workers, to be in control of their emotions, and to “be strong”.  Men are discouraged from being “sissies”…they aren’t to cry, or be upset, or lose control.  They aren’t to express strong feelings that may make them vulenrable.  Above all else, men need to not be seen as “weak”…so in my experience, men not only don’t demonstrate these feelings, they work very hard not to even feel their feelings. So…sitting in front of the TV with a huge bag of Doritos works to help a guy stay a “real man”.
Problem is, guys can see what they are doing.  They can see the pounds slowly creeping on, and they recognize they are stuffing their feelings by stuffing in food…but there isn’t a lot of culturally acceptable places to be open about the “secret” of emotional eating…and so there is a lot of pressure to hide their emotional eating because to bring it up would necessitate talking about feelings…which, as I’ve just pointed out, isn’t culturally acceptable. So they hide their emotional eating…which further creates distance from others with emotional pain attached to that. No one likes to hide and keep secrets…there is a personal cost to that.
To add to this…there are new emerging cultural pressures for men.  As women have been encouraged and empowered to gain equal rights, to see the sky as the limit and pursue their dream careers etc., rather than just being valued for being “pretty, quiet and thin” (thank goodness we are past those days)…there has been reciprocal pressure on men. Men are expected to pay more attention to their appearance, to be fit and svelte…which puts more pressure on guys.  And ask any girl what happens to emotional eating when she’s trying to lose weight because she feels “fat” and isn’t satisfied with her body image…it’s not pretty…and it’s happening to guys now too.

What to do?

  1. Name it.  If you find yourself fitting the description of an “emotional eater”, acknowledge that to yourself…better yet, say it out loud to someone who you trust with that.  When you order the pizza late at night, say out loud to yourself what you are doing…and why you are doing it.  Allow yourself to be real: “I’m feeling lonely that I don’t have a date this evening, so I’m going to push away those lonely feelings by preoccupying myself with pepperoni pizza.  While I’m eating it, I will be less aware of how I wish I had a girlfriend”.
  2. Be courageous and slow it down.  Try feeling your feelings for a few minutes before giving in to the urge to see what happens.  Before grabbing the brownies, set the timer for 10 minutes and let yourself feel the pain of how your boss humiliated you in front of those co-workers…are you also sad? furious? resentful? frustrated?  Notice where you feel those disturbing feelings, and notice how they may feel intense, but they actually don’t consume you, or kill you, or finish you off. Consider taking action to deal with the feelings in a way other than by feeding them.
  3. Be kind to yourself.  Don’t load the cupboards with the sorts of foods that you will over indulge in when you’re upset. That’s like walking an alcoholic through a liquor store.  When you are strong, make decisions that will be helpful for you when you are struggling.
  4. Be gentle with yourself.  It’s not realistic to go from “zero to hero” overnight in the emotional eating department.  Find ways of doing the eating–what is so important, and feels so necessary–in less destructive ways.  For example, instead of buying the huge bag of chips, purchase the individual serving size bag to have in the cupboard for when you feel the pull to emotionally eat.  Don’t set yourself up for failure with unrealistic expectations (which can lead to further need to overeat to numb the failure feeling)
  5. Be compassionate with yourself.  Talk to yourself like you would talk to a good friend who is emotionally eating…no cussing,no name calling, no hatred. Try supportive, encouraging words to try again, to do the best you can.  Compassion doesn’t mean indulgence, it means encouraging better behavior through positive means.
  6. Be realistic…it’s not realistic to cut out an important means of numbing/soothing/calming without replacing it with something else that will achieve that purpose.  Brainstorm ways of improving mood without eating.  Lighting a candle, playing soft jazz, cuddling up with a hot water bottle, for example. Maybe chew on a straw or a toothpick. Indulge yourself other than with food…instead of a bag of cookies, chill some sparking juice and pour it into a goblet to sip on, or chill your mug and make a fruit smoothie in it.
  7. Be understanding…you aren’t the only one.  Lots of folks struggle with emotional eating. Your aren’t bad or evil or awful…just human.
  8. Talk about it.  I think two of the most powerful words in the English language are: “me too”.  Find someone you trust to listen to your experiences of emotional eating…connecting with another can have powerful benefits…and chances are, they will be able to relate.  Feeling less isolated with emotional eating can help you in feeling supported to make better choices.

Emotional eating has gotten a lot harder in recent decades with the explosion of prepared foods that are designed to tempt our taste buds and give us a quick fix.  The challenge of emotional eating will be ongoing, and will require ongoing diligence to find ways of effectively dealing with emotions in healthy ways.

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