By Nancy Mehlert, MS
Emotional eating is not an easy topic. Like other aspects of our lives that can become a slippery slope to abuse, such as drugs, alcohol, and credit card debt, emotional eating can be a problem we don’t want to face, much less talk about. Though very socially acceptable, like other addictions, it is not a sustainable habit. It’s also very difficult to stop since we do have to eat to sustain life, whereas, for example, we can completely abstain from alcohol when on the road to recovery so as not to be tempted. The consequences of emotional eating are many and include inability to lose weight and keep it off, obesity, diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, sleep disturbances, fatigue, brain fog, dependence on stimulants and depressants, low self-esteem and so much more. Most of us have no idea how it started or when we became emotional eaters. Nevertheless, for many of us, we are discovering that our emotions and eating are intertwined. It’s often the reason we get caught in the suffocating loop of trying to lose weight. Even when we know what to eat, and we know how much to eat, we somehow find ourselves at the mercy of our cravings and wondering if we can ever create a healthy lifestyle and maintain a normal weight. The reality for all of us who struggle with emotional eating is that we must come face to face with our emotional attachment to food and cut those ties loose. Here at The Woodlands Institute for Health and Wellness our goal is to guide our patients on a wellness journey to good health and, frankly, emotional eating is a common roadblock.
The functional, biological purpose of eating is to nourish the body. We need to eat when we feel physical hunger. Physical hunger is our body’s normal process to inform us that it is time to eat to fuel the body. In an ideal world, our relationship with food would be one where we feel hungry, so we eat and as soon as we are full, we stop eating. In a very simple sense then eating is defined as the normal response to physical hunger.
Emotional eating is a maladaptive coping response to emotional hunger. Emotional eating is a preoccupation with food to numb us or distract us from feeling what we don’t want to feel. Common emotions that trigger an eating response include fatigue, fear, emptiness, feeling out of control, stress, anger, boredom, sadness, shame or loneliness. For many, even positive emotions such as happiness, love and celebration are triggers. Whether positive or negative emotions, emotional eating is an unhealthy relationship with food.
How does this happen to us? How do we become emotional eaters? It is not hard to understand when we closely examine our culture of today as it has progressed over the last sixty or seventy years. Consider the reality of these common experiences:
- We have become a culture that “lives to eat” rather than “eats to live”.
- We have been taught to convey our love and friendship in the form of food. We reward success with treats, we soothe hurt feelings and disappointments with food, we offer food as expressions of love for holidays and birthdays.
- Consider the advertisements reflecting smiling and laughing people as they eat, even if they are eating junk food. Corporations work hard to connect happiness, friendship and laughter with the food they want you to purchase. Movies can have similar effects.
- Family and social bonding is done around food in our culture – potlucks, picnics, girl’s night out, reunions, birthdays, weddings, funerals, anniversaries, graduations, social marketing/sales gatherings, business meetings, bunko and bridge… what would they be without food?
- Food has become a hobby for many. Cooking, gardening, social food groups, cooking and baking classes… we even have a name for food hobbyists. We call them “foodies”.
- Parenting styles and instructions implant ideas and beliefs in our minds as well. What about “Clean your plate because there are starving children in Africa”. Or, “You may not leave the table without finishing your meal”. Perhaps your mother’s love language was cooking good food that made you smile and, yes, stuffed! In this way food can become a punishment or a reward.
- Economic status during childhood may also have a bearing on your relationship with food. If food was scarce and hunger pangs were experienced often, a desire to hoard food as an adult is a protective, emotional response to the fear of being without.
Culturally we have become a food addicted society who associates eating with happiness, love, and comfort! And to most of us, this is “normal”, yet we are becoming brutally aware that our sedentary, food-focused lifestyles are contributing, at least in part, to the major health crisis in which we find ourselves. Emotional eating is taking its toll. We need a conscious effort to work toward resolution for ourselves, for our families and for our communities.
What to do? Easy to say, hard to change. Life is hard and food is easy (the name of a book on the topic, see below)! As with any obsession or addiction, recognizing that your feelings are interwoven with your eating patterns is the first step. It is possible (and healthy) to deal with your emotions directly, rather than using and abusing food and your body to avoid or work around your emotions. Once you become aware of the ways you have been using food thoughtlessly, you will become more conscious. Then you will be free to make different choices. Here are the key steps:
Step One: Identify all of the triggers that make you want to engage in emotional eating. There may be more than one and in fact it is not unusual to have a list of 10 or more! Writing them down as you recognize them can be helpful. Here are just a few examples:
o Avoiding work or projects that are hard to get started
o Avoiding hurting someone’s feelings
o Because everyone expects me to eat
o When I feel sorry for myself
o When I feel like I deserve a treat after surviving a hard day or circumstance
o When I see a food that looks really yummy and I want to try it
o When I’m really exhausted after a long day
o When I am frustrated about circumstances or people that I cannot change or control
Step Two: Understand why you eat under these circumstances. Try to think through the situation and identify how you connected these emotions to the eating. Reconcile the truth about your emotions/feelings or beliefs with the food and eating it. Here are two examples:
- Whenever I visit my mom I want to eat. It is an immediate trigger, regardless of my need or lack of hunger. When I thought about it, I realized that my mother loved us by feeding us. She would spend hours or days preparing menus, shopping for food and preparing for our arrival home. Even during childhood, we ate at home and she loved us by making delicious home cooked meals. I realized that food was emotionally connected with receiving my mother’s love. Once I was able to realize that my mother’s love was not coming from the food, or in the food, and that the food was not my mother, I realized this emotional connection was a trap. Once I recognized this and got my mind off of food and focused on her, it helped me to be more intentional in listening to her, loving her and sharing life with her.
- When I am in a social situation with people I don’t know very well, I want to eat. And eat. And eat. It is easy to do because virtually every social event has food involved. My top priority upon arrival at a social event was to find food and try it all. So why this trigger? After considerable thought and honesty with myself, I recognized that food was the escape and the comfort from doing what I am uncomfortable doing –meeting new people. Food was the numbing, distracting and comforting escape from what I did not enjoy doing and was not confident doing. I used food for comfort, distraction and a place to stand! Recognizing this pattern of escape helped me to anticipate social events, set boundaries around the food served there and learn better social skills to enjoy people and make new friends.
Step Three: Detaching eating from these triggers. Work to understand how you linked these emotions to eating in the first place. Recognize then that the emotional link is not reality. A very good way to see the problem with your false thinking is to see how people with a healthy relationship with food deal with the same kind of situation. If you observe closely or talk to a friend or family member you know who has a healthy relationship with food, they would not share the same thoughts about food that you have. I asked a friend about social events and she said she usually never gets to the food because she is so busy enjoying other people, relationships and learning new things! It is possible to give and receive love, get to know other people, celebrate success, and even feel hurt or abandoned without using food. Whether you use food, or use alcohol, or use people, these are self-destructive patterns that are not sustainable for a healthy life.
Step Four: Resolve the triggers themselves. This is the crux of the matter. If we don’t face ourselves, our emotions, and their sources and work through them, we will continue to find ways to escape them and won’t be successful disconnecting eating from our emotions. Let’s face it. Life is hard and food is terribly easy. We live in a culture where our stressful and busy lives have disconnected us from our inner selves. When was the last time you sat in quiet solitude? When was the last time you worshiped or gave thanks or spent time alone to ponder life? Are you so busy being a “human-doing” that you never stop to be a “human-being”? Do you take adequate time for self-care? What do you do with all of the hurt and failure that has piled up in your life? Do you “stuff it”? Or do you wade into it, wallow in it, work through it, let yourself experience the emotions and come to a healthy understanding of them? The second one takes more work but leaves your soul and mind in a much healthier state.
In Health and Wellness, we see very clearly that while diet and exercise and other lifestyle choices are essential to getting well, there is no question that if your soul does not feel “safe” releasing fat, weight loss often will not come. Psychologically, our “baggage”, left unattended, will prevent your body from feeling safe enough to release fat. Fat in its very purpose on the body is protective in function. It protects the organ systems from impact but it also is stored on the body in case of stress/food shortage/famine. In our society today, where most of us don’t suffer from food shortage, fat storage can occur as a protective measure for the spirit or soul. Emotional healing is both freeing for the mind but also for the body. Underlying emotions, beliefs and traumas play with our weight and our health, and also our confidence levels with our body.
We started the article with the truth. This is not an easy topic! Having four steps to follow does not offer mastery over your emotions in a day. We want to encourage you to take steps on a journey to a healthier emotional life. There are many resources, including books to read, websites to explore, counselors and step programs. The important thing is to take the first step. Here are a few easy first steps and resources:
- Go to this link and take the free test to determine if you are an emotional eater (for a very small fee you can get a more detailed and helpful analysis): http://psychologytoday.tests.psychtests.com/take_test.php?idRegTest=1599
- Check out books and DVD’s by Brene Brown, a local Houston Doctor of Social Work and professor at The University of Houston who has studied worthiness, and whole hearted living and discovered shame and guilt on the journey. She is funny, very human, and very helpful. You can listen to her on TED talks as well. Her DVD called Men, Women and Worthiness is very helpful.
- Consider reading:
o The Taming of the Chew by Denise Lamothe, PSY.D., H.H.D. , 1998
o The Gabriel Method by Jon Gabriel, 2008
o Life is Hard, Food is Easy by Linda Spangle, RN, MA, 2003
o Made to Crave by Lysa TerKeurst, 2010 (written in a Biblical/Christian context)
- Look into Emotional Freedom Technique, also called EFT. This is a tapping technique that allows you to work through each emotion and eating scenario to release it. It is easy enough to learn and do for yourself.
- Consider getting help from a professional counselor or a step program or a support group. Consider forming your own support group and using the books listed above for group study and discussion.