Emotional Eating 101

When it comes to maintaining a healthy diet, there are a handful of obstacles that can stand in the way of reaching goals. For example, basic factors like not having time to plan meals, not understanding what healthy meals look like, drinking/being hungover a little too often, frequent work travel or entertaining - things of that nature. However, the most constant issue I run into with clients is something that I bet in some way, will resonate with you: emotional eating. 

What always gets me with my own clients is the fact that roughly 99% of them initially claim that emotional eating “isn’t really something they do.” And I’m always all like “Oh ok cool, alright we’ll revisit this later.”  I totally understand this reaction though; It’s an uncomfortable topic for most people because of the misconception that it shows a lack of self control and often results in shame. However, it’s important to realize that emotional eating and self-control have no relation. Here are the two things to understand instead: 

  1. Emotional eating is a learned behavior that’s been hard-wired into your brain, literally from birth, as a mechanism to offer momentary relief from discomfort. 
  2. Emotional eating is usually a signal that something in your life needs a little TLC. 

Let me repeat: there’s no correlation between emotional eating and self control. 

To be clear, emotional eating is the use of food to regulate feelings, and most people do it to a certain extent. Going back to #1 (above), feelings and food have gone hand in hand, probably since before you even remember. Think about your own childhood. Food was used to soothe and reward since you from infancy. You've probably been handed a lollipop after toughing out a doctors visit, or taken to Baskin Robbins after falling off your bike and skinning your knee. Maybe food was often used reinforce positive behavior or celebrate: A on your math test, pizza for dinner (I actually think I got pizza for just passing math). Finish your chores for a week, pick something out of the candy jar. Lose a tooth, wake up with a Taco Bell burrito under your pillow…maybe that was just me. 

Unfortunately, childhood associations tend to sneakily follow us into adulthood without us even realizing it, so food to “fix” a feeling is a deeply rooted reaction. We feel discomfort and our subconscious mind assures us that a scoop (or carton) of ice cream is a quick way to distract from said discomfort. I’m not just trying to save your feelings, it’s actually critical to realize this because holding on to shame that can come after emotional eating, can trigger more emotional eating and/or binge eating, and that’s when you start running into bigger problems.

(Sidenote: while emotional eating and binge eating can have some overlap, these are two different issues. More soon on that.) 

Here’s some news though: you’re a grown up now. You have a drivers license, a job, perhaps a spouse and/or kids - like, you’re a real, functioning adult. It’s time to start processing your feelings, because you aren’t 8 years old and you have the capacity for this. You can actually thank emotional eating for showing you any potential red flags, because I promise you that when you bury your feelings, they’ll end up manifesting themselves in some very weird, sometimes messed up ways - often much worse than running to the fridge every time your boss is being a dick.

So say a silent thank you for this little blessing in disguise, and read on. Here’s how you begin to handle emotional eating, level 101:    

Feel Your Feelings

The next time you find yourself with your head in the fridge despite having eaten lunch an hour prior, take a quick pause and count to 30. Try and ID the specific feeling(s) that sent you hightailing toward the kitchen: are you stressed about something? Frustrated/ angry/ sad/ bored? Maybe you’re procrastinating- whats the feeling that the task you’re putting off evokes? Take a few minutes to really be in it, even if it’s uncomfortable. You can still eat whatever you were planning to eat, but promise me for now that you’ll commit to taking a moment to to tap in to those feels. 

Try to Understand the Cause

Now that you’re tuned in to what’s going on upstairs, get real about where these feelings are coming from, and why. Maybe you’re frustrated with a friend’s behavior, or you’re feeling overwhelmed by a massive to-do list at work. There’s something that’s got you wanting a quick distraction; take the time to figure out why you’re feeling a certain way. 

Sometimes the answer isn’t obvious; I’ll use myself as an example here in that I tend to eat when I’m bored. At first I thought this was just a mindless action and unrelated to emotion, but in doing my own self-reflection work I realized that boredom triggers other emotions. Story time: I went through a period in my early 20’s where I slacked off a lot (like, a lot) because I hated my job. Said job also happened to come with a lot of freedom because my boss lived in another state and I didn’t have sales quota (terrible idea) - which equated to a lot of days spent drinking by the pool and lying to my boss, which eventually led to getting caught and fired, which led to a lot of guilt and shame. 

Luckily, I pulled my act together and today I love what I do. I throw my heart and soul into producing work that I’m proud of, and I wouldn’t be caught dead lying. But, downtime can trigger those old feelings…which I have definitely masked with a big spoon of almond butter rolled in chocolate chips (so good though). Understanding the root and doing the work to reset my mindset and forgiving myself has really helped change my behavior. Get what I’m saying? Don’t be afraid to go deep. 

Look for patterns

Fact: sometimes, you’re going to be pissed of and the only thing thats going to fix it is a burger and fries. Do it, enjoy it, move on. But if emotional eating comes up often enough that its compromising your efforts to improve your health or causing you real distress, start paying attention to your triggers. You’ll want to address those soon; for now, just tune in. This is just a crash course - we’ll get to the good stuff soon enough. 

Take Appropriate Action

There are so many ways to process feelings, but here are some preliminary suggestions: 

Writing: I used to think writing was helpful to me specifically because I’ve always had an easier time articulating my thoughts on paper than I do out loud, so I didn’t recommend it to clients very often. It turns out though, that writing through your feelings can be incredibly therapeutic for many. Try journaling your feelings without overthinking it -j just let the thoughts flow. You might be surprised what you discover. 

Meditation: This is some life-changing stuff. While my regular meditation practice can last anywhere from 20-50 minutes at a time, I rely on short meditations any time I need to mentally reset (this includes when I start to feel overwhelemed, anxious, stressed, or frustrated). Simply closing your eyes and quieting the mind for a few minutes can be extremely effective and can be done from just about anywhere. If you’re a newbie, no worries! There are dozens of short, free guided meditations online, or even subscription based models such as Headspace. More on this soon. 

Seek outside help: I f’ing love therapy. When my parents split up, they sent me to a therapist because I think they were concerned that they ruined my life. I got to dig in a sandbox, do arts and crafts, and talk to a stranger about my feelings and I’ve been a fan ever since. A good therapist will help you understand where certain emotions are coming from and give you tools to process them in a healthy way. 

Be Gentle

Show yourself love and compassion. Know that changing behavior doesn’t happen overnight, and it certainly doesn’t change from reading a blog post. It’s a long process, and beating yourself up every time you slip is only going to make it worse. Love yourself regardless, accept where your at, and when it happens, treat yourself with kindness. 

Questions? Comments? Just ask - I’m an open book.