It’s one of the first things that many clients confess to me. Worried about my impending judgement, staring at their shoes in shame. “I’m an emotional eater. I eat when I’m happy (or sad or stressed or anxious or mad).” Welcome to the club, my friend. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t from time to time. The idea that we can disconnect food from emotion is actually pretty silly. Milk is love to the newborn at their mother’s breast. Chicken soup is comfort and care when you’re on the couch with the flu. Wedding cake is joy and gratefulness that your best friend (finally!) found the one. To disconnect food from life, relationship and emotion is foolishness. But emotional eating can also be dangerous. Emotional eating that is an escape from life instead of an enhancement of life is a problem. When food is used to avoid or even worse to punish and beat down, it can become harmful.
I once had a client who liked to drive through McDonald’s on her way home from work. She had an incredibly stressful job in the healthcare industry and chicken nuggets were her medication of choice. She’d order a 20 piece and the next thing she knew, she was pulling into her driveway at home with very little recollection of the drive. This example, while extreme, shows the damage that emotional eating can do. When we medicate our feelings with food outside of the bounds of our biological hunger, it takes a physical and emotional toll.
In their book, Intuitive Eating, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch describe the different forms that emotional eating can take. Starting with sensory gratification, which is fairy common and benign, the types of emotional eating progress in severity with the most harmful being self punishment. The triggers for emotional eating are vast and varying. It can be boredom, the desire to procrastinate, the need for soothing, anxiety, anger, the desire to escape or even a lack of feeling loved.
One of the main issues with emotional eating is that it takes us outside of our natural hunger and fullness cues. When biological hunger is not the trigger to eat, then biological fullness will most likely not be the signal to stop. That’s why you feel like you can eat certain things forever and never get enough. If anxiety is the trigger to eat, what will be the trigger to stop?
Another huge issue with emotional eating is that it doesn’t solve the problem needing to be solved. In fact, it tends to add another layer of problems. If you overeat as an escape from stress. Then, you’ve just added physical discomfort, and most likely some shame to that stress. You haven’t dealt with the stress or the underlying factors that are leading to that stress at all… you’ve just escaped them for a bit.
So, what’s an emotional eater to do? Awareness is the main factor. Start identifying if you are engaging in one of the main types of emotional eating. Do you crave certain foods in certain situations or when you are feeling certain emotions? This can be difficult to detect because we often don’t know we are feeling certain emotion. We eat to avoid them! Do you eat unusually large quantities (for you) of foods at certain times and still feel unsatisfied? Do you find yourself checking out when you eat? Escaping with the food?
One of the main strategies that I ask my clients to use when dealing with emotional eating is to walk themselves through the chart below. When we deal with difficult emotions with food, we short circuit the process of identify what the actual problem is and dealing with it. Pausing and asking yourself the right questions can help.
Unchecked emotional eating can cause a lot of problems. It’s for this reason that I take an entire class to cover it in my intuitive eating course. If you suspect you struggle with this, don’t hesitate to get help. Make an appointment with a dietitian or talk with a counselor because food should enhance life, not be an escape from it.