Emotional Eating: What Is It and What Can I do?
1 in 4 Women and 1 in 8-10 Men suffer with some form of Disordered Eating.
We’re proud to join forces with Elizabeth Saviteer, who will be teaching her fabulous class here at The Wellspring School. Help us make a difference and do no harm when working with this population of clients. Her class will teach you to be direct and compassionate, conveying understanding and competence across the spectrum of disordered eating.
Nutrition Counseling for Disordered Eating Across the Spectrum
Saturday, October 3rd & Sunday, October 4th
By: Elizabeth Saviteer MS, CN, LMHC
If you worry about emotional eating, you are not alone. A lot of people fear that they are eating too often in response to stress, sadness, loneliness, anger or other emotions. Some people aren’t aware that they are eating emotionally, because they feel numb when they eat. Here are some signs that you might be eating to soothe your emotions:
- You can’t stop thinking about food when you are upset, overwhelmed or anxious
- When you are feeling unpleasant emotions, you use food to soothe or subdue those feelings
- You often eat past fullness to avoid returning to the previous emotional state or unpleasant task
- You feel numb or “checked out” when you are eating
- You aren’t aware of how much you are eating or how full you feel while you are eating
- Despite the fact that you are not physically hungry, you eat anyway
- You are beginning to believe that eating is the best part of your day, or one of the only pleasures you have in a normal day
Eating like this can happen occasionally and be completely normal. Most people use food at times to feel better or cope with stress. After all, food is comforting. It is soothing. It does make us feel better when we eat. If we didn’t enjoy the taste and texture of food, our species would have died out a long time ago. Our taste buds were vitally important in our ability to discern edible foods from poisonous, with a strong preference for sweet versus bitter foods. Our brains release feel-good neuro-transmitters like serotonin and dopamine when we eat. In fact, for babies, the act of swallowing has an analgesic effect. It is hard-wired into us to feel calmer and happier when we eat. This is not a defect in our biology, it’s part of our survival.
That’s why I firmly believe that using food to comfort ourselves should always be an option in our repertoire of coping skills. After all, it is very effective in the moment, and doesn’t have immediately dangerous side effects like drugs and alcohol do. When it becomes our only coping mechanism, or if we find ourselves automatically reaching for food to soothe without awareness, then it may be starting to become problematic. In this case, food is becoming a distraction, or a tool of avoidance, and we are not dealing directly with our emotional needs. In fact we may not even be able to identify what’s really bothering us and how best to deal with it.
We also need to recognize that food is a short-term solution. It’s highly effective in the moment, while we are eating. However, when we finish eating, whatever it was that was bothering us, usually comes back at full force. In addition, if our emotional eating has turned into a binge, we’re likely to heap a bunch of guilt and shame on top of ourselves as well.
Because of our culture’s obsession with thinness, people who struggle with emotional eating often feel ashamed of their behavior. They try dieting, self-criticism, and harsh tactics to try to get their eating under control. However, berating oneself doesn’t help. It usually only makes things worse. If we are to have any hope, we must first begin to cultivate self-compassion and non-judgmental awareness.
Developing other coping skills and preventative self-care comes next. This means making sure that your baseline nutrition is solid—that you’re getting enough food, at regular intervals, with a nice balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat throughout the day. Building a self-care repertoire is usually pretty challenging. We are often too busy or over-worked to have energy left-over for self-care. Usually we just want to plop down in front of the t.v. to get some much needed R&R. But, if you really want to tackle emotional eating, you’re going to have to prioritize self-care in your life. That means you need to get enough sleep, take breaks, get social connection, find enjoyable movement, and even take time for some good old fashioned fun and pampering on a regular basis. If you deplete yourself all day, caring for other people, meeting your responsibilities, and you don’t replenish your reserves, you are going to find yourself looking to refill your tank in a box of oreos.
Next, you’ll need to take a look at the actual emotional triggers that are setting off emotional eating. Coming at this from a place of curiosity, rather than self-criticism, is essential. Noticing what pushes your buttons, and which emotions in particular send you to the kitchen, helps build awareness. Understanding those activating feelings can help you catch an episode before it starts, and replace compulsive eating with real satisfaction.
Finally, you can start practicing ways of defusing an emotional eating episode. Anything from distraction to distress tolerance can come in handy when you get to the point of taking action to change the behavior. It takes a lot of practice and patience, but you can learn to employ other skills and stop emotionally eating.
Overcoming emotional eating is a process, but with help and support, you can regain control over food.