Overcoming Emotional Eating
Why is the Emotional Eating Cycle so Vicious?
Emotional eating can wreak havoc on our physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual wellness. The more we engage in emotional eating, the greater the feelings of shame and guilt, and the less we are able to cope with stressors in a healthy way, thus engage in more emotional eating. I know for myself, I certainly don’t reach for carrots when I’m emotionally eating; it’s pasta, cheese, chips, and gummy candies.
The cycle of emotional eating is referred to as positive feedback, which means: “the enhancement or amplification of an effect by its own influence on the process that gives rise to it”. Without intervention or a change in daily habits, this cycle may continue indefinitely.
Emotional Eating Triggers may include:
- suppressed emotions
- feelings of emptiness
- childhood habits
- unaddressed mental health concerns
- social and marketing pressures
- a distraction
- if you’re worried about an upcoming event or stewing over a conflict, you may focus on eating comfort food instead of dealing with the painful situation.
Four Stages of Emotional Eating:
Stage 1: Stressors
The fundamental cause of emotional eating is a compromised ability to cope with stressors. Stressors can be emotional, mental, physical, and/or environmental, they can also be positive as well as negative.
Stage 2: An overwhelming urge to eat in order to cope
The urge to eat will come on suddenly and often be all consuming. Often, the food cravings are for salt, sugar, or refined carbohydrates. Personally, my emotional eating looks a Garfield cartoon when his face is in the lasagna pan (see below).
Stage 3: Overeating
Whatever emotions drive you to overeat, the end result is often the same. The effect is temporary, the emotions return and you likely then bear the additional burden of guilt about setting back your weight-loss goal.
Stage 4: Shame, guilt, self sabotage
This can also lead to an unhealthy cycle — your emotions trigger you to overeat, you beat yourself up for getting off your weight-loss track, you feel bad and you overeat again. Before you can break free from the cycle of emotional eating, you first need to learn how to distinguish between emotional and physical hunger. This can be trickier than it sounds, especially if you regularly use food to deal with your feelings.
How to Differentiate Between Emotional and Physical Hunger?
Emotional hunger can be powerful, so it’s easy to mistake it for physical hunger. But there are clues you can look for to help you differentiate between emotional and physical hunger:
- Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. It feels consuming, overwhelming and urgent. Emotional hunger also creates a craving for specific comfort foods. Physical hunger comes on more gradually, and you typically don’t crave salt, starches, or sugar. The urge to eat doesn’t feel as dire or demand instant satisfaction.
- Emotional hunger often leads to mindless eating. Before you know it, you’ve eaten a whole bag of chips or an entire pint of ice cream without really paying attention or fully enjoying it. When you’re eating in response to physical hunger, you’re typically more aware of what you’re doing. Eating mindfully is an incredibly effective tool for monitoring the motivation for eating.
- Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied once you’re full. You often be left feeling unsatisfied, even after consuming an abnormal amount of food (because food cannot satisfy what you are looking for). Alternatively, physical hunger will be satisfied with consumption.
- Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach. Rather than a growling belly or a pang in your stomach, you feel your hunger as a craving you can’t get out of your head. You’re focused on specific textures, tastes, and smells.
How to Overcome Emotional Eating?
- Notice how you do it: To interrupt a habit or behavioral pattern is to make it visible. Observe and laugh watching how you salivate to death when seeing a muffin at the store, how you stand in line, shake while eating it, saying to yourself that this is the very thing you need.
- Feel how it feels: Notice how amazing this muffin makes you feel after it got to the destination, how clear your mind becomes and how it resolves all your life problems in a split of a second.
- What are you looking for? Ask yourself: what am I looking for when eating that muffin? Self-love, comfort, peace, distraction? Why am I looking for it there? Does it remind me my grandma, who used to bake them and made me feel so secure in her home? Does it feel same way when my mom and I did baking, and I felt such a sense of togetherness and connection?
- Reality check: What does love have to do with a muffin? Ask yourself: does it really make me feel the way I hoped it would?
- Savour every bite: Do not judge and do not punish yourself. Remember that there is another day to start all over.
You must tease out the underlying, driving factors, and address them in safe, supported space. With emotional eating, it’s a combination of addressing emotional stressors, and re-patterning to cope with future stressors in a healthy way. It may feel overwhelming and hopeless when you’re deep in the cycle, but by consciously noticing what is truly going underneath you start gaining freedom.
This week, once you find yourself binging, go through steps 1-5. Journal your feelings. Repeat the process throughout the week. Most important: do not feel pressured to take action on it, just observe. Write down what you learned about yourself, your habit, and how it changed your perspective.