Emotional Eating

Stop Eating Your Feelings & Start Feeling Good About Eating

Food Is Your Friend!

The Impact of Emotional Eating on Weight Loss

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had a client think about giving up until they reached the part of our course that addresses how to find out if you’re an emotional eater. The habitual, even subconscious nature of emotional eating often renders it almost invisible – people don’t know they’re emotional eaters until someone makes them aware of it.

This has huge implications for weight loss, because someone can be doing a lot of things right and still be sabotaging themselves with too much emotional eating. Bryn said it best: “It’s easy to blame hormones or a ‘slow metabolism’ when you’re not seeing the results you want, but it’s important to first self-assess and ask yourself if you are emotionally eating, too.”

If you’re struggling to lose weight, you might be surprised to learn it could have more to do with your mind than anything else!

What is Emotional Eating?

There isn’t a lot of agreement on the difference between emotional eating and emotional eating disorders, which leads people to ask questions like “is emotional eating a disorder?” And who can blame them! It’s a confusing world out there, especially when dealing with what is, let’s face it, some pretty heavy subject matter. In order to answer these kinds of questions, it’s crucial to differentiate between emotional eating, disordered eating and eating disorders.

Is Emotional Eating An Eating Disorder?

Every human is an emotional eater to some extent, as opposed to eating disorders, which are fairly rare and often severe. Emotional eating can be an aspect of an eating disorder, but it is not an eating disorder on its own. Our emotional connection with food doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, many foods are so-called comfort foods not only on an emotional level, but as a crucial part of our survival instincts. 

If our body doesn’t feel properly fueled, either in general or due to a particularly stressful situation, it'll begin to ask the brain to feed it the salt, sugar, or fat it craves in order to get back to normal. This is especially true of fat, because it’s the most delicious of these and grants the quickest satisfaction. This is why prioritizing balanced eating (or blood sugar balance) makes it much easier to respond to our emotions in healthier ways than overeating.

The thing to remember here is that you can emotionally eat but have an otherwise completely healthy relationship with food. For example, we often have clients tell us they’re binge eaters, only to find out that they actually aren’t eating enough period. They call themselves binge eaters because when they get overwhelmed during the workweek, they’ll reach for a pint of ice cream on Friday night. Is eating a whole pint of ice cream every now and again a binge? I’d say no – it’s more like overeating.

It may be tempting to use the terms binging and overeating interchangeably, but while they may be synonymous in the dictionary, in reality there is a very clear difference between the two. Binging is painful and can very often even be dangerous, whereas overeating tends to be uncomfortable at most.

And le’ts not forget that emotional eating isn’t always just binging; it can be something as simple as feeling bored and popping in a handful of pretzels, or feeling overwhelmed and combating that feeling with a bowl of ice cream.

Okay, so every human on earth occasionally emotionally eats. But not everyone experiences disordered eating. Yo-yo dieting, a preoccupation with food, restrictive eating, inflexible eating patterns - these are all forms of  disordered eating. This is a much less formal definition, but I often refer to disordered eating as "doing weird things with food". You'll also often hear me talk about "eating like a normal person," which is the opposite of disordered eating.

Disordered eating is not to be confused with an actual eating disorder. An eating disorder is a psychological complex that requires professional help. Disordered eating patterns are seen within eating disorders, but they may not be severe or frequent enough in nature to be diagnosed as an eating disorder. 

So, let’s keep in mind that emotional eating is a perfectly normal thing that can become a problem when taken too far, whereas eating disorders are – by the very definition of being disorders – typically more serious, and often require professional intervention.

The Emotional Eating Cycle

The greatest weapon to combat emotional eating is to manage your blood sugar levels. You simply cannot respond well to stress, overwhelm, gloom, or any of the other amazing tests life throws at us, when your blood sugar is crashing. You WILL turn to comforting carbs and eat your feelings when that happens. In these situations, the biology overrides the psychology, so sheer willpower probably isn’t going to be enough to get you through.

The next weapon in your arsenal to reach for is your curiosity. Get extremely curious about what your patterns are when it comes to certain emotions. 

Why do you start feeling stressed every day at 4pm on the dot? What leads up to that? And why is your first reaction to that some personal time with a bag of chips? Simply saying “no, I should respond to this stress differently” is really hard in the moment; you’re under pressure and the last thing you want to do is invent a brand-new way to deal with it. 

You need to get ahead of this train and guide it down different tracks. Can you prevent that 4pm stress in the first place with some deep belly breaths throughout the day? Or are you simply not eating enough at lunch, meaning your body can’t respond to your 4pm environment because it’s undernourished? Getting curious about our own emotional patterns and planning for them ahead of time is vastly superior to any shallow, easy-fix alternatives.

Emotional Eating Triggers

I see two groups of people in our program. 

People in the first group simply need to understand their own body better and eat in a way that ultimately stops the triggers to overeat at all. It’s incredibly empowering to understand how food works in your body, and often this is enough to put a stop to a lot of emotional eating. 

People in the second group need to address their underlying emotions before even thinking about dieting. Food is their buffer, just like alcohol or the internet is to others. If they feel an uncomfortable feeling, food is how they self-medicate. Identifying the feelings that cause them to overeat, and learning to sit with those feelings in all their discomfort, is priority #1 for their recovery from emotional eating.

Some common emotional eating triggers that our clients often experience include, a stressful day at work, sensory overload in the evenings with children and a lot of activity around the house, a fight with your spouse, financial stress, being in pain or feeling exhausted, sadness due to a break-up, death, another major life change, or fear. Really, the list is endless - it’s whatever gives us that dopamine hit when we’re not feeling our best. Food becomes something to “do” other than feel uncomfortable feelings. 

One big trigger I’m seeing a lot of lately is boredom. It feels as though in 2023, we’re afraid to be bored. There’s so much going on everywhere all the time that it’s like we’re constantly online, 24/7. We don’t know how to sit with ourselves anymore. 

And if you’re wondering what my personal trigger to start emotionally eating is, it’s overwhelm. Yep. 394 things on my to-do list ? Let’s just have an ice cream sandwich instead. 

Side note - this first group even includes some who are recovering from binge-eating and bulimia disorders. While we certainly don’t claim to cure eating disorders, this does go to show that understanding your own biology has value even for those who are struggling with overeating at its worst. While this group will still need to address their underlying emotions, the simple and straightforward win of balancing their meals with the PHFF plan is an easy one that makes the rest of their process far less painful.

Physical Hunger vs Emotional Hunger: What’s The Difference?

If someone doesn’t know whether they are physically hungry, or just emotionally hungry, our approach is to encourage them to make sure they’re eating regularly first. 

If you don’t have an eating schedule, it’s going to be hard to differentiate between these different hunger cues. After a schedule is established, it’s much easier to ask yourself, “was I physically satisfied 2 hours ago?” If you were, then you’ll know for sure that a specific emotion is causing your desire to snack on something, because your digestive system isn’t quick enough to get physically hungry again that quickly. Having a foundation of scheduled, balanced meals takes the guess-work out of knowing which hunger cues are which.

It’s important to keep in mind that there are more types of hunger than just physical or emotional. Taste hunger is very real – we want that piece of chocolate 2 hours after we ate because we know it’s going to taste great. It may only take a bite or two and we’re good – the taste hunger subsides. This isn’t emotional eating; it’s just another normal feature of the human appetite.

What Feelings Are We Eating?

Being an emotional eater doesn’t look the same for everyone; in fact there are many different emotions that we eat. For some people it’s primarily caused by stress, for others it only occurs when they feel angry.

The connection between our food and our feelings is as unique and personal as every other aspect of being human. So let’s talk about some of the most common types of emotional eating, and then we can discuss the rich variety of methods that can be used to improve them.

Stress Eating

Stress and emotional eating. We’ve all heard that they’re related, but what is stress eating really? How do we recognize the symptoms of stress eating in order to be mindful of the fact that it’s occurring? And, most important of all, how can we stop stress eating?

The feeling of stress is mostly associated with the hormone cortisol, which is released when we’re experiencing discomfort. Due to this, many of the strategies to combat stress eating focus on the stress  rather than the eating – if we alleviate the one, that tends to sort out the other. 

The strategies for managing the stress in stress eating are the same as they are for managing any other forms of stress. We’re talking things like meditating when we’re under pressure, cultivating a social group to support us through the tough times, and even just taking time to drink some water and take a deep breath whenever the tell-tale feeling of stress starts to flood our system.

Anxiety Eating

While “nervousness” and “anxiety” are almost synonymous, anxiety eating typically suggests a form of emotional eating that is more severe than nervous eating. Everyone gets nervous from time to time, and pretty much everybody finds food at least a little bit comforting, so nervous eating is the more common of the two. Anxiety eating is more closely related to binge eating, which can be dangerous and is commonly seen in some eating disorders. For this reason, the strategies to assist with anxious eating are better left to your medical professional to determine.

Anger Eating

We’ve all heard of “swallowing our pride,” but there is also such a thing as “swallowing our anger.” Similarly to stress eating, the comfort and pleasure of food is a quick and convenient way to buffer the unpleasant feeling of anger. 

Depending on its severity (as with every other form of emotional eating), anger eating may be helped by coping methods like regular exercise, meditation, and journaling, or, in more severe cases, it may require professional intervention.

Understanding Your Emotional Relationship with Food

Self-knowledge regarding our unique emotional relationship with the food we eat is the first and best way to alter our eating behaviors for the better, and learn more about the emotional triggers that are driving us to eat to begin with.

One of our favorite questions we give to clients to ask themselves is “Why do I behave this way?” (this makes a fantastic journal prompt, by the way) Some alternative questions may look something like - What was I feeling when I ate that?” “What was I trying to avoid when eating that?” “At what point did I decide I wanted food, and what emotion was I feeling - or avoiding - at that exact moment?” 

Knowing the answers to these questions won’t always stop you from eating emotionally. But the first step to stopping emotional eating is self awareness, and once you have that awareness, you can then move on to utilizing strategies to break the habit.

How to Stop Emotional Eating

Alright, so hopefully by now you’ve got a pretty good idea of what emotional eating is, and which emotions you’ve been eating. Now, let’s take a look at how you can stop emotionally eating which, let’s face it, is probably the whole reason you’re here, right?

3 Actionable Steps to Breaking Your Emotional Eating Habits

Some of the most effective strategies against emotional eating are surprisingly simple. These include monitoring your eating habits, controlling what you eat, setting rules, and devising meal schedules. These actionable steps are a powerful combo for beginning to bring your emotional eating habits back into balance.

Be Mindful of Your Eating Habits

Getting curious and mindful about your eating habits is the best place to begin. Paying attention to when and why we eat, instead of just allowing it to be unconscious and automatic, is essential to interrupting the cycle of emotional eating.

To show you exactly what I mean by being mindful of your eating habits, I've got a quick hack and amazing success story to share with you.

The Hack: The Five Minute Rule

One of the best emotional eating hacks we teach is the Five Minute Rule–it’s surprisingly effective! When you open the pantry or fridge and go to grab something to eat outside of a scheduled meal time, take a beat first. Pause and use this time to ask yourself if you’re feeling true hunger or not. If the answer is yes, then eat. If the answer is no, then wait five minutes. If the answer is that you’re not sure, then also just wait five minutes.

After those five minutes, if you decide that you still really want to eat, either because you’re hungry or because you just have a powerful craving, then do it. But this brief pause has given you sufficient time to check in with your body and find out what’s really going on. Beginning to recognize real hunger versus an emotional eating trigger is the only way to begin consciously choosing when and why to eat.

The Story: The Late-Night Snacker

We had a coaching call once with a woman who just could not stop emotionally eating at night. She’d come home from work to three loud and demanding kids–and a husband. Now, even if you have the best kids in the world, three of them is still a lot to deal with after a full day of work.

So she would understandably start to feel overwhelmed and overstimulated, and her reaction to this was to open up the fridge and reach for some leftover mac ‘n cheese or mashed potatoes–whatever looked comforting at the time. She didn’t “binge,” but she did eat high calorie foods even when she wasn’t hungry.

We asked her to tell us about when she felt the most calm and relaxed during her day. She said it was when she was sitting in the carpool line. It was quiet alone time to just sit with herself. So we devised a plan for her to replicate the comfort of the carpool line in the evenings when everything hits the fan.

She’d tell her family that mom needs a time out and would be back soon. Then she’d go sit in her car or her room for 5-10 minutes and just take a break. This became a ritual in the house–everyone knew to let mom have her moment when she needs it.

She ended up going and sitting in her closet because it was totally silent there and she LOVED it (hey–whatever works!). It was like a mini-vacation every night. And best of all? She stopped reaching into the fridge, and she stopped eating her overwhelm.

Control What You Eat

This doesn’t mean never eating your favorite unhealthy snack again; it means inventing healthy, satiating meals that meet all of your nutritional needs so that you aren’t feeling physically hungry two hours after eating. In my experience, PHFF is the best way to do this. Getting your meals right is the best way to know whether hunger is physical or emotional, because PHFF pretty much eliminates being physically hungry between meals. No idea what PHFF is? Don’t worry, I’ll tell you all about it right here.

Devise Meal Schedules

Knowing what your meals for the day contain and when you’re going to eat them provides structure. Coming up with and sticking to a set structure ahead of time is absolutely crucial for breaking the automatic habits of emotional eating. 

When you know for a fact that you aren’t experiencing physical hunger because you just had an awesome meal two hours ago, that is the solid proof you need to determine that what you’re feeling is in fact an emotional eating trigger. This is the process that tells you to stop, think about what is currently going on in your environment, and realize exactly why you want to emotionally eat right now. 

When you can associate a particular feeling with this hunger, you can begin to address the underlying causes of emotional eating instead of just fighting off the hunger itself.

Addressing the Underlying Feelings Behind Your Emotional Eating

Whatever you’ve got going on, that’s causing your emotional eating - I feel you. Really. There are plenty of people on our team who have experienced what it’s like to be caught in the emotional eating cycle, so if nothing else, know that you’re not alone. 

Beyond empathy, addressing the underlying feelings behind your emotional eating is really going to be the kind of thing you’re best speaking to a medical professional about. Consulting a dietitian or counselor/therapist who specializes in emotional eating may be especially beneficial, as they’re going to be the ones with the deep expertise required to really delve into the complexity of the situation.

Coping Strategies to Keep You Winning

Eating Disorders

An eating disorder is a medical/psychological condition where disruptions of normal, healthy eating behaviors occur, which is almost always accompanied by negative thoughts and emotions.

Eating disorders are way more serious than the “emotional eating” that we all engage in from time to time. An eating disorder may involve emotional eating, but it is far more complex, and often far more dangerous. 

I want to reiterate here that if you suspect that you or somebody you know has an eating disorder, the absolute best course of action is to seek help from a professional who specializes in eating disorders. I’ve included some information on eating disorders here because the topic so often comes up in the emotional eating conversation, but I am not an eating disorder expert myself. Eating disorders are never really about food, but about something internal that should be addressed with a professional who can help.

What Causes Eating Disorders?

The causes of eating disorders vary, and sometimes it’s not possible to determine exactly what caused an eating disorder to develop. However, there are some psychological, social, and even genetic factors that appear to be common across people with eating disorders. 

The psychological causes include being depressed or anxious, struggling with stress management, being a perfectionist, experiencing self-loathing, or being prone to OCD. The social causes can include things like being bullied or other forms of abuse, being criticized for one’s body or eating habits, or being a part of a community or industry where being thin is strongly preferred.

Types of Eating Disorders

There are many different eating disorders, whose main symptoms can range from undereating to overeating. 

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia is typically experienced as a powerful fear of gaining weight or being thought of as overweight. It often results in extremely low body weight, as the sufferer attempts to attain their often impossible and usually dangerous weight standard. 

They may effectively starve themselves, overexercise, or intentionally vomit after eating in order to avoid gaining weight. Somebody with anorexia often believes that their thinness is their self-worth. Early identification of anorexia by physicians is arguably the best way to prevent the condition from progressing.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia is an eating disorder most often characterized by the practice of “binging and purging” – meaning the sufferer habitually eats excessive portions of food, and then self-induces vomiting or misuses laxatives, in order to avoid consuming those calories and gaining weight as a result. 

People with bulimia are often obsessed with their own weight and body shape, and experience self-loathing due to thinking themselves flawed in these respects. In addition to early detection by a physician, bulimia can be treated by encouraging and supporting a healthy body image, eating pleasant and regular meals with their family, and avoiding triggers such as discussions of weight or preoccupation with dieting.

Binge Eating Disorder

A binge eating disorder is when someone frequently eats very large amounts of food and feels like they cannot stop. The line between the “binging” that we all do on occasion (especially during holidays) and this disorder, is that the disorder occurs regularly and feels totally out of control. Other than early detection by a physician, one of the best ways to prevent binge eating is to cultivate a healthy self-image when it comes to body and weight.

Pica Disorder

Pica is a disorder where the sufferer compulsively eats, or wants to eat, non-food items. Depending on exactly what is being consumed and why, it can be harmless, but in more serious cases it can become life-threatening when the things eaten are toxic or physically dangerous to the internal organs. 

Though pica can affect anyone, it is most often seen in young children, pregnant women, and people with autism or schizophrenia. Thankfully, pica can be treated by therapies such as mild aversion therapy, behavioral therapy, and differential reinforcement.

Rumination Syndrome

Rumination syndrome is when sufferers repeatedly regurgitate undigested or partially digested food, chew it again, and then either swallow it again or spit it out. For someone with this syndrome, this typically occurs with every meal, soon after having eaten.

It appears to be caused or accompanied by a sensation of abdominal pressure. It most often occurs in infants and people with developmental disabilities, but it can occur in anyone, especially those with other psychiatric disorders. It is mostly treated by medical professions, and may involve the learning of breathing techniques that prevent rumination from occurring.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food intake Disorder (ARFID)

ARFID is an eating disorder that can be described as “extreme picky eating.” It most often occurs in children, and does not involve concern about weight. Instead, it’s more about being so picky about what they will and won’t eat, that these self-imposed restrictions affect their health (due to a lack of diverse nutrients) and social life. 

ARFID is usually treated with either some form of social therapy, such as family or group therapy, or more sensorial therapies such as occupational, experiential, or meal therapy. It can also be assisted by parent skill groups, in order to teach parents how to limit ARFID symptoms, or medication management when another disorder like OCD or anxiety is suspected by medical professions to be the cause.

Summing It All Up

Emotional eating is one of the most common buffers against unpleasant feelings. Unfortunately, it has serious consequences for weight gain, and can make all our efforts to lose weight way harder. 

Thankfully, in most cases, emotional eating can be greatly improved by being mindful of your eating habits, planning and scheduling truly nutritious and filling PHFF meals ahead of time, and recognizing when and why the emotional triggers that cause your emotional eating are occurring.

Next Steps

To find more structure around how to set up your habits, plan and schedule meal times, and fill up on nutrient-dense PHFF meals, Metabolism Makeover may be the right next step for you…

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