Let’s be real, getting an effective plan is crucial, and highly reinforcing to see results, but the most common thing that I hear when people talk about their weight journey is, “I am an emotional eater.” What does this mean? Why do so many of us do it? Most importantly, what can we do about it?
First of all, let’s be clear about what emotional eating is NOT. It is not a “knowledge gap.” The solution is not “learning how to eat.” In a nutshell, research shows that emotional eating is about using food to avoid confronting uncomfortable emotions. Therefore, the approach is to identify the trigger and develop an alternative coping mechanism. This can be simple on the surface but you can “drill down” and reach a goldmine of resources if you invest in the process that can spill over into all sorts of niches. Let’s take a look.
In this graphic, you can see how a person can get trapped in a cycle of emotional eating. This cycle looks somewhat like an addiction cycle, in which there is temporary relief of stress by a substance, then negative feelings that follow, like withdrawal. If you have emotional eating impacting your health, I recommend a 5 step approach to reducing its negative impact on your physical and psychological well-being:
Step 1: Practice Identifying Triggers
Identifying and putting names to emotions takes an openness and emotional intelligence that is not always taught or nurtured in our society and takes practice and self-awareness. It may be that we are used to thinking we should always be happy or not be comfortable feeling sad, angry, tired, lonely, or regretful. The reasons may be complex and related to our upbringing, our current or past interpersonal relationships (with others) or intrapersonal relationships (internal self talk). This may be why there is a higher prevalence of a history of abuse, depression and anxiety in persons with overweight/obesity. Confronting one’s emotions can be scary, so seek support and professional assistance if needed. Remember, mental health and psychological well-being always come first and if anyone ever feels they may be a risk to themself, the National Suicide Hotline phone number is 800-273-8255. Below is an image showing what you may really be hungry for when you eat for emotional reasons:
Step 2: Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is, simply put, “pausing to consider other options.” Emotional eating tends to happen so fast, it is like a spinal cord reflex, and before a person even know it, it seems, they have eaten that sleeve of cookies and pint of ice cream and the guilt, shame and regret start to set in and the cycle is perpetuated. So, the next step is simply to slow things down to allow your frontal cortex to get involved rather than just your hippocampus in deciding what to do next. Then, instead of things seeming to happen to you and you feeling passive, you can take back some control and put yourself in the driver’s seat. There has been research on what can be effective for a neurologic reset in similar settings, and wringing your hands may give you the physical feedback needed to press the “pause” button.