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Everything You (Never) Wanted to Know About Emotional Eating: What, How and Why You Should

Posted Apr 23 2013 1:04am


Watermelon is my favorite food. I love it like a love song, baby.

Several years ago a doctor friend asked me an interesting question. “What is emotional eating?”

I raised an eyebrow and wondered what kind of cyborg has to ask that question. I mean, who hasn’t tasted the sweet, sweet love of a warm cinnamon bun with cream cheese frosting and toasted walnuts and felt the same thrill as the first time a boy ran his thumb over the back of your hand? (Just me? Awkward.) But before I bit his head off it occurred to me that I have a weird relationship with food, always have, and maybe there are other people out there who really don’t have any emotional attachments to food. Just because I’ve never met any doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Plus my doctor friend is kind and good-hearted, even if his asceticism sometimes impedes his rapport with the majority of us fallible humans.

So I answered with no snark, “Well I suppose it’s defined as eating for any reason other than physical hunger, primarily to fill an un-met psychological need.”

He sighed. “I know the definition. I just don’t understand how it works.” He told me about his severely obese patient who, in the doctor’s words, “was killing himself with food.” The good doc continued, “He says he eats to make himself feel better but it’s obvious that it doesn’t. Not physically for sure. And also not emotionally – he’s miserable.” Then he added, “Explain this to me! Why would anyone do this? And how can I help him see how bad it is?”

“I can’t explain someone else’s relationship to food,” I backpedaled.  (Can’t even explain my own half the time.) But I couldn’t let his question go either. It’s been years I’ve been mulling this one over. And now that he’s likely forgotten he ever asked for it, I’m ready to give him my answer. (Not my answer for his patient – just my answer for me.)

Emotional Eating is Not Irrational 

1. Physical basis. One of the first mistakes people make about emotional eating is assuming that it’s purely emotion driven. It’s not. There’s a very real physiological reason that food makes you feel better: carbohydrates, especially simple ones like sugar, work on your primary serotonin pathway. Serotonin is one of the neurochemicals that helps you feel happy and gives you a sense of well-being. Fat doesn’t work this way. Protein doesn’t work this way. But eating carbs makes you feel better. Science says so .

2. Mind-body connection. We feel things in our bodies. We get flutters in our stomachs when we’re nervous. We get headaches when we’re stressed. We get literal chest pain when experiencing a heartbreak. There is no way to separate our emotions from our bodies and therefore, to some level, all physical eating is emotional and vice versa.

3. Addiction. People sometimes equate chocolate with crack. They’re not wrong. In fact, they’re more right than they know. Lab rats given the choice between cocaine and sugar picked the sugar. Whole books have been written about how the salt-fat-sugar combo is so reinforcing (and so abused by the food industry).

Given all that, emotional eating makes a lot of sense, right? And yet it still gets a bad rap. But I don’t think it deserves it. Not only are there solid physical reasons why we do it, there are legitimate emotional reasons we do it. (More on those in a minute). And what I’ve discovered is that emotional eating only goes wrong when you stop eating emotionally. It’s when you turn off your emotions and go numb (like in a binge) or when you tell yourself that your emotions are bad or wrong and that you “shouldn’t” be feeling what you’re feeling. Then eating is suddenly an act of rebellion. When you start telling yourself that you’re a stupid fat slob or “Oooh this is so bad! I shouldn’t be doing this! I’m never going to eat ice cream again! (After I polish off this tub as a farewell to my favorite food!)” – Then you’re breaking the rules! Taking a stand! Damn the Man! Save the Empire! Except The Man is you. Which is what my doctor friend meant, I think, when he said his patient was killing himself with food. What is the ultimate act of rebellion against your circumstances if not suicide*?

I don’t think we need to stop eating emotionally. I think we need to stop eating rebelliously. Food is not bad. You don’t need to fight it.

How To Eat Emotionally

One of the things that was such a breakthrough for me with Intuitive Eating was realizing that a) food can be comforting b) good food should be comforting and c) that’s okay. Sometimes it’s okay to eat when you’re not hungry and to eat to fill an emotional need. But there are ways to do that to make it easier and more (ful)filling for yourself.

(Okay, listen: I am NOT giving you yet another list of rules to follow that if you break them you’re a failure. These are simply guidelines that I’ve learned the hard way, through a lot of trial and error and tears, and I’d like to offer them to you. As a gift. Not as another thing to punish yourself with. A kindness.) 

1. Recognize what you’re doing. You can’t fill the need you’re needing filled if you won’t even acknowledge that need in the first place. You need to name the emotion. It can be as simple as saying, “I’m so so stressed out today” or “I’m sad and I want someone to comfort me.”

2. Recognize the difference between an emotion and a craving. Cravings wax and wane – it might be intense in that moment but you can willpower through a simple craving. Cravings will mostly go away when you get enough sleep and eat enough good fats and protein. But emotions get heavier the longer they’re ignored. They will keep pressing on you until you listen to them.

3. Treat yourself with kindness. I think this is what Geneen Roth meant when she titled her book “When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair.” She wasn’t telling you to just give up and resign yourself to eating the whole quart of ice cream. She’s telling you to treat yourself the way you would a friend. You wouldn’t tell them to stand at the freezer with a fork sneaking bites out of the tub and pretending no one can see them. You’d scoop it in a pretty bowl and give them a spoon and tell them to sit. Then you’d ask them if they were enjoying it, perhaps tell them why you bought that certain flavor, why you like it. You’d smile and feel happy that they were enjoying it. Now: Do all that for yourself. Be kind. No name calling. No shame. No guilt trips. And for the love of little green apples sit down.

4. Let it comfort you. Enjoy it. Savor it. Allow yourself to remember why you find this particular food so comforting – wrap yourself in the memory of your mother making the special birthday cake with the Jell-O in it, just for you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve eaten something looking for solace and then refused to let it make me feel better – because I was “bad” or wasn’t “supposed to” eat it or was too “fat” to deserve treats or whatever. Don’t do that. Be comforted. There is nothing wrong with allowing yourself to be comforted.

5. Recognize when the food has stopped being comforting. Warning: it happens fast. Everyone knows the feeling of scarfing down a package of cookies only to realize too late that you feel overly full and sick and awful. When you get to that point, you’re using food to abuse yourself (see end note about Binge Eating Disorder) and you don’t have to do that. But here’s the trick: you can’t recognize that point where it goes from “yummy this is amazing and I feel so good eating this” to “Ack, where did the rest of the package go I feel horrible” if you aren’t listening for it. Numb eating, unconscious eating, bored eating, distracted eating – not only is that not good for you, it’s also not any fun.

6. Do try other things. Food cannot be your only way of dealing with your emotions. Nor can exercise or talking to your sister or shopping or anything else in excess. It should be just one of many things in your toolkit. Once you de-stigmatize emotional eating you’ll realize that sometimes you really do need a warm slice of peach pie to feel taken care of… and sometimes you really do need a hug instead. (And acknowledge that sometimes it’s easier to just drop the money for the pie then it is to drop your defenses and ask for the hug. But if you eat the pie, you’ll still want the hug.) Have a wide range of coping techniques at your disposal. Write them down. (It sounds dumb, I know, but you forget in the moment that you have options.)

7. Don’t feel guilty and don’t let others make you feel guilty. Delicious food is not a guilty pleasure. It’s just a pleasure. Not very long ago, I was having a no-good-very-bad-terrible day. I grabbed a handful of jelly beans and went to my closet, sat on the floor, shut the door and began to eat them one by one in peace. Just as I was thinking “Oooh these are SO delicious! So fruity yet sour. So tangy yet sweet. So crunchy on the outside but chewy on the inside. WILLY WONKA YOU MINX!” the phone rang. I answered it. It was a friend who is a personal trainer that I’ve also been interviewing for an article. “Whatcha doing?” he asked. So I told him, straight out. “Sitting in my closet eating jelly beans.” I could feel his forehead crinkling in concern over the phone. “Let’s think this one through, Charlotte. Do you feel like you “deserve” the jelly beans as reward for your hard day? Because you deserve even more to be healthy.” I thought for a second. “Nope, I think I deserve both. Jelly beans and healthy don’t have to be mutually exclusive.” He coughed. “Well then are you trying to take care of yourself? Let’s think of other ways you can take care of yourself. Like get a pedi!” (Okay he actually said “get your toes done” which is hilarious on several levels but what he meant was a pedicure.) I thought longer about this one – mostly because I love pedis. Finally I said, “Actually, eating my fave food in peace and quiet does feel like exactly what I need to do to take of myself. Not to mention the fact that to get a pedi, I’d have to go a lot farther than my closet and hire a babysitter. So yeah, I’m good with this.” And I was. I didn’t feel like I was being held hostage by my emotions but rather that I was doing something simple, kind and comforting for myself. (For the record, I don’t think my trainer-friend understood it. I think he was still disappointed in me even after we finished our business and hung up. But I made the decision to let that feeling stay with him and not accept it for myself.)

Food Is Not a Moral Judgement

Remember: It’s not about denying yourself or indulging yourself. It’s about taking care of yourself. When it comes to eating you’re not “good” or “bad.” And food isn’t “good” or “bad” either. You’re eating and it’s food. Food is not a moral judgement. Does eating warm gingerbread with fresh whipped cream make you feel happy and loved? Good! I’m glad it does. There are so many hard edges in this life and I’m glad you found a soft corner.

All of this makes it sound like I’ve got this whole emotional eating thing all figured out. I so totally don’t. Which is why I’m now turning this over to you guys: What would you have said to my doctor friend? Do you have any tips for emotional eating? What did I miss? Any foods you have a particular emotional attachment to?

In case anyone is wondering why I’m so emotionally attached to watermelon. (Poor quality video but the funny is SO worth it!)

Note about Binge Eating Disorder : All eating disorders are self-abuse. This doesn’t make you bad or guilty or shameful. It’s a clinical assessment. But you do deserve better than this. I say this from personal experience: Your eating disorder isn’t your friend, it’s not a part of you and – I’m not going to sugar coat this – it wants to destroy you. There are so many different components to this disorder – biological, genetic, sociological, environmental – so there is no way that this is just you being “bad.” You have to fight it. But to do that you first have to consider yourself worth fighting for. And if you can’t believe that yet, then let me tell you: you are. You are worth fighting for.

*NOT meant as an indictment or judgement of people who attempt or commit suicide.

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