A table covered in bowls full of gummy worms, mixed nuts, popcorn, and chips beside two glasses of soda.

How to Deal With the Pattern of Emotional Eating

By Suzanne Caithamer, RD

When you eat without true physiological hunger, you are looking for a feeling. The feeling may be to avoid feeling emotional pain, but any fix is temporary. Alcohol, drugs, food, shopping — all of these can be people’s ways of deadening what they don’t want to feel.

Different seasons of life can bring out intense feelings, and for many of us, the holidays especially: guilt over not having the money to give gifts like the neighbors do, anxiety about having to go to your in-laws’ for Christmas Eve, depression because you have no one to spend the holidays with – these are real emotions that many people have to deal with. But these feelings are not limited to the holiday season.

Another aspect of emotional eating that often occurs during the holidays has to do with the fact that often holiday meals consist of foods that are only served once a year. This is what makes them special for the occasion. Perhaps the box of chocolate fudge that your aunt sends you every year or the hot cheese danishes that your mom makes for Christmas breakfast are such special treats in your mind that you can’t have them the other 364 days of the year, so you better eat it all while you can. Perhaps you grew up in a family where you had to eat what you could when it appeared – or other family members would get it all before you had your share. This “lack” mentality could potentially set you up for binge eating.

Unlearning that habitual Pavlov’s dog response to an external trigger takes time and is not easy. You can’t control the stressor, but you can figure out how to respond to it differently. You really are in control of your emotions.

The issues that prompt your emotional eating may never fully go away, but in time you may be able to relate differently to them. You are growing as a person, and relationships — even your relationship to your health and to food — can change. Your relationship with your past hurts or past ways of dealing with things can be different, on your own terms now, and not something you continue to dwell on. You’ve moved on! The emotion may not ever be able to be “healed,” but deadening the emotion and the accompanying feeling with a substance will never help. You need a system that teaches you how to not eat, drink, gamble, or shop when you get the emotion.

When you were a child and upset about something, were you handed food? If you scraped your knee while outside playing, did you get a cookie if you came in the house crying? Early on in life, we may get the message that negative emotions should be solved by eating. A key to taking a step forward on this is to recognize what is giving you strong emotions, and then identifying a different (better) behavior as a means to cope with it. Eating food that’s not on your plan — and way too much of it, — is going to make you feel worse, both physically and emotionally!

Here are some suggestions for how to deal with the pattern of emotional eating:

1. Journaling. We wrote about journaling – both food journals and life journals – in the last newsletter. Writing down feelings can be a pathway to insights. Get your pen and write out how you are feeling when the emotions strike.

2. Accountability Partner. Find someone to hold you accountable regarding what you’ve said you’re going to do. If you do slip up, you are more likely to get right back on track with your eating plan when you have committed what you are doing to another person.

3. Plan Ahead. Get another notebook and write down what you are going to eat BEFORE you eat it. Plan out your day and all your meals. Research shows that writing your plan down makes a big difference — you are less likely to stray if you have committed in writing to what you are going to eat.

4. Get busy. Clean. Organize. Email a friend you haven’t talked to in ages. Go for a walk. Brush the dog. Distract yourself. Drink a big glass of water.

5. Feel. The drug-like effects on the brain when sugary, fatty foods are consumed are very real. Research shows that sugar is as addictive as a potent drug like heroin. The dopamine that floods your brain after eating a big dessert certainly can make you feel better — but it is temporary. Finding a substitute activity to eating high-fat, high-sugar is key — but know that you are not going to get the same feeling that the opioid-like foods will give you. Find your strength, know that it will be hard, and power through. You can do it.

6. Forgive yourself. If you do partake in what you know is emotional eating, refocus on your plan. Tomorrow is a new day, and any steps forward you can take to help with emotional eating issues is progress. Be proud of yourself; learning new habits is not easy.

Everybody eats for emotional reasons sometimes. But if you are eating to excess to fill a void in your life, or to deal with painful emotions, know that there is a way to learn to alleviate your stress without turning to the refrigerator. Try these suggestions and see if you can make a positive step in the right direction.

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