I’m an Emotional Eater, Now What?

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Definition: Emotional Eater – A person who uses food as a coping tool to ease difficult emotions.

Do you have emotional cravings to eat? Do you think you might be eating your feelings? If this is the case for you, or if you’re hoping to understand the psychology of emotional eating, read on for steps to overcome emotional eating.

Are You an Emotional Eater?

Turning to food to cope with feelings is quite common. It’s common, normal and ok.

Yes…IT’S OK to eat emotionally. Many, if not most of us, do so for the simple reason that it works.

Well, it works…until it doesn’t. Obvious statement, I know. When adding mindfulness, we realize when it’s working, and most importantly, we realize when it has stopped working…so we stop eating. Simply stated, of course.

Let’s break this down a little more.

Essentially, our bodies know that we digest better when we’re calm, so as soon as we start eating, the relaxation response is activated (aka parasympathetic response; aka “rest-and-digest” response) and our bodies shift into some level of relaxation. Breathing gets deeper, heart rate slows, muscles relax, etc. and we’re calmer…for a little while (here comes the catch).

Remember, this is EMOTIONAL eating…it’s about soothing a difficult emotion, not about eating for physical hunger. So while it’s ok to eat emotionally and it does soothe us, the hard reality is that at some point during emotional eating it doesn’t feel good and doesn’t taste good anymore.

So it’s important to pay attention to:

  • how else we’re coping with the difficult emotion
  • how much we’re eating
  • how often we use eating as a coping strategy – that’s the catch

Psychology of Emotional Eating

If we aren’t paying attention and instead continue eating, we’re actually creating a new stressor, which can look like shame or self-loathing. And now we have a whole new difficult emotion to cope with, and round and round we go.

Unfortunately, when we lose touch with these “3-hows,” we move into emotional overeating and as that continues, into binge eating and binge eating disorder.


Take the Quiz: If you want to know where you fall on the emotional/binge eating continuum, try taking this self-scoring quiz.


So back to good ‘ol fashioned, run of the mill emotional eating. Here are a few things to consider when it comes to just emotional eating:

Practice Non-Judgment: First and foremost, let go of any judgments you may have over turning to a bowl of ice cream or slice of cake at the end of a long day to cope. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, and again, IT WORKS!  The only reason this may be a problem is if you’re judging it, which essentially means you’re shaming yourself for doing so. Let go of the judgment and just enjoy the food being as mindfully present as you can. Being mindful with your food is what will allow you to stop when ‘it did it’. In other words, when you realize it has soothed you emotionally.

Fill Up Your Emotional Tank: Remember, what we’re talking about here is EMOTIONAL eating.  In other words, eating as a coping tool.  The question is, coping with what?  Usually, the answer is STRESS. So what other coping strategies do you have in place to fill the ‘emotional tank’ and manage stressors?  If nothing else, or little else, well…then it’s all on food to do the job.  So think about: calling a friend to vent; a long, hot bath; your favorite playlist; downtime on your own; basking in the sun; a nature stroll; etc. Each of these things really do provide some stress relief and we need to put more than just food in our emotional tanks.

Twinkly Lights To See: The truth is that food can provide us with a dose of pleasure (dopamine) that lights up the pleasure centers of the brain like flood lights. Unfortunately, when the lights turn off…it’s total darkness. That’s the aftermath of overeating/binge eating – shame, guilt, physical pain, etc. We also know that there are other ways to light up the pleasure centers of the brain – things like good music, a warm bath, a massage, talking to a friend, watching the ocean waves, a crackling fire, making art, making music, dancing, getting a pedi or a mani, meditation, etc., etc., etc. These things also light up the pleasure centers of the brain. But these don’t flood the pleasure centers.

Instead, these are light little bursts of dopamine, little twinkly lights, so you need a lot of them. The beauty is that when one twinkly light goes off, you’re not left in the darkness. What we mean is that by having many things in your life that provide you with some pleasure, it’s not a huge crash to darkness if one disappears. Presumably, ideally, you still have many other sources of pleasure.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I know that in a time of stress, lighting a candle won’t fix the problem. But the hard truth is that eating on its own (especially if it’s overeating or binge eating) isn’t really doing it either. Remember, when the flood light ends, we sometimes wind up in darkness – feeling guilt, shame, disgust, pain, etc.

Part of this process means grieving the floodlight, and instead, add some additional options for coping. It may not necessarily be as pleasurable as eating was AT FIRST, but these things really do have a positive effect on stress, little by little and we don’t end up feeling guilt, shame, disgust, pain, etc. after lighting a candle, talking to a friend, taking a bath, meditating, etc.  Instead, we end up with pleasure (dopamine)…less pleasure, perhaps…but pleasure nonetheless. And certainly not pain.

Remember, emotional eating is ok. To deny it, is to deny the reality that it does work in easing stress. The key is not to REMOVE it, but instead to ADD additionally stress management so food doesn’t have to carry the load.


FIND FREEDOM FROM STRUGGLES WITH OVEREATING AND WEIGHT

Here at Green Mountain at Fox Run and our Women’s Center for Binge & Emotional Eating, we’ve been helping women explore the emotional roots of their eating behavior for over 40 years, and teaching women effective strategies to manage struggles with eating and weight.

For an immersive experience how to make positive changes in your life, consider a stay with us. Visit www.fitwoman.com or call (802) 228-8885 for more information.  


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About the Author

Shiri Macri, MA, LCMHC

Since 2004, Shiri’s approach as a therapist for treating binge and emotional eating is holistic, focusing not only on the presented issue at hand, but also considering overall health. Working in this way, often includes mindfulness based approaches. Now as a trained MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) teacher, Shiri’s love of mindfulness and meditation practices are at the forefront of her blog writings and recordings. Shiri is the Lead Therapist at the Women's Center for Binge & Emotional Eating, affiliated with Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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