Food and Nutrition

The Hazards of Emotional Eating

| by Deborah King

Are Ben and Jerry your best friends when you’re down? Does crunching a bowl of chips ease the pain of betrayal? Do you open the fridge the minute you hang up from an upsetting call?

Yup, you’re an emotional eater.

Emotional eating is the second biggest cause of weight gain after stress. (Check out my earlier posts on lack of sleep and lack of sun as two big stressors in relation to weight.) Our emotions are centered in the body in the area of the stomach. Duh. For an emotional eater, enough food—preferably salty and crunchy or sweet and creamy—numbs any unpleasant feelings.

Everyone does it occasionally, but for those who always handle their difficult emotions—boredom, anger, jealousy, sadness, whatever—by reaching for food are caught in a destructive cycle. They eat to suppress whatever they’re feeling—an attempt at self-medication, really. Some people turn to drugs or drink, but emotional eaters turn to food, especially comfort foods that raise the level of serotonin—the “feel-good” compound in blood. We don’t think about carrots and celery sticks when we need to feel safe and happy. We gravitate to high sugar and fat to dampen our lousy state of mind. Men tend toward high fat/high protein, like a big juicy steak, while women head directly for chocolate.

If you tend to be an emotional eater, there are two questions to ask yourself before you start shoveling it in: Am I hungry? Am I depressed or anxious? When you’ve honestly answered those two, add: Can I find a more appropriate way to address these emotions instead of stuffing them down with food?

After hanging about from yet another unsettling call with your mother, how about journaling all the reasons she drives you crazy instead of chowing down a box of crackers and a block of cheese. If you’re anxious about an upcoming deadline, can you break the project into manageable sections instead of heading for an all-nighter filled with pizza and soda? 

Another aspect of emotional eating are the habits we formed in childhood. Did you receive sweets as a reward for good behavior? Were you banished to your room without dinner when you were “bad?” Your eating habits are undoubtedly mixed in with issues of approval or disapproval. Did you grew up poor and hungry, so plentiful food means you are successful?

Now for the most important aspect of emotional eating. I’ve had remarkable success helping people lose weight who have been heavy for years when I help them process the emotions that food has been used to suppress.

Many of us have frightening experiences that we fear will happen again or that we can’t seem to shake, so we pad ourselves in layers of protection. Children are easily scared if they momentarily get lost in a store, while others have to deal with severely threatening situations like ongoing physical or sexual abuse. Adults can buckle under a horrible divorce or the death of a loved one or, as is all too common today, the loss of a job and/or home.

If you are carrying extra pounds that you can’t seem to lose, you should think of your unprocessed emotions as a likely cause.But don’t despair. There are ways to deal with our old negative emotions and our weight-inducing eating habits that do not require reliving old painful experiences.

Emotions, basically, are simply energy—feelings move in and through us all the time. When we believe that certain emotions are unacceptable, we learn to hide those particular feelings from others and eventually from ourselves as well. We wind up storing the emotions we don’t want to feel in our body. So the first step is to become more aware of your feelings in general. To find the feelings you’ve buried, you first have to get in touch with the feelings you have right now.

One of the best ways to do this is to take five minutes before bed to write down something that is bothering you in the present moment. Maybe you got into an argument at work, or were jealous of a friend fitting into size 4 jeans. Maybe someone betrayed you ten years ago and you still aren’t over it. Don’t try to change how you feel, don’t judge yourself for having those feelings, and don’t criticize yourself. Anger and anxiety and jealousy and sadness are completely normal emotions. All you have to do is be able to acknowledge them without raiding the pantry.