This is the first post in a series of posts about helping you heal your relationship with food.
What is Emotional Eating?
We all emotionally eat some of the time. Eating emotionally is a normal part of life. At weddings, celebrating birthdays, or during holidays we may eat when we're not really hungry. Likewise, we may crave comfort foods or foods that "mom used to make" when feeling down, under the weather or on a dreary day. As with all things in life, moderation is the key. Emotionally eating from time to time is normal human behavior.
Sometimes, however, food becomes the primary coping strategy for most things. When food becomes the primary coping strategy, emotional eating can get out of control. An emotional eater may feel powerless over food, have obsessive thoughts about food or body image, and find it difficult to soothe unpleasant emotions. Accompanying emotional eating may also be a persistent feeling of shame, unworthiness or a sense that, "I'm bad." It then becomes a cycle that feeds itself. When food or the restriction of food is used to cope, there is a momentary sense of comfort. Shortly afterwards thoughts and sensations creep in accompanied by a negative core belief about self. This can lead to shame, which may trigger emotional eating again.
There are many different ways to describe emotional eating. Generally, emotional eating, binge eating, emotional overeating, compulsive eating and disordered eating refer to similar things: feeling out of control and powerless over food. For some this may mean periods of restricting so-called bad foods, then overeating or bingeing on them. For others, it may mean continuous eating or grazing throughout the day without ever really feeling hungry. It may also mean imbalanced eating such as skipping meals and overeating at night. Some people seek the "full" feeling and regularly eat past fullness while others avoid feeling full. These behaviors all have a more serious side when done in extreme and may be or lead to an eating disorder.
Sometimes, a compulsive eater may feel like their eating behavior is an addiction. They may feel intense cravings, particularly ones that come on suddenly, feel a lack of control over food choices and behavior, and recognize the immediate comfort physiologically that food provides. Other people may feel "addicted" to the patterns and behaviors they have around food.
What Triggers Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating can be a way to soothe emotional distress. Not just unpleasant emotions, but pleasant emotions can also be experienced as overwhelming, especially if they're unfamiliar or associated with the "calm before the storm." Emotional eating doesn't really mean experiencing overwhelming emotions and then strategically seeking out comfort foods. It's much more subtle than that. Sometimes, the emotions themselves are so subtle that we don't even realize they're there.
Emotional eating can be in response to criticism or negative self-judgments, which may too be subtle and behind the scenes. Less obvious triggers for emotional eating are spiritual hungers - having the sense that there's not enough. Often this represents a lack of connection, meaning or purpose in one's life. Emotional eating can also be a familiar habitual routine. It can sometimes be the routine that's comforting and not the food itself. For example, transition times such as coming home from work can be a trigger for habitual, emotional eating.
Physical symptoms can also trigger emotional eating, such as the exhaustion experienced after feeling anxious all day at work. Hormonal fluctuations or mood imbalances such as with ADD or depression can be strong triggers. Allowing oneself to become too hungry by skipping meals often leads to overeating later. The specific food choices you are making can also serve as triggers for more of the same, even when not hungry.
Your relationship with food and the function it serves can be a trigger for emotional eating. For example, chronic dieting can be a way of having control when feeling out of control in other areas of life. Obsessing over food or body image can be a way of not dealing with a difficult decision that has to be made or an uncomfortable situation lurking around the corner. Emotional eating can serve the purpose of numbing out or staying distracted from what is really present within whether it is uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations, particularly in the case with people who have experienced some form of trauma in their lives.
Signs You Might Be An Emotional Eater
- You eat to distract from boredom, agitation, overwhelm
- Thoughts of food are often on your mind; including what you will eat next just after finishing a meal
- You get more pleasure from food than anything else
- Food fills a sense of emptiness inside
- You use food to numb emotions such as loneliness, sadness, anger, anxiety
- You turn to food as a primary strategy to procrastinate, for excitement, or for comfort
- You eat to rebel against someone or something
- Food is your trusted friend
- You eat to maintain protection or hide vulnerability
- When you start eating foods, you eat much more than planned
- You eat to the point where you feel physically ill
- You've avoided social situations because of food
- Your behavior with food causes you significant emotional distress, powerlessness, or shame
- You consume foods that have a negative impact on you physically, i.e, due to a food allergy
- You eat foods in secret or have secret stashes of foods you love throughout the house
Get Help with Emotional Eating
If you identified with any of the signs you might be an emotional eater, it's important to get support from someone trained in treatment of disordered eating. Many people, therapists included, assume that problems with emotional overeating or binge eating represent a lack of control and solutions are behavioral, such as dieting. It's important to recognize and know that this is not about will power and it's not simply about what you're eating. It's about your relationship with food, and ultimately your relationship with yourself.
If you're ready to start healing your relationship with food, we offer both individual therapy and a 12-week emotional eating support group therapy program to help you heal. You can recover, heal and make peace with food. Call us at 832-209-2222 for more information about our group program or to schedule an appointment. You can also register online for the group anytime or schedule an appointment with a therapist using our online appointment scheduler. We look forward to partnering with you.
Rachel Eddins is a Therapist in Houston, TX. Rachel helps people find their inner worth, overcome emotional and food related issues and find meaning and purpose in both life and career. She is available for online therapy as well as in person sessions in Houston.