An Emotional Eater? Me?

Have you ever lost complete control and downed half the chocolate cake in the fridge? It was staring you in the face after all, what else could you do? Do you recall what was going through your mind when you reached out and grabbed that cake?  Were you hungry because it was actually dinner time, or was there a deeper issue troubling you?  That pink elephant in the room is what we call emotional eating.

There are many contributing factors that precipitate emotional eating; happiness, sadness,  celebrations, depression, anger, fear or shear frustration.  After all, what could be better than that candy bar?  Unfortunately, the problem is all too common amongst us, yet rarely spoken about.

For addictive habits like binge eating or emotional eating, I would have to agree that triggers are typically stress-induced.  Through years of subconscious conditioning by our families, friends and advertising exposure we have learned that food is used repeatedly for comfort.  I’m sure we’ve all heard “sit down dear, I’ll make you some hot chocolate and you’ll be all better”.  Although these triggers fill a real biological need so that the body has energy to burn, we often use food as a means to fulfill an emotional void.

Many individuals aren’t conscious of hidden or accumulated stress, and if they are, they find it difficult to resolve or let it go.  It isn’t unusual to recognize the various factors that impact whether or not we pick up a piece of food in response to our emotions.  In fact, you may also not have known that most of our decisions have an emotional component attached to it signaling our bodies well before we have had the chance to make a rational decision.

Interestingly, there is a fine line between emotional eating and a full-blown eating disorder.  There are specific characteristics evident in people who have a full-blown eating disorders that may not be as apparent to the emotional eater. Emotional eating will typically fill a void that isn’t related to eating for fuel, (you crave a specific food, such as pizza or ice cream, and only that food will meet your needs at that time).  Emotional hunger needs instant gratification whereas physical hunger can wait.

There are various degrees of severity for all eating disorders. Many people, especially women are concerned about their eating habits and it is hard to depict what behaviors are associated with real eating disorders.  Starving to the point of emaciation, binge eating, vomiting or taking laxatives for weight control (purging), excessive exercising, chewing food and spitting it out, and obsessive dieting are some examples.

There are people who have both an eating disorder and who are avid emotional eaters.  Unfortunately, these individuals may have experienced some form of trauma in their lives, (physical or sexual abuse) which can often lead to eating disorders.  An individual who has experienced this type of abuse has a greater percentage of having an eating disorder vs. the emotional eater. While people who have significant emotional eating habits are not in any immediate medical or psychological danger, they do not suffer any less.

Controlling eating habits can only begin with self-awareness which will ultimately lead to self-management.  Self-awareness is the most difficult part since it involves accepting that you have all the signs of an emotional eater.

  • Do you often feel guilty or ashamed after eating?
  • Does eating make you feel better when you’re feeling down?
  • Does eating help you lessen your focus on problems when you’re worried about something?
  • Do you often eat alone or at odd locations, such as being parked outside a fast food joint?
  • Do you ever eat without realizing you’re even doing it?
  • Do you feel the urge to eat in response to outside cues like seeing food advertised on television?
  • Do you eat because you feel there’s nothing else to do?
  • Do you crave specific foods when you’re upset, such as always desiring chocolate when you feel depressed?

If you answered yes to any of these questions it is possible that you have emotional eating issues.  Make the necessary changes by keeping a short diary.  Write down each time you consume food, what food you consumed, what time was it?  Elaborate on how you were feeling each time you reached for another morsel of food.

You must first acknowledge there is a feeling, something that is causing you to trigger the emotional eating before you can actually discover what causes that response in you.

Through acknowledgment, self-discovery and persistence identifying those emotions will become easier each day. It is time to find what works for you to remedy the problem.  At the end of the day, record the number of times you ate, include the time of day, record any pertinent information and any  emotion that seemed to be involved in the automatic reach for food.  Be extremely honest because you are not hurting or helping anyone else but yourself.

The next step is self-management.  Like all other things in life, the longer you do something the easier it gets.  Practice really does make perfect and it becomes habitual.  Get some help, you will be far more successful if you enlist the assistance of a partner.   As you are forced to document this journey, you will be encouraged to put that food down when you’re angry, depressed or on an emotional high.  The act of emotional eating itself will dissipate in time and you can eat for the right reasons .

Aside from emotional eating to feel that hormonal high, some of us also eat to cope — that is, to reduce emotional distress.  Eating for pleasure or eating to reduce daily stresses are two sides of the coin and our minds divides this coin in half.  On one hand, we are encouraged to slow down and enjoy the food we eat.  On the other hand, we are told by popular culture to never eat for emotional reasons.  If this sounds a bit like hypocrisy, it’s because it is.  What do you think?




RESOURCES Emotional Eating Eating Disorders: Psychological Determinants of Emotional Eating in Adolescents University: Study Identifies Triggers for Emotional Eating Weight loss help: Gain Control of Emotional Eating


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