A Look At Emotional Eating, part 2
by Aubin Parrish
In part 1 of this piece, we learned about personal stories of emotional eating and its origins, things about our modern society that foster it, and some of its consequences. This time, we’ll take a look at possible connections with eating disorders and so-called food ‘addiction’, and consider whether emotional eating can sometimes be a helpful coping mechanism. We’ll also learn about some tools to determine whether hunger is physical or emotional, and ways some people have recovered from or diminished the behavior and taken steps to heal their relationship with food.
Emotional eating can resemble addictive behavior. Some people find they eat automatically when upset, without conscious thought for their actions, and feel helpless to stop. They may be obsessed with a particular kind of food when under stress, and feel a physical and mental craving for it so strongly that they seem unable to control themselves. Emotional eating can be closely tied with bingeing, and the two conditions of emotional eating and Binge Eating Disorder can be difficult to distinguish from each other. This is exacerbated by the fact that BED is frequently confused by lay-people with food ‘addiction’ and can have an emotional component.
There is a great deal of controversy over whether food can actually be addictive or not. It’s become a commonly-held belief that some people are addicted to food, either to the act of eating in general or to specific foods. Sugar is generally portrayed as the bad guy in this scenario. This is problematic, because food is not physiologically addictive in the same way that drugs or alcohol are. Not even sugar! Studies indicating addictive response in rats or mice to sugar are generally very limited in scope and don’t test real-world conditions. It’s true that sugar consumption triggers release in the brain of ‘happy hormones’, but so does any other pleasurable activity, including eating anything. This fact in and of itself doesn’t mean sugar, or any other food, is addictive. When a non-addictive substance is granted addictive status, it can have the effect of removing the power to change behavior concerning that substance from the person in question, and place the blame on the substance. This can distract from the fact that the source of the addictive behavior is within the person, not derived from some nefarious quality of the food. Many people have had success breaking their patterns of addictive behavior concerning food by recognizing the power to change lies within themselves and with the process of healing their inner relationship with food and eating. The food has no power over them that they don’t allow it to have. This differs from substances that are physiologically addictive, which create physical dependencies.
Some people who engage in emotional eating also have eating disorders, whether clinically diagnosed or not. There can be a complex interplay between emotions, psychological conditions, clinical eating disorders and food behavior, as well as a broad spectrum of severity of disordered behavior. Each person struggling with this spectrum will have an individual landscape shaped by these factors. The process of coming to terms with out-of-control emotional eating is worth pursuing, because it can be a distressing and heavy burden, as well as affect one’s physical health.
Many people have success with examining the roots of their urge to eat in response to unpleasant emotions and becoming more mindful of it in the present moment. While therapy can be effective for dealing with emotional eating, untangling the source and current circumstances that trigger emotional eating can often be accomplished on a private level as well. However, anyone who suspects they may have an eating disorder should seek professional treatment for it. EDs are associated with the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, and need to be taken seriously. There are many grave misunderstandings about eating disorders in general. As a result, affected people often don’t seek professional treatment even if they or their loved ones suspect they have an ED. It’s a common misconception that a person with an eating disorder will be either extremely underweight or overweight. This is inaccurate. A large percentage of those with an ED are in the normal weight range. Therapists specializing in eating disorders are trained to recognize the range of different disordered food behaviors, and treatment is effective.
How do you determine if a hunger is physical or emotional? It’s not always easy to tell the difference, especially when an emotional upset is fresh. Often times, the simple act of being mindful of the urge to eat can make it clear. Some people find when they observe themselves more objectively, by stepping outside the heat of the moment and engaging a more rational thinking process, it’s easier to tell if a hunger is physical or emotional in origin.
Establishing healthy habits and regular but flexible routines concerning food can also help bring some clarity to the situation. If you give yourself the freedom to eat enough to fuel your activities, don’t punish yourself with food restrictions, and create space in your life to let food be in balance with your other necessary activities, it can release the tension you may have associated with food. If there is no cycle of indulgence/guilt/remorse/punishment in regards to eating, then actual physical hunger as opposed to emotional longing can often be more clearly perceived.
In some cases, a brief distraction (for instance, taking a short walk, talking to a friend, or any other activity that doesn’t involve eating) can break the fixation to eat emotionally, and allow a person to come back after a short time and re-evaluate whether they are actually hungry. Sometimes a hunger is both emotional and physical. Therapists who specialize in food-related issues will be able to provide other coping tools you can learn to make these distinctions, and to assist with out-of-control emotional eating.
Is it always ‘bad’ to eat emotionally? Perhaps not. Food is a primal pleasure as well as a necessity, and in some situations, eating can be used as a way to relieve stress, process grief, get in touch with happy memories, or gain a feeling of being more centered in oneself. This doesn’t mean eating to excess or bingeing, as those are rarely good ideas. But for instance, at the end of a stressful day or after an emotional upset of some kind, enjoying some food you find pleasurable simply for the fact that you like it and it helps you feel like you’re nurturing yourself by savoring it, completely aside from whether you’re physically hungry or not, is not necessarily harmful. It’s human nature. While eating as a primary way to cope with emotional upset or stress is likely to have unwanted effects, not the least of which is weight gain, it may not be necessary to try to completely eradicate the behavior, if it happens only occasionally and within reasonable bounds.
Some of my friends whose stories we learned about in part 1 have successfully curbed their tendency to eat emotionally. They shared with me some of their tactics.
Catherine says, “…I do therapy, I keep a gratitude journal, I walk, I talk to a friend/family member, I go on ETF [Facebook group], I make art. These are all better ways for me to deal with my emotions rather than eating a lot.”
Cheri has taken a structured and scientific approach to more aware self-guidance with food. “Once I truly understood how the metabolism worked, how we burn energy and require energy, I began to eat and move accordingly. I also don’t have the stressors I did growing up, and try to keep my stress to a minimum. Learning coping skills has helped me to stop emotional eating 90% of the time. And because I eat to TDEE now [total daily energy expenditure], I rarely binge and if I do, it’s not related to under eating (sometimes I will due to hormones, but they’re rare and pretty small.) I counted calories on My Fitness Pal for over 2 years, which really helped.”
This was Cara’s response to my inquiry about specific methods or tools she’s used to help: “Relaxing all rules around food. No longer beating myself up about food choices. I’ve come a long way but I’m not there yet. There are some habits I am yet to overcome. For example, when eating something like candy or popcorn, I tend to grab massive handfuls and have the next handful ready before I’ve swallowed the first mouthful. Like I’m still in a rush to shove it all down. I do catch myself and remind myself that there’s no rush, food supply is never going to end or be taken away by my mother or my own inflicted diet rules. I do still crave ‘junk’ food when I’m a bit down but it takes a lot less to satisfy me. I allow myself some ice cream or a chocolate, for example, and I’m satisfied without bingeing on it.”
Tiana’s process differed somewhat, coming from a background of bulimia: “Even when I no longer purged, I would still occasionally binge because of feeling upset. When I finally quit the bingeing, and was relearning how to eat, I no longer ate my feelings. When I was going through my divorce, there were a few times that I binged because of feeling overwhelmed; other than that, my feelings have not driven what or why I eat.”
Kristin told me that to help overcome her episodes of emotional eating, she did the following: “Admit I was eating emotions. I was not hungry. I was stuffing feelings down – a whole variety of feelings. So owning it was the first step. Also identifying hunger. Am I hungry? Or bored? Or angry? Or lonely? Once identified, did I still want the food? If I did, I was still making an honest connection. If I didn’t, that was okay, too.”
There are many paths to peace of mind for those who find themselves eating emotionally on a regular basis. Step one for most people seems to be mindfulness and acknowledgement of the behavior, then taking action by seeing a professional therapist and/or learning tools to expand on the self-awareness needed to shift their behavior. It’s easy to feel despair or frustration, to feel essentially a step behind your own behavior, but the tables can be turned and power to appropriately direct your eating behavior can be regained. It’s worth the effort.
I would like to thank the community of the Facebook group Eating The Food for many thoughtful and enlightening conversations, not only about various facets of emotional eating, but also every other aspect of food and fitness.
About the author: Aubin Parrish is a mom, wife, martial artist and student of the human condition, with a keen interest in the physical and mental health effects of food and exercise, and in the cultural trends that influence our relationships with food, fitness and ourselves.