Emotional eating and how to overcome it
You feel something. Food makes you feel better. That, in two short sentences, sums up emotional eating. It applies to all emotions, not just the negative ones. What triggers you to respond this way may be as individual as a fingerprint: the bad and good that come from work, relationships, parenting, illness, and even boredom. That’s the reason emotional eating may be a factor in why some people gain weight and one of the biggest obstacles to losing it.
“We know that emotions could influence eating, and that may get in the way of long-term weight-loss goals,” says Edie Goldbacher, PhD, associate professor of psychology at La Salle University, who notes that the topic has received an increasing amount of research attention in the past 10 years. “The need can be powerful.”
Yes, it can. After all, food is love; food soothes; food fills a void. But that feeling is fleeting, and it’s possible that people know on some level that the satisfaction they get from the food is false and comes at a cost. Or, as Daniel Friedland, MD, CEO of SuperSmartHealth puts it, “Emotional eating feels good, but it doesn't feel right.”
The key to breaking the cycle is understanding that the problem isn't the food or even the eating. The cycle kicks in long before you head to the kitchen.
How food can affect your mood
Research suggests that more than half the people who are overweight or obese are regularly affected by emotional eating. Of course, we live in a culture where there’s an abundance of inexpensive energy dense food options available within minutes. “You might pass 30 fast-food options on the way home from work,” says Jason Lillis, PhD, assistant professor at the Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center at Brown Medical School.
At the same time, society promotes what Lillis calls “feel goodism.” That’s the idea that we shouldn’t have to feel unhappy—ever. “Our culture has little tolerance for negative thoughts,” he says. “But that’s not real life. Being alive means experiencing the entire range of emotions.”
Goldbacher concurs. “Emotional eating isn't driven by hunger. And it’s not even the emotion that leads us to eat more. It’s our response to the emotion.” The majority of people she’s studied say they’re most vulnerable late in the day into the evening. “Your brain is filled with the day’s events, or things you have to face at home, or face tomorrow.”
Find comfort in discomfort
The goal of new treatment approaches is to encourage people to live with uncomfortable emotions so they’re not compelled to numb them with food, says Evan Forman, PhD, psychology professor at Drexel University. He co-authored a study in Obesity in 2016 comparing acceptance-based treatment—which focuses on tolerating discomfort and making mindful decisions—with traditional behavioural therapies like distracting oneself from unhealthy eating. Patients in the acceptance-based program lost significantly more weight.
“Maybe you taught yourself in the past that the only way to feel less sad was to eat ice cream, and it became a habit,” says Forman, author of Effective Weight Loss: An Acceptance-Based Behavioral Approach. “But tolerating the sadness is a skill you can acquire. Instead of saying ‘I can’t stand feeling this way,’ you say ‘It’s OK. Sadness is part of being human. I will embrace it and learn from it.’”
Forman says this “can potentially be life-altering” because it helps give you the power to make decisions that are in line with your weight-loss goals, rather than trying to assuage your discomfort by eating.
Shift to a growth mindset
People who decide to lose weight may start with a negative attitude about food. To achieve successful weight loss, Friedland notes, they have to transform from a static way of thinking—believing a setback is a failure, for example, and that nothing will ever change—to a positive, growth mindset. “Discover new ways of responding to your emotions and you make it easier to focus on your goals,” he says.
How do you do that? Instead of allowing negative thoughts to drive automatic behaviours, pause and listen to your emotions. “Identify what you’re feeling and realise that this experience is happening because something you care about is at stake,” Friedland explains. “A person with a growth mindset thinks ‘This is a gift. It will help me understand what’s important to me. I trust there are other ways to deal with the feeling. I can learn from this.’”
That shift also helps remind you of your most important values. “This is when you ask, ‘What do I really care about?’” Friedland says. “‘What’s my best response?’”
5 ways to take charge of emotional eating
Hunger isn't the only reason we reach for food. Sometimes we eat because we’re bored, stressed, out of habit or just because we’re trying to distract ourselves from a tricky task. Read on to learn how to turn it around and find a food-free fix.
1. Figure out what you’re feeling
First, determine if your desire to eat is true hunger or something else. Is your stomach growling? If not, drill down deeper to identify the trigger (the sight and smell of food can elicit an emotional response, too). “If you name it, you can tame it,” Daniel Friedland, MD, CEO of SuperSmartHealth advises. “If you’re feeling anxious and tense, just saying out loud ‘anxious, anxious, nervous, nervous’ is powerful.”
2. Practice putting space between thoughts and actions
When you delay cruising by the office snack table in response to a tense run-in with a co-worker, you give yourself the freedom to make a different choice. But it takes practice. The next time you feel anxious, Evan Forman, PhD, a psychology professor at Drexel University, suggests challenging yourself to see how long you can embrace the emotion. “See if you can welcome it for two minutes,” he says. Try saying “I know what this is and I can handle it,” instead of saying, “A muffin would make me feel better.”
3. Take a long, slow inhale
Deep breathing may be one of the most effective strategies you can adopt to help lessen the intensity of strong emotions, says Abby Braden, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University. “When you’re anxious, your breath quickens. But breathing into your diaphragm may reduce levels of tension and stress. It helps take the edge off that negative feeling, lets you reframe how you’re thinking about it, and helps you get through that moment without eating.”
4. Mind your thoughts
Thinking “I really want a cupcake” might feel like your free will has been hijacked. But what is a thought, really? A fleeting experience that has no real power over you. “A craving is just words or activity in the brain,” Forman says. “You’re imagining how good something will taste. Similarly, if you break down what it means to be sad or mad or ashamed into component parts, you’ll realize it’s merely feeling anxious or having your muscles tense up or your breathing speed up.”
5. Keep some distance
Another trick: Don’t identify with the thoughts directly, so you have some distance to make a good decision. “It’s the difference between ‘I’m angry’ versus ‘I notice that I’m having angry thoughts,’” Friedland adds. “That way you’re not swept away by what you normally do when you’re angry. If you can mindfully notice those angry feelings, you put yourself into that gap where you can notice and choose .”