A Beginner’s Guide to Emotional Eating from a Non-Expert Who’s Been There
When it comes right down to it, there are two reasons to eat—for fuel, or for delight.
Eating for Fuel
When we eat for fuel, we provide our body with the nutrients and calories it needs to get through our busy day. We are satisfying the physical and intellectual demands of all that we do. We are eating for the strength, energy and clarity we need to be humans.
Eating for Delight
When we eat for the sake of delight, it’s strictly because the food we are eating delights our senses and titillates our taste buds. People tend to enjoy either savory or sweet for this category (but some people are equal opportunists). This food makes us happy when we eat it, because it tastes so good. It may be a food that also fuels, but often times these foods are the “treats” that we enjoy and the foods we crave.
Other Types of Eating
Sometimes we eat in hopes that either the food or the act of putting the food in our mouth will relieve stress, boredom, sadness, anger. In this case, food can serve as a buffer between us and the real world, and its emotional numbing effect can be similar to having a drink.
For the purpose of simplicity, let’s call all of this emotional eating.
Here’s Where it Gets Confusing
When we are emotional eating—even if the food might be a “healthy” food—we aren’t eating for the purpose of fuel. And, even though emotional eating often involves the same foods we eat for delight, we aren’t even eating for delight. When we eat emotionally, we eat out of frustration, sadness and boredom. We often choose the same foods that delight us because we are conditioned to think these foods will make us happy, so we think the same foods will also lift us mentally in all circumstances.
That kind of makes sense—so why does it almost never seem to work that way? Because it makes only makes sense in the same way that putting an aspirin on your finger should help your finger heal, since the same aspirin gets rid of your headache.
Emotional eating becomes a habit, our go-to response to cope with feelings—both good and bad. Food becomes the drug of choice. And it’s not usually fuel food that we turn to, it’s those “delight” foods of the salty or sweet variety.
While delighting your taste buds is awesome and can be uplifting and part of social celebration, when you eat emotionally you tend to be left unsatisfied. When you’ve finished the ice cream your problems are still there—and now you’ve eaten a pint of ice cream. Which often leads to your feeling worse.
Because those of us who use food in this way are often the same crowd that struggles with weight and other issues related to food consumption, we may find ourselves dealing with shame and guilt when we eat emotionally. Shame and guilt do not make us feel good. This might even cause us to make a new association with ice cream, using it as a tool to self-sabotage our weight loss efforts, and, ironically, to punish ourselves for emotional eating. We’ve entered a vicious cycle of eating. (And we may possibly have ruined the joy of eating ice cream!)
We Get High With a Little Help from Our Friends
Food companies are smart. They are awesome at marketing to our emotions—ads that depict a woman seductively eating chocolate, or the guy who is the hit of the party because of a bag of Tostitos. The message is not about fuel but about making a connection between food and delight on a whole new level. They cleverly choose settings and emotions we all aspire to, and associate a product with that feeling. Marketers are convincing us that eating a certain food will make us popular, sexy and beautiful.
Are we still talking about chocolate?
If it sounds a little like brainwashing…that’s what advertising is, right?
You think testing on animals is despicable, well how do you feel about testing on humans? Specifically, on you? Food scientists for big food companies are in the business of studying the effects of food on neuroreceptors and other big brain words so that you will want to eat once the pleasure wears off. They research to determine the part of your tongue that sends signals to the brain so that you will eat the food even when you don’t want it any more. Their job is to make sure that “you can’t eat just one.” Bottom line: They study things like brain receptors and mouthfeel, so that you can eat the fuck out of that bag of Doritos. They teach you to have fake mouthgasms.
Are We Just “Wired” to do This?
Do some of us have more of a genetic tendency toward becoming emotional eaters? Some of us are really affected by food, while others don’t seem to be bothered at all. Here’s a fun fact—it doesn’t matter. If we have the tendency to eat emotionally, or if genetics make us more likely to become “addicted” to sugars or other foods—it doesn’t matter. The choice to act on our own behalf is ultimately ours. And while it may be a more difficult choice for some of us, we can still choose to change our habits.
Cravings are our brains talking to us. It may have to do with a need for nutrients. Or it may have to do with Pavlov—we’ve become conditioned to go to food in certain circumstances, without even considering the desire for fuel or delight! When boredom strikes, we eat potato chips. When we go the movies, we must eat popcorn. When we feel sad, we eat sugar.
There is also science to indicate that our body craves certain foods for other reasons, such as lack of sleep or dehydration. Not getting enough sleep messes with your brain chemicals, and can cause you to crave certain non-fuel type foods. Being even mildly dehydrated can make you feel hungry.
Good news. A craving is not a command. Awareness allows you to break the cycle. If you stay away from (refined) sugar, for example, for a few weeks, you are going to find that you are not craving it. And, naturally sweet foods like fruit taste remarkably sweeter. (Not sure why around 21 days is magic, but it is.)
Charlie Foxtrot, Reporting for Duty
Let’s review. We have the food companies working on our brains and marketers working on our psyches. Now bring to the table whatever misconceptions we have about food solving all of our emotional issues, add a little Pavlovian conditioning…well, it’s a mental clusterfuck of the highest order.
Now that we are aware, this will be easy, right?
No, not easy. Taking away the mystery does not make it easy to give up turning to food for emotional reasons. Knowledge doesn’t make things easy, it just makes them clear. Which is awesome. Certainly a rough road is easier to navigate when you see what you’re up against.
We Need a Plan
Keep in mind that to really change a habit—especially one you’ve been cultivating for awhile—takes time. It takes consistency. It may even take a village. Here are 10 tips to get you started:
- Ask yourself why you are eating—fuel or delight. If the answer is neither, then maybe you don’t need to eat right then. If you aren’t sure, take a moment and look at your circumstances at that moment. Are you alone?
- Find something else to do that helps with the emotion. Maybe it’s something physical: Go for a run or long walk. Do push ups or burpees. Sometimes physical activity can cause the release of the Serotonin, the chemical responsible for pleasure. Or maybe write about it. Write a letter to yourself. (Sounds cheesy but it can be a powerful exercise. You’d be surprised that stuff that ends up on that paper!) Call a friend. Read something that uplifts you.
- Eater, know thyself. Keep the empty foods that you turn to in times of boredom and stress out of your house. Don’t keep them in your pantry at all. If you buy things for a rainy day, you will make it rain. Not having them around may force you to look for another outlet.
- Give up a “trigger ingredient”—typically for 21 days. This has the advantage of helping your body and your mind to stop craving the foods that are based on the ingredient.
- Embrace who you are. Know that not everyone is an emotional eater. Don’t be angry or jealous of the people that are not affected by food in this way. We are all different. Some people can turn to food once in awhile for emotional reasons without being sent on a wild roller coaster involving shame and guilt. Some people can eat a pint of ice cream every day for delight with no ill effects. Energy is in limited supply, and you need your energy, so don’t use it being angry with others for not having the issues you have, no matter how tempting it may be. You are learning about yourself with each step of this journey, and learning to take control over this issue will surely have a ripple effect in the rest of your life. Embrace who you are.
- Should you falter, forgive yourself immediately, so you don’t start the cycle anew. Instead of concentrating on the half hour you spent emotional eating, concentrate on the other 23 ½ hours that you’re going to spend improving. Also, forgive yourself because you are human. No need for any excuses. Don’t dwell. Put it in perspective. Learn what you can and move on.
- Bridge the gap between Fuel and Delight: When you are eating for fuel, eat things that you like. Although not directly related, it helps keep you from having a mindset of deprivation. You may even find that some of those foods delight your taste buds. Note: This concept may be new to you. If you believe that only “non-fuel” foods taste good, you haven’t explored all the fuel foods. Broccoli is not the only vegetable in town, and grilled chicken breast is not the only protein. Google, “Healthy recipes” and look for recipes using actual food (not out of a box). There are even services where you can order healthy meals delivered to your door!
- When you are hungry, eat what fuels you. This way, your body is getting the fuel it needs before any other non-fuel food call to you.
- Ask for help if you need it. There are books that will change the way you think. There are health coaches who will work with you to change the behavior patterns. This is really important, because bottom line—the food is just a vehicle you’re using. It’s your drug of choice. The ultimate goal should be to get rid of whatever it is that’s causing you to use food in this way. You need to look into what’s at the root of your behavior, not only to avoid relapse of unwanted behaviors, but to avoid substitution of another unwanted behavior. In the end, emotional eating is only partially about the food.
- Be patient with yourself. If you’re reading this, there’s a chance you’ve been doing this for years. It takes a long time to change habits. And that’s what this is—a habit. The habit of turning to food for things that food can’t help. Putting a band-aid on your head when you have a headache isn’t the best use of a band-aid. Be patient with yourself. Change takes time. It takes consistency. And ultimately, you get to choose your actions, one small action at a time.
I’m going to leave you with one other thing to think about. Food is not our enemy. We need food to live, and food is often a big part of celebration. Once you deal with the issues that cause you to eat emotionally, you will mend your relationship with food, so that you can peacefully co-exist.
Here is a list of awesome resources you help you on your journey!
Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, by Michael Moss
Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything, by Geneen Roth
In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan
Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul, by Deepak Chopra
Beth Wittig Clayton, Health Coach