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Emotional Eating: Many of Us Do It. What Can We Do About It?

junk food

We’ve all been there: the pizza binge during final exams, the quart of ice cream after a painful break-up or the extra-large piece of cake after a challenging day. Emotional eating as a way to de-stress can serve as a coping tool for dealing with difficult emotions. When I teach emotional eating classes, I ask how many participants have emotionally eaten. Almost every time, nearly every hand goes up. So by definition, emotional eating is normal, since most people do it. Emotional eating works to manage daily life stress. This eating behavior can increase becoming emotional overeating, or perhaps a binge eating disorder. Some emotional eaters are also dealing with anxiety, depression or a history of traumatic experiences. One of the keys to managing emotional eating is incorporating mindfulness, or awareness, into eating.

Also, permission can be so powerful. It’s important for people to give themselves permission to emotionally eat on occasion—in a mindful way—rather than harbor guilt about it. Guilt creates a battle of will to never emotionally eat again, which will likely fail and can result in overeating or binge eating. The effort to “refuse, restrict and resist” doesn’t work.

The physiology of emotional eating

The reason emotional eating works is, to some extent, physiological. When we are stressed, our bodies are in a sympathetic nervous system activation or a fight-or-flight reaction. A surge of adrenalin is part of the fight-or-flight response. We need energy to “survive” the stressor. When we consume calories (aka energy) as the food is metabolized, a signal is sent to the brain that the body has enough energy (calories) to run or fight, our brain “shuts off” the sympathetic (stress) response. After a few bites, our bodies sense safety and shift into a parasympathetic nervous system state, which slows us down, relaxes us and brings comfort. In other words, it really does work. But it works…until it doesn’t. This is where mindfulness comes in.

Often emotional eating behaviors stem from influences early in life. Such as the influence of parents and caregivers' eating habits, food being used as a reward or punishment, schedules driving eating habits (need quick and easy options), living in a “clean the plate” household. Peers, fad diets and rules can also influence eating later in life. However, early and current influences of eating are seldom based in hunger.

Infants know to stop nursing or drinking from a bottle when they are full—their bodies are tuned into the cues of hunger and satisfaction. They are the perfect mindful eaters. Later, the variety of external eating influences disconnect the body from those intrinsic, internal cues.

Becoming a mindful eater

Macri offers these additional tips for approaching emotional eating:

  • Resist placing a shame-inducing moral value on food or eating: “good” versus “bad” food, and “clean” versus “dirty” eating.
  • Give yourself permission to eat emotionally on occasion—in a mindful way.
  • Start “checking in” with yourself to understand the different sensations of hunger throughout the day and throughout eating. Starving and bloated are extreme feelings.
  • Ask yourself if you’re truly hungry or eating due to stress.
  • Identify a variety of activities that relax you, which you can do in addition to eating emotionally.

Using a personal “hunger gauge” helps reestablish communication between the body and mind. It internalizes hunger cues, making it difficult to remove them by external influences. The strategy involves paying attention to what your belly feels like and rating those sensations on a gauge from zero to 10. It serves as a “check-in,” and can be done before eating, and again throughout meals (splitting them into thirds, perhaps). This helps the body feel, understand and become aware or mindful of the changing inner sensations as eating occurs. Checking-in again after a meal helps assess how the meal went. 

The hunger gauge is data gathering, and if the “experiment” goes well, the variables (food type, quality, quantity, time, etc.) can be repeated. If not, they can be adjusted and noted mentally or in a journal. This data gathering approach also helps decrease shame about eating because we’re less likely to overeat when we’re mindful, as opposed to mindless while eating

Another strategy involves asking each time if we are eating for hunger (physiological need) or stress (emotional need). If it’s physical, rating the hunger before, during and after can guide how much and what to eat. If it’s emotional, approach it step-by-step:

  • What is the emotion?
  • Where is it coming from?
  • Slow the process down with other activities that provide joy and comfort.

The ratio of three-to-one can be a helpful guide in overcoming the instinct to emotionally overeat. Food stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain—like a “floodlight”— so it can account for the “one” in the ratio. Many activities can activate these pleasure centers. Using three other activities can balance the pleasure food is providing. These “twinkle lights” provide pause and the opportunity to check-in on the eating impulse. They are activities that bring a little bit of peace and relaxation to each individual–whether it’s a bath, a cup of tea, walk, swim, playing music, etc. A combination of these activities will activate the parasympathetic nervous system and trigger a gradual relaxation response. Stress management techniques can also be incorporated to support mindful eating. It’s true that these don’t necessarily provide the same pleasure as the food, but using food as the only or primary coping tool quickly turns into overeating or binge eating, which is actually not pleasurable at all. It can be painful (physically and or emotionally), and adding additional coping tools can gradually help lessen the use of food to address emotional issues.

Learn more

For additional information and resources, I recommend Intuitive Eating (with the companion workbook) by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, and Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat by Michelle May, MD. The Eat Right Now app and the Center for Mindful Eating website also offer great tools to manage emotional eating.

Shiri Macri, MA, LCMHC, Licensed Mental Health Clinician, Employee Assistance Program, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.