How to understand and overcome emotional eating
Each of us has certain feelings and emotions, our “state” that literally feeds into certain behaviours, like a trigger. Sometimes this is useful, positive and enjoyable. Other times, it can be a negative cycle.
Feelings are our fuel and motivation for our behaviours and the choices we make. If we create and experience negative, uncomfortable feelings on a consistent basis, this experience can contribute to behaviours associated with weight gain.
We use food all the time to change or escape a feeling, or to soothe ourselves. Do you eat to cheer yourself up? To feel good, or to escape stress or sadness? If you do, and if you do that often, then the solution for you may not be a diet plan, but a mindset training plan.
When we eat to escape negative feelings (and we have consistent negative feelings) our eating can get out of hand, potentially leading to inflammatory disorders and chronic disease. The solution is not to keep trying to change eating behaviour. The solution is to change the feeling.
How to break emotional eating cycles
Susan is in her home office, she is at the computer tackling a piece of challenging work. She feels highly stressed and anxious, she is distracted. Her brain flicks around for a solution to this cocktail of uncomfortable feelings. She knows there is cake leftover from yesterday sitting in her kitchen, she has had lunch, she is not hungry, but stands up and goes to the kitchen and grabs a piece of cake. She stands, quickly eating the cake, feeling a momentary relief as the sweet creamy icing hits her taste buds. She heads back to the computer but over the next hour, this happens four more times until the cake is finished. Susan can't remember deciding to eat the cake or thinking about her behaviour it just happened. After a short time, her anxiety returns, she sits back at the computer now feeling sick and guilty, as well as anxious and stressed.
Simon sits at home, it's 10 pm but he doesn't feel sleepy, he is watching TV for company and he feels alone and bored. He ate a big meal at 8 pm, so he is not hungry but something is niggling inside. He wants to feel better somehow. He heads to the kitchen and grabs chocolate and another biscuit, it's the same routine every night.
Louise has lost her job, is at home with two small children who still often wake at night, she is isolated, exhausted and feels an immense sense of uncertainty even sometimes panic. She has financial worries and some health concerns as she has recently been diagnosed as being pre-diabetic. She has been told to cut back on refined foods and high sugar. She knows she is tired and not hungry but she constantly craves and eats sweets foods in an effort to get some energy back and feel good. The feeling in her stomach is like a knot it pulls and tugs like a feeling of hunger, when she eats through the day it gives her a momentary relief from the panic feeling, she feels full and this seems to switch off the anxious feeling and gives her a moment of calm.
We could tell you story after story like this.
Behind every behaviour there is an emotion, behind every mouthful of food there is a feeling that came first. We eat for many reasons; hunger, hunger prevention, to celebrate, for enjoyment, to feel good or to escape a negative mood such as stress, low self-esteem, anxiety, procrastination, sadness or fatigue.
What feelings are fuelling your appetite and are they a problem?
We define emotional eating as engaging in unwanted eating behaviour that is driven by feelings you don’t want. This is one of the key psychological components of weight and health issues.
You will probably have experienced this many times. How many times have you said, or heard someone else say:
- “I am an anxious eater.”
- “I need to eat the thing in my mind.”
- “When I eat the world just stops and I can feel calm again.”
- “It makes me feel safe.”
- “I am a stress eater.”
- “When I feel good about myself I exercise more, but when I feel low I eat.”
Certain foods that may have a particularly potent psychoactive effect are sugars and refined carbohydrates. The feelings that we get from eating sweet foods (e.g. comfort, safety, security, calm, fullness, contentment and love) are remarkably interlaced with our human needs for love, safety, security, emotional connection, approval and so on.
So it may be that you need to understand your feelings and the cause of these, to better understand your emotional eating and learn how to manage it. If you know you consistently eat away at your emotions, then the first step to managing this is to get into the habit of asking the following questions before you eat:
- Am I really hungry for food?
- What am I really feeling here? (e.g. sad, tired, hungry, thirsty, anxious, guilty, stressed).
- What else can I do to change this feeling?
What we are talking about here is a mindset plan before a food plan; a better relationship with food and intelligent eating.
In life, the process of acquiring emotional intelligence and deep self-awareness is uncertain and not guaranteed. This process is not automatic. In fact, often the opposite can happen. We can learn unhealthy ways of dealing with stress and emotions early in life. Often, coping mechanisms stay with us for a lifetime if left unaddressed.
How can we move from emotional eating to intelligent eating?
Psychologist and neuroscientist, Lisa Feldman Barrett, in her revolutionary work on emotions, explains how “we actually create our emotions”. Her research overturns the widely held belief that emotions are housed in specific and different parts of the brain, and are universally expressed and recognisable. Instead, she explains that ”emotions that may seem to happen to us are actually made by us.”
We are not at the mercy of innate emotional circuits of our own brain. Rather emotions are made. As we go through our lives and have new experiences. we build up our stock of experiences and use these to predict and create our responses. This is all really important to understand because it means you have much more control over your emotions that you probably think you do.
Well, we now know that the brain is flexible and it can be changed over time and with the appropriate training experience. It is possible to retrain your brain to change and choose your feeling states, day by day with simple tools and thinking exercises. Over time we can learn to predict and react differently to feelings and circumstances.
When we learn to do this, we can transform and transmute our emotions. If we no longer feel our feelings as something we need to escape, change or get rid of, we stop the autopilot of emotional eating and we begin to choose.
When we are aware that we can and do construct our emotions, we can choose to construct feelings that motivate us, give us power and feed into desired behaviours and actions.
This is a big shift in our understanding and theory of emotion that reflects the NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) approach, that sees emotions as a particular state of being in any one moment, that is made up of a series or a system of components, such as thoughts, body sensations, posture, mental pictures, all made by us.
For many people, the first step to change is to start to have awareness of these patterns, understand the emotions and the triggers for a particular feeling or state, and begin to learn how to change the corresponding behaviour that has become hooked onto the feeling to form a strong and often unconscious habit.
We probably know some of our own familiar states and moods, perhaps you can think of some now. You will recognise them through your language, e.g. “I am a worrier”, "I get so anxious all the time”, “I am just so stressed”, “I feel like I am not good enough”.
You may also identify particular emotions through the sensations in your body, a tight chest, a lump in the throat, a pulling in the gut, a fuzzy head, butterflies, or muscle tension. Or maybe through your posture or breathing.
Once you have identified the unwanted feelings you are experiencing, a re-training process can begin. By digging deeper, becoming aware of and changing repetitive emotions, we can begin to change the ingrained habits or even addictive behaviour that may be causing problems for your health.
Transforming negative or unwanted emotions and creating resourceful and enjoyable states is so valuable, not just because it directs our behaviour, but because we experience our whole life through moods and feeling states, and life is precious time!
- Anda, R.F.2006. The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood. European archives of psychiatry and clinical neuroscience, 256(3), pp.174-186.
- Barrett, L.F., 2017. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Pan Macmillan.
- Doidge, N., 2010. The brain that changes itself (Revised edition). Australia, Scribe.
- Frayn, Mallory et al. 2018 “Emotional eating and weight regulation: a qualitative study of compensatory behaviors and concerns.” Journal of eating disorders vol. 6 23. 1
- Kerin H J et al 2019, Intuitive, mindful, emotional, external and regulatory eating behaviours and beliefs: An investigation of the core components, Appetite Volume 132, 1 January Pages 139-146
- Maté, G., 2012. Addiction: Childhood trauma, stress and the biology of addiction. Journal of Restorative Medicine, 1(1), pp.56-63.
- Watt-Smith, T., 2016. The Book of Human Emotion. Profile Books Limited.