Would you consider yourself an emotional eater? Do you ever feel like emotional eating is something you constantly ‘do battle’ with? Have you ever typed ‘how to stop emotional eating’ into a google search?
Well, you’re not alone. While there are no hard stats out there I’d estimate that over 90% of the women I have worked with around food identify as emotional eaters.
Most clients I talk to about emotional eating are looking to control or stop it because they feel out of control with food when their negative emotions are heightened. They feel like food is the only tool they have to help when emotions run high. They feel a lot of guilt and shame when they end up eating their stress away with a tray of brownies. Sound familiar?
There is something important that you need to know: Emotional eating is not the problem.
What’s actually going on?
A few different things actually…
Emotional eating can be a normal response to diets and restriction. If you don’t eat enough your body gets VERY focused on food. This is a survival mechanism so that in times of famine you actually seek out food. The human race wouldn’t have lasted long if we all just lounged in the shade instead of hunting or gathering when we needed food. So we have evolved with a feedback system that triggers our ‘go hunt’ drive when food is low. Unfortunately, these days it triggers our ‘go to the fridge’ drive when we are on a diet. This is what you are actually ‘doing battle’ with every day of a diet. Not surprising that emotional eating is heightened when you are on a diet, you just can’t compete with your body’s inbuilt drive to survive.
When you couple this drive to survive with a stressful day or a situation that has you feeling a little vulnerable it’s not surprising we look to food. You’ve probably blamed your lack of willpower in the past or the out of control nature of your emotional eating. In fact, it’s just that your inbuilt body cues can’t be ignored any longer.
‘Emotional eating’ is actually survival eating as far as your body is concerned.
The other element to emotional eating is the ‘forbidden factor’. Do you have a list of foods that you ‘shouldn’t’ eat? Do you avoid ‘bad’ foods because you are on a diet or trying to be ‘good’? Then chances are these are the ones you will reach for when emotions run high. The very nature of putting foods off limits will make them become more appealing. Mix this with the drive to survive and it’s no wonder you find yourself diving face first into a bowl of ice-cream.
What’s a girl to do?
The solution is simple: stop dieting, stop restricting foods, and stop thinking of foods as good or bad. Simple, but not easy. However, if we take away the drive to survive and the forbidden factor most emotional eating is no longer a problem. I have seen this time and time again with my clients.
Will you still eat emotionally? Most definitely, because it’s completely normal to interact with food when we are emotional. Unless you are a robot chances are you felt emotions while eating today. Emotional eating can actually be a useful tool to help soothe us and in some cases, it’s all we have.
There is NOTHING wrong with emotional eating. The reason it feels so ‘wrong’ or ‘out of control’ is because of all the dieting rules.
So, what can you do to change your relationship with emotional eating?
Ditch the diet rules and calorie restrictions. Learn to listen to your inbuilt hunger and satisfaction cues to help guide your food intake. If you give your body the fuel it needs it’s less likely to feel the need for any famine induced survival eating (or binge-fests).
Eat ALL the things. This helps with restriction but it also takes away the forbidden factor. The reason people don’t binge out on broccoli or apples is that they’re not ‘forbidden’ foods.
Stop trying to control emotional eating. Repeat after me: emotional eating is not the problem. Look at the factors behind the emotional eating (not the emotions as such but the restricting) and also remember that it’s OK to eat when feeling emotions (phew, no frontal lobotomy required).
Build up your self-care toolbox. This is not to stop or replace emotional eating but to give you options when you need to take care of yourself. Sometimes food will be the best option available to soothe yourself and sometimes it’ll be something else. When you have a toolbox full of self-care options (including food) you can find the right tool for the job.
If you want to know more about how dieting beliefs can sabotage your weight and your relationship with food check out my free report.