Updated May 24, 2018

Eating for comfort or to numb your emotions doesn’t address the true issue at hand, but I think often the frustration around emotional eating stems from the fact that we’ve been conditioned by diet culture to believe that eating for any reason other than fuel or nutrition is “bad” or “wrong”.

Heck, it’s not just emotional eating – any eating that happens outside of our planned meals and snacks, even when we’re physically hungry, is blown off as “emotional”. As a result, we beat ourselves up for the simple act of nourishing ourselves (then eat again because of how bad we feel for beating ourselves up.)

Why It’s Impossible to Quit Eating Emotionally

One of the activities in Craving Change (which I no longer teach as there are some fatphobic elements) is around “types of hunger”. The group brainstorms all the different reasons why we eat: hunger, boredom, celebration, stress, trying something new, because it’s there, etc. Then, these reasons are put into three categories:

  • Stomach hunger (eating to satisfy physical hunger or nutrition)
  • Mouth hunger (eating to satisfy a craving for a taste or a texture)
  • Heart hunger (eating to satisfy emotional hunger, or in response to a learned behaviour, like eating during a scheduled lunch break)

It quickly becomes obvious that **SPOILER ALERT** most of the reasons that we eat are due to heart hunger.

From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense—if food didn’t make us feel good, we probably wouldn’t eat, and our species wouldn’t survive. In other words, eating for reasons other than physical hunger is one of many things that make us human.

What if My Emotional Eating Feels Problematic?

Emotional eating is normal and healthy, but it can be problematic if it is actually distracting you from dealing with the issue at hand, or if the eating itself leads to more emotional eating (i.e. you feel guilty, so you eat more because you feel guilty) Stopping completely isn’t a realistic goal, but you can make your eating feel less automatic and more intentional.

I recently attended a webinar led by Dr. Judson Brewer, co-author of the just-released The Craving Mind (Amazon Associate link – potential TW; I haven’t read the book and during the presentation Dr. Brewer implied that he is not 100% HAES®), where he spoke about the “habit feedback loop” that drives cravings, which can include anything from smoking and alcohol to emotional eating.

Feedback Loop

We encounter many different events throughout the day. Our brain interprets these events as positive, negative or neutral. Often, when something is positive, we want that feeling to continue and amplify, and when it’s negative, we want the feeling to go away. It’s no secret that food can affect how we feel; eating causes our brain to release endorphins, the “feel good” neurotransmitters. Foods rich in sugar, salt, fat and/or carbohydrate can lead to greater concentrations of these chemicals in our brain.

Over time, we see food as the solution to boosting positive emotions or making negative emotions go away. Emotional eating can then become problematic when we continually rely on food to boost our mood.

Emotional eating can become problematic when we use food as a crutch to boost our mood. Click To Tweet

In his presentation, Dr. Brewer described three ways that we can tackle emotional eating.

1. Avoid the Cues

This strategy is pretty straightforward – if you “must” have popcorn whenever you go to the movies, stop going to the movies. If you have to grab a piece of chocolate every time you call your parents, stop calling your parents.

The problem is, avoiding triggering events is not always realistic, especially if you want to still have a life (and not get disowned by your parents ?)

2. Satisfy the Emotions without Food

This strategy is one that I’ve written about before, and is one that is commonly taught by health professionals. In short, when you find yourself trying to manage a craving, instead of just satisfying it right away, challenge yourself to pause and try to figure out the emotions and motivations behind the craving. Then, see if it is possible to satisfy that emotion in another way.

One potential downside to this is that your “alternative activities” may not be as accessible, convenient or effective as food, so it doesn’t make a satisfactory replacement. On the flip side, it could end up being so effective that it turns into another unhealthy crutch.

3. Practice Mindfulness

Dr. Brewer argues that this strategy is the most effective, because while the first two strategies work “outside” of the feedback loop, this strategy tackles the connection between craving and response head on.

The acronym that Dr. Brewer uses to describe his strategy is RAIN:

Recognize

This is similar to the “pause” in the previous strategy—stopping and recognizing when a craving hits.

Accept/Acknowledge

This is what I touched on in the beginning of this post—emotional eating is a normal and healthy part of life, as are the emotions, motivations and cravings that lead to emotional eating. Give yourself permission to feel the way you feel, and to eat as a response to those feelings. There is no reason to feel bad or guilty.

Investigate

Get curious. Take the time to explore the situation. Ask yourself questions like, “What makes me want to eat in this moment?” “Why do I feel this way?” “How can eating help?”

Note

Once you give yourself permission to eat, Dr. Brewer uses the skill of “noting” to help people enjoy their food mindfully. Noting is simply acknowledging what you are experiencing, without judgment or hanging on to any of the experiences.

You can practice this skill without eating by setting a timer for say, 3 minutes, and allowing yourself to notice what you are experiencing through your five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. To keep from lingering, aim to generate a new “note” per second.

In the context of emotional eating, I invite you to notice with your eyes the colour, shape and texture of the food; maybe hold it up to your nose to capture its scent before placing it in your mouth, and notice its flavour, temperature, and possibly the sounds that it might make as you chew and swallow.

A cue that some people find helpful is imagining that you are a food writer and you are describing your experience to a reader. Or, you might imagine that you are an alien or a child experiencing this food for the first time.

As you become more comfortable with this, you may add a “sixth sense”. Not seeing dead people, but noting any thoughts and feelings that might arise as you are eating. Again, try to just acknowledge it, then let it go and move on to your next note.

By practicing eating mindfully, you can change the experience of emotional eating from one that may feel automatic or “out of control” to one that is more intentional and manageable.

Is emotional eating a problem for you, or a normal part of your day-to-day? What strategies have you used to try to manage your emotional eating?

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