What is emotional eating?
The medical definition, according to popular medical site MedicineNet says “Emotional eating is the practice of consuming large quantities of food-usually “comfort” or junk foods-in response to feelings instead of hunger” they go on to say that “experts estimate that 75% of overeating is caused by emotions.”
Emotional eating can be triggered by positive or negative emotions. According to this HelpGuide article “Most emotional eating is linked to unpleasant feelings, but it can also be triggered by positive emotions, such as rewarding yourself for achieving a goal or celebrating a holiday or happy event.”
When we’re eating because we’re feeling stressed, sad, upset or angry, that’s emotional eating. When we eat to reward ourselves for a job well done, that too is emotional eating and when we eat because we’re with friends or family (and it’s the polite thing to do), that is also considered to be emotional eating. Macht (2008) categorize these triggers by describing them as coping, reward enhancement and social conformance.
Often the link between food and feelings can stem from habits we learned early in life. If we were rewarded for doing well with sweets, ice-cream or any other treat, we would associate reward with food. We also pick up much of our conditioning around food from our families; if our parents and siblings overeat, we may tend to do the same.
Many people face this challenge and what is interesting is how few realize what’s going on. What happens with emotional eating is that sometimes we could unknowingly reach for snacks or food without realizing why we are doing so. We do this to distract from uncomfortable emotions, to switch from an unhappy state to a happy state or to experience immediate relief.
Even when we have come to a point where we are aware that this habit is present, there can still be times when we do it and it feels as though we cannot overcome the urge to eat. When we are emotional eating we are being controlled by our emotions and hence we are not free.
The harmful impact emotional eating has on our lives
Emotional eating can keep us from living our best lives. We experience a lack of control and a feeling of helplessness around emotional eating. It acts as a constraint to personal happiness and satisfaction, keeps us from reaching our health goals and in the long term can lead to life-threatening disease. Many emotional eaters also experience the habit as an addiction, something we want to stop but cannot.
Food as a coping mechanism
The worst part about emotional eating is that we are not free because we are driven to do an action that we would not normally choose to do. Because we use food as a coping mechanism we are not dealing with the underlying emotions which are driving us to eat. In a HuffPost article Dr. Susan Albers says, “eating to avoid facing feelings is like putting a bandaid on a broken arm”.
Emotional eating can be harmful to our health
It can be hard to control the urge to eat when we are experiencing it and the habit could not only prevent us from reaching our health and fitness goals but the weight gain could increase the risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
“Those who struggle with emotional eating are at greater risk for abdominal obesity, which is in turn linked to a greater risk for metabolic and cardiovascular disease.”
Emotional eating can feel like an addiction
Emotional eating is in some ways similar to drug addiction. In-fact in reviewing the literature on the subject we noted that some strategies recommended for alcoholics and drug addicts such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are also recommended for emotional eating.
Emotional eating is almost like an undercover addiction which can easily be viewed as ok. Because emotional eating does not appear to be as harmful to one’s health, relationships, family dynamics or job security as other addictions, we do not think of it as something to be alarmed about. Unfortunately, the habit can tend to continue unabated for far longer. It can also be more challenging to overcome because there is some level of acceptance around emotional eating.
However, in raising our love quotients we begin to tackle the root cause i.e. a lack of love which led us down the path of emotional eating.
Emotional eating could lead to an eating disorder
“Eating too much every once in a while is normal. So is eating for emotional reasons.” says Jennifer Rainey Marquez. Marquez explains the difference between occasionally overeating, for example at thanksgiving dinner, and an eating disorder as follows ”Some people who overeat have a clinical disorder called binge eating disorder (BED). People with BED compulsively eat large amounts of food in a short amount of time and feel guilt or shame afterward. And they do so often: at least once a week over a period of at least 3 months.”
What might start as occasional overeating can develop into binge eating disorder, especially when a person has issues around body image. This could start a cycle of shame and guilt which adds to more binge-eating and in so doing the feelings of shame, guilt and dissatisfaction keep piling on.
Drastic measures may be required to curb emotional eating
Sometimes emotional eaters, having given up on other methods see surgery as their last resort. Vertical Banded Gastroplasty (VBG), aka stomach stapling, and adjustable gastric band have become a popular method of curbing the tendency to overeat, particularly among the morbidly obese.
Discerning between emotional hunger and physical hunger
Another aspect of emotional eating is that we eat when we are not physically hungry. When our urge to eat stems from an emotional source it is referred to as emotional hunger.
This HelpGuide article titled Emotional Eating: How to Recognize and Stop Emotional and Stress Eating provides clues which can help us tell the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger:
- Emotional hunger comes on suddenly, whereas physical hunger comes on more gradually.
- Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods, junk food and sugary snacks that provide an instant rush.
- Emotional hunger often leads to mindless eating.
- Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied once you’re full.
- Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach. Rather than a growling belly or a pang in your stomach, you feel your hunger as a craving you can’t get out of your head.
- Emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, or shame.
How do we know when we’re emotional eating?
Mary L. Gavin, MD recommends that we ask ourselves the following questions about our eating patterns:
- Have I been eating larger portions than usual?
- Do I eat at unusual times?
- Do I feel a loss of control around food?
- Am I anxious over something, like a social situation, or an event where my abilities might be tested?
- Has there been a big event in my life that I’m having trouble dealing with?
- Am I overweight, or has there recently been a big jump in my weight?
- Do other people in my family use food to soothe their feelings too?
Another group of experts recommend we ask ourselves these questions:
- Do I eat more when I’m feeling stressed?
- Do I eat when I’m not hungry or when I’m full?
- Do I eat to feel better (to calm and soothe myself when I’m sad, mad, bored, anxious, etc.
- Do I reward myself with food?
- Do I regularly eat until I’ve stuffed myself?
- Does food make me feel safe? Do I feel like food is a friend?
- Do I feel powerless or out of control around food?
The physical aspect of emotional eating
According a MedicalNewsToday article “there are both physical and psychological causes for emotional eating.” It is important to understand the interplay between emotional and physical (hormonal) triggers. This HuffPost article sheds light on “the big three” hormones; cortisol, dopamine and serotonin, and their impact on cravings.
Paraphrasing the above article which contains expert opinions from clinical psychologist Dr. Susan Albers and Karen K. Koenig, an expert in eating psychology, we understand that:
“When we’re stressed, our bodies are flooded in cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone. That makes us crave sugary, fatty or salty foods. Then there’s dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with learning about rewards. The comfort foods we turn to because they taste so good give us a surge of dopamine and we look for that high again and again. And let’s not forget serotonin, aka ‘the happy chemical’ which when it drops to low levels can be linked to depression. Cheese, carbs and chocolate are linked to spikes in serotonin.”
“You may be able to stop stress eating or emotional eating by figuring out why you need comfort food. Does it calm you down, cheer you up, compensate you for a tough day, or some combination?”
When we understand the relationship between our emotions and our cravings, we can better understand why we crave the things we do and the emotions driving those cravings. This can help us identify and face the emotions that cause us to overeat.
Learning to identify our triggers
If we suspect that we are emotional eating and wish to understand why, we could ask ourselves the following probing questions to uncover the reason that we are driven to eat.
- When looking for food, why am I feeling the urge to eat right now?
- When eating, why am I eating this right now?
- Am I really hungry or is there an emotion I am feeling or have felt that is driving me to eat?
- What is that emotion?
Tools and techniques to overcome emotional eating–the popular view
Fortunately, there is a greater awareness of this issue today than there was in the past and there are many tools and techniques one can learn to overcome emotional eating.
Many experts recommend distraction to stop emotional eating. Taking a walk if we are restless, calling a friend if we are lonely, reading a book if we are bored or taking a yoga class to reduce stress are all great ways to relieve stress or distract ourselves from the urge to eat. These are short-term strategies which may work effectively when applied in the moment, i.e. when we experience cravings, however we do not recommend these as long-term solutions.
Depending on how strong the urge to eat is, it would require a lot of mental exertion for distraction to be effective. Distraction as a means to overcoming emotional eating is either not always effective or not effective at all in the long run. All of these things are merely distracting us from the emotion which is still being carried in the body and which will still drive emotional eating. Distraction is therefore like a bandaid which will eventually come off.
Keep a food journal
According to a Harvard Health article “another way to control emotional eating is to figure out what your triggers are. Keep a food diary that records not only what and how much you ate but also how you felt at the time. Once you recognize a pattern, develop a strategy to break it.”
Keeping a food journal can be very effective means to uncovering one’s triggers. The food journal can really bring a greater awareness when we have emotionally eaten and what caused it.
Becka Kelley in an article for the Centre for Nutrition Studies writes “Savor the eating experience. Most eating is done without awareness, habitually. Pay attention to the sight, smell, texture, sound, and flavor or your food. Have you ever gotten to the end of a meal and realized you don’t know how it tasted? Then you get more because you want to actually taste it? Eat mindfully from the beginning. Recognize the difference between “full” and “no longer hungry”. Get over the thought that you need to clean your plate, just eat until you feel full.”
These activities may bring a great awareness to emotional eating and are great tools to implement, however unless love is incorporated as part of the strategy to stop emotional eating, they do not solve the underlying issue, which is the unwillingness or inability to feel negative emotions.
How LQ can help us stop emotional eating
“Connecting more with the heart helps to bring the emotions into balance, which by now most know is a missing piece, a serious “x” factor in weight management. Eating is so strongly connected with our feelings (be they happy, sad, anxious, lonely, overloaded or depressed) that the balance between heart, mind and emotions has to be included in our diet commitments and intentions.”
Love makes the path easier
Without love we are left to rely on willpower or self-discipline to overcome emotional eating. While this may work in the short term, it is not a long-term solution. We will most likely experience a short period of success after which we will slide inevitably back into old habits.
Unless the underlying causes, be they unfelt emotions, stress or an unhealthy relationship with food are addressed we will not be able to end our tendency to emotional eat. The only way to do so is by raising our LQ and infusing our bodies with love.
When we have loved ourselves and established good habits such as the ‘I love you’ practice we will be more open and receptive to our emotions. Love helps us to feel the emotions that are there to be felt.
Dealing with the underlying emotions
“Emotional eating provides a release from discomfort, providing a momentary sense of pleasure and satisfaction when you’re feeling something you don’t want to feel. Overeating has a numbing, softening effect on our unwanted sentiments, and takes our attention away from them.”
Embodiment Counselor, Allison Dryja.
One of the things which drives emotional eating is the avoidance of negative or uncomfortable emotions. When we stuff or avoid our emotions, we continue to hold on to the negative emotion in our body because we are not giving it the space to be felt. Once we have an awareness, that we are emotional eating and once we have spent time identifying what those uncomfortable emotions and triggers are, we can begin to feel through those emotions so that they may be released.
When we love ourselves, we begin to feel safer in our bodies. We are able to sit with our emotions and feel through them. We would not have to react by eating to make ourselves feel better. Once we can feel through the emotion itself, we can give it a chance to be resolved and move through us.
“The key to ending this pattern is to not abandon yourself when your emotions go awry, but instead to invite them in and allow yourself to feel. Tell yourself that it’s OK to feel sad, mad, scared, tired — you name it. Welcome your negative emotions with kindness and curiosity, and ask them what they want from you. This includes those intense feelings of guilt or anger that tend to follow an emotional eating episode. Approach your feelings with kindness, and your body will begin to understand that it no longer has to overeat to protect you from your feelings. Plus, through listening to your emotions, you’ll discover what it is you truly want, and can create new strategies for deeper satisfaction.” says Dryja (quoted above).
The willingness to feel strong emotion
If we have a lot of emotion, we would have to be willing to feel through that. An interviewee related his experience with emotional eating. He says “Sometimes I couldn’t (feel through the emotions) and I would just go and emotional eat. That’s why it took so long, because it’s hard, it’s really hard to just sit and feel all that emotion when there is an immediate solution on the other side.”
When we have a willingness (something which arises as part of raising one’s love quotient) to face negative/uncomfortable emotions, the need to stuff or avoid those emotions abates.
Love as a strategy to employ when we experience cravings
Having created greater awareness about the habit and then about which emotions trigger the urge to eat is invaluable as we move through the process of ending emotional eating. Common causes of emotional eating include: escaping or suppressing emotions, fatigue, boredom or feelings of emptiness, childhood habits, social influences and stress
When we experience the urge to reach for a chocolate bar, a tub of ice cream, cheese (my favorite) or a bag of chips, LQ gives us an alternative strategy to access in the moment.
When these emotions come up, we can take time, breathe, pause, feel the emotion and do some “I love you’s”. We could say “To the one who is feeling sad, I love you” or “To the one who is feeling rejected, I love you” and just sit in that emotion as long as we can.
Love can help us make healthier choices
As we practice self-love and raise our love quotients, we begin to feel more love and acceptance towards ourselves. The cycle of low self-esteem, followed by emotional eating, followed by guilt and self-loathing can finally be broken. Our relationship with food will be re-aligned to one where we can see food for its nutritious benefits, while still being able to derive enjoyment from it. The higher our LQ the less likely we will be to eat excessively, since it is not a kind and loving thing to do.
Love reduces stress
Stress has been identified as one of the biggest causes of emotional eating. “While stress is bad for the body, the ways people deal with it can be just as unhealthy.” says Time health writer Jamie Ducharme.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA) “Many adults report engaging in unhealthy eating behaviors as a result of stress.”
A 2013 study showed that:
- 38% of adults say they have overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month because of stress. Half of these adults (49%) report engaging in these behaviors weekly or more.
- 33% percent of adults who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress say they do so because it helps distract them from stress.
- 27% of adults say they eat to manage stress and 34% of those who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress say this behavior is a habit.
- After having overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods, half of adults (49%) report feeling disappointed in themselves, 46% report feeling bad about their bodies and more than one-third (36%) say they feel sluggish or lazy.
Self-love, self-care and kindness are great at helping us to reduce stress. When we are raising our love quotient, we have a greater awareness around taking care of ourselves. We make time to exercise, get enough sleep, and make better food choices, all of which help reduce stress. By reducing stress, our stress response i.e. the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol can be brought to within a normal range. This will significantly reduce cravings for calorie-dense, sugar-based foods.
Loving ourselves through the process
There will be times along the journey of gaining control over emotional eating where we will still give in to the urge. It is important not to judge ourselves for emotional eating because this would create another layer of negative emotion. It could add guilt, failure or self-loathing to the emotions that are already present and causing us to emotionally eat.
Here is another instance where love plays an important role. There could be times when we would be emotional eating and still loving ourselves through that experience. Instead of judging ourselves or being hard on ourselves for emotional eating we would acknowledge that this is something we are still working through and we would be kind to ourselves, through things like the ‘I love you’ practice or meditation.
It is great that there is more awareness today about emotional eating than there was in the past. We have the tools we need to recognize the pattern within ourselves, however many of us even after identifying the problem, have tried to break the habit for many years without success. We now know that love is the missing link or the “x-factor” as Doc Childre calls it. By raising our love quotients and inviting in more, love, kindness and compassion, we finally have the means to feel through uncomfortable emotions, releasing them and freeing ourselves from the grip of emotional eating.