What is the Root of Emotional Eating?

emotional eating

Everyone has their comfort object. For some it’s a childhood stuffed animal or blanket; for others it’s an essential oil diffuser or white-noise machine, a favorite book or meaningful piece of jewelry. But for many people, the thing that they turn to in times of stress, anxiety, or sadness is food.

Emotional eating — also known as compulsive eating or overeating — is not uncommon. Thirty-eight percent of adults surveyed by the American Psychological Association reported that they had overeaten at least once in a given month due to stress, and nearly half reported that these behaviors happen at least once a week. Much like drugs or alcohol, food can become an addiction.

When we find ourselves emotionally eating, it’s a destructive catch-22: sometimes we may be overeating because we can’t find control in other areas of our lives, but when we overeat we feel out of control because of the eating. Let’s explore why we start, and where it comes from.

Emotional Eating Is Different From Binge Eating

First, let’s start with an important distinction that often results in confusion. Binge eating, or binge eating disorder, often gets conflated with emotional eating or other kinds of compulsive eating. The criteria for binge eating includes eating until you are uncomfortably full and also experience a loss of control around your ability to eat (meaning you feel like you can’t stop yourself from doing it).

There is some overlap between binge eating and emotional eating — binge eating is often propelled by unconscious emotions — but emotional eating doesn’t have to involve a loss of control or eating until uncomfortably full. In the case of emotional eating, the emotion — whether sadness, loneliness, or unhappiness — is often felt at the forefront of the behavior.

Why Is Food So Comforting?

Our bodies are programmed to eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full, but for emotional eaters, the programming gets overwritten by a different code that tells them to eat when they’re not hungry (and, sometimes, when they’re already full). This can lead to physical health complications like dangerous spikes in blood sugar, high blood pressure, and increased risk of heart disease and diabetes, not to mention emotional harm like guilt or shame. The problem is that the impulse to keep eating once you’re full, can feel compulsive in the same way that smokers reach for a cigarette or exercise addicts turn to the gym. Dr. Michael Mantell, a clinical psychologist based in California, told Greatist that, like any other compulsion, the reasons why people overeat are simply “ways of dealing with negative emotions that are not rational or healthy.”

This can be filling a void due to the loss of a job or a loved one, or trying to replace one kind of pain (for example, anxiety or depression, which is correlated with emotional eating) with a different kind of pain (fullness). Food can also have positive emotional associations with pleasant memories: maybe eating a candy bar reminds you of crisp, autumn nights trick-or-treating with your siblings. Maybe ice cream reminds you of the time your mom took care of you when you had your tonsils removed. Whatever memories food summons is what draws us to it, even when we know that it might not be the healthiest coping mechanism out there.

4 Ways to Avoid Emotional Eating

Many people who are drawn to eating for comfort may feel that they need to give their hands or mouth something to do if they want to refrain from turning to chips or popcorn or cookies. Fortunately, there are many ways we can occupy our minds — and hands and mouths — when the urge to eat compulsively strikes.

  1. The first thing that you want to do is to check in with yourself when you feel compelled to munch. Ask yourself if you’re actually hungry right now, or if you’re eating for a different reason. If it’s the latter, ask yourself if you’re feeling okay. Are you sad? Lonely? Angry? Anxious? It may be the emotion that’s really hungry, and not your stomach.
  2. Second, try to remove the temptation, either by physically taking yourself away from the food that beckons or by removing the food from immediate reach. If you know that you tend to overeat ice cream when you’re sad, limit the amount of ice cream in your freezer. It doesn’t mean you have to stop buying ice cream altogether; start by buying it less often or, if necessary, buy smaller quantities so you’re not able to consume as much as you normally would.
  3. Third, busy yourself with something else. Grab a notepad and start journaling. Take a walk or spend 10-15 minutes doing some yoga or meditating. Call or text a friend — anything that will distract you from your comfort object, food.
  4. Finally, it may help to find a therapist you click with, who can help you explore your feelings. If you carefully examine the feelings that drive you to eat, you’ll feel better in more ways than one.

And if you’re ready to start exploring these emotions, get matched with an online therapist today.

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