How to Stop Emotional Eating
On the couch, comfy sweats,
glass bottle of wine, and cheese: some sort of cheese, in any form, preferably multiple forms. Lots and lots of cheese.
This was where you could find me many nights, but particularly after a stressful week of work at a job I hated, yet another crappy date, or seeing a horrible photo from a friend’s wedding on Facebook.
As much as I hated myself for gorging on gluten-free mac and cheese (healthier, obviously) to comfort myself, it also provided a strange solace of some sort. Like no matter how tough a day it was, I had my couch and my cheese.
Of course, the comfort part never actually lasted. I’d wake up the next day in a fog of guilt and shame (with a killer hangover), beating myself up for binging again and vowing I’d get back on track, and learn how to stop emotional eating once and for all. And yet, a hopeless part of me knew deep down that I’d inevitably do it again in a matter of days.
What I didn’t realize at the time was the underlying cause of my “emotional eating,” and what was actually happening that triggered this uncontrollable binging every time I had a shitty day.
If you identify as an emotional eater, you’ve come to the right place. Because this is a really painful cycle to be in, and if you’re reading this I’m guessing you don’t want to live this way, eating in a way that physically and emotionally makes you feel awful on the reg. You’re not alone: Dana and I both used to identify as emotional eaters, and many of our clients do when they join our coaching program as well.
In this post we’ll be covering what actually qualifies as emotional eating, what causes it (it’s not just, well, your emotions), and how to stop emotional eating, if it’s something that you struggle with.
What is Emotional Eating?
There’s a whole lotta emotion wrapped up in food. As Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, the authors (and OGs) of Intuitive Eating write, “Eating can be one of the most emotionally laden experiences that we have in our lives.”
Think about it: most holidays or special occasions are celebrated with food. Most victories, promotions or jobs-well-done are rewarded with food. Most missed opportunities, scraped knees, or sad moments are comforted with food.
Food is present and celebrated in almost all emotionally-charged situations, and yet people are always trying to learn how to stop emotional eating. Kinda confusing when you actually think about it, right?
To be clear, emotional eating is not something we wanna avoid or disqualify if it’s causing any pain. But we do want to fully understand the complexities of it, because there are many misconceptions when it comes to this topic.
See the problem here may not actually be that you’re an emotional eater.
The real problem could be something else entirely, which I intend to help you identify and begin solving today.
But before we go on I want you to know, and I can’t stress this enough, there’s nothing wrong with you. You my friend, are not broken. Promise.
What Causes Emotional Eating?
There are three key things to know about emotional eating if you want to overcome this challenge:
- Emotional eating isn’t inherently a bad thing.
It’s important to note that regardless of what might be causing your emotional eating, it’s not actually a negative behavior. In fact, it’s fairly benign as coping tools go, when you could be turning to far more harmful vices. But we live in a fat-phobic culture, in which overeating in any form has been labeled as problematic because it could lead to weight gain. So the main fear around emotional eating, uncontrollable binging in particular, is actually a fear of weight gain. That’s what leads to the intense shame and guilt after an episode of emotional eating: the idea that if we can’t get our eating under control we’re gonna gain a ton of weight, which means everyone will judge us, which means we’ll be miserable and alone for the rest of our lives.
- Emotional eating is often an inevitable result of restriction or deprivation.
If you’re not regularly eating enough, chances are high that you are simply biologically hungry. And if you’re hungry, your body is going to take advantage of any opportunity when food is available to go all out. So the first thing I’d ask, if you identify as an emotional eater, is are you restricting food in any way, and are you eating enough? If not, the emotional eating might feel mindless or out of control, because biology takes over in those trigger moments. And your “willpower” is simply no match for primal hunger. This is why the first key feature of Intuitive Eating is allowing unconditional permission to eat, because as long as you’re restricting food, your body is always going to be in a perceived state of starvation, which leads to binging. And it’s the binging that is truly the most painful, confusing and disturbing behavior here, not the “emotional eating.” It’s also the most freeing feeling when it goes away.
- Emotional eating is sometimes a sign that you have some unmet needs, that you may or may not be aware of.
If you regularly find yourself emotionally eating, chances are you might not be eating enough in general. But if you are eating enough, and still find yourself coping with food,you’ve probably got some unfulfilled needs that you don’t have any other coping mechanisms for aside from eating. Emotional triggers from stress or sadness to boredom or excitement are all fair game. And coping can look like using food for comfort, distraction, numbing out or punishment. Perhaps you’re not in the habit of even identifying your feelings (because let’s face it, some of ‘em can be uncomfortable to sit with). Using food to cope with your emotions is especially common for chronic dieters, because it can be used as an excuse to eat when you’re not usually “allowed” to.
So, any of these typical causes for emotional eating ring a bell for you? Maybe one stands out, or maybe all three resonate. That was the case for me. Identifying the underlying cause is important, because once that’s clear you can begin to work through the steps of stopping the behavior and having a pleasant, peaceful relationship with food. Being one of those people who can just eat when she’s hungry and stop when she’s full, without housing cheese and crackers all night because your boss gave you a shitty performance review or your Mom asked for the 27,000th time if she can expect to see any grandchildren in her lifetime.
How to Stop Emotional Eating
Now that you have an inkling as to why you may be emotionally eating, let’s explore the ‘how’ of how to stop emotional eating, shall we?
The goal here is twofold: one, to replace any guilt or shame you feel around food with self-compassion, so you can address the underlying issues. And two, to find useful ways to resolve those issues without using food, since food won’t ever actually fix things in the long run. Short term comfort, yes. But ideally you want to develop some coping mechanisms that actually support your needs and process your feelings, especially if you’re regularly feeling sick from overeating on top of the unresolved emotion.
Whether your emotional eating is just some grazing because you’re bored, or full-on binging in a fit of rage, there are three key steps in the process of how to stop emotional eating.
1. Ask: am I physically hungry?
Most chronic dieters skip over this question, because they’ll do just about anything to ignore or numb any sign of hunger. This is why you might make it through a whole day being “good” and sticking to the plan perfectly, then go on to finish an entire cheese pizza after just one slice come dinner time.
If you are in fact biologically hungry, the next step here is to eat.
Now, if this is challenging because you either aren’t sure how to recognize when you’re hungry, or cannot fathom going off your diet and eating outside your normal food rules, it may mean you’re not an Intuitive Eater (which, is totally fine because it’s people like you that we help around here! Hi hello welcome). If you’re in that boat you’re not alone.
You must stop trying to silence what your body is telling you and step out of diet culture with all the rules and guidelines telling you how to eat if you want to stop feeling this crazy, out of control, emotional hold that food has over you. The binging, the obsessive thinking and the emotional eating goes away when you work through the process of Intuitive Eating, which is exactly what we guide our clients through.
2. Ask: what is it that I’m actually feeling?
Ok, so if you’re not actually hungry for food, but find yourself reaching for food (or more than you actually wanted) the next step here is to ask yourself if you can identify the emotion that’s coming up. Is there a feeling behind my desire to eat, be it stress, frustration, sadness, boredom, excitement, love, etc. Or maybe it’s hard to articulate the exact feeling, and more of a need to feel something, a need to get grounded, to feel nourished, or to numb out.
If you’re having trouble identifying the feeling, it may be helpful to journal it out (ugh, I know, but just try it), or call someone you know is a good listener to voice it out loud. Even just sitting with whatever you’re feeling and acknowledging it as a valid feeling can help, even if it’s uncomfortable. That quiet, uncomfortable pause is a wonderful way to determine what it is that you actually need in this moment.
3. Ask: what is it that I actually need?
Which brings me to our final step of how to stop emotional eating, which is to ask what it is that you actually need, once you’ve determined that it’s not food in this moment.
We spoke about this on the pod with Jamie Mendell, who used to have a thing for ice cream. She detailed a situation after a painful breakup, where instead of opting for short term comfort/numbing out in the form of a pint from the bodega, she actually sat with her feelings. As she described it, “Realizing in that moment that I can handle hard feelings, and that it actually feels like I’m really living when I do that, was really empowering for me.” Even though it was uncomfortable, actually letting herself feel her feelings was the best thing she could have done, because she also realized what she really needed was connection, friendship, and fun. Nothing wrong with dipping into some ice cream, but it wasn’t what she actually needed, and it wouldn’t have actually resolved the underlying sadness she felt. In fact she probably would have ended up beating herself up for emotional eating again, on top of the pain of the breakup.
This is not always an easy thing to do. Sometimes it may be a sign flashing in neon lights and you know exactly what you need. That can be the strange gift in emotional eating, if you wanna call it that: this might be a pivotal moment in addressing something that feels off and is causing you a lot of angst. It might be hard to pinpoint what you need, or hard to make happen. That’s a whole ‘nother convo, but some really common unmet needs, at least what we notice among our clients are:
- Rest or slowing down
- Joy, pleasure or fun
- Community or connection
- Being heard or respected
- Body acceptance
- Creativity or intellectual stimulation
- Career fulfillment
- Spiritual fulfillment
These are just a few and it looks different for everyone, but they’re often discounted needs we see come up time and time again.
Once you’ve identified what you actually need, it’s time to take action on it! Again, not simple but often much simpler than we make it. 🙂
Let’s look at the needs above for example. Some antidotes might be:
- Rest or slowing down → lay down or clear your calendar (and maybe check your boundaries)
- Joy, pleasure or fun → do something new just for the fun of it with zero expectations or outcome, or act on what you know brings you joy/pleasure (cooking works well for me)
- Community or connection → call a friend or join a group of supportive, like-minded people
- Being heard or respected → have a needed conversation if possible, or find an outlet for expressing frustration (going for a walk always helps me, or a good cry tbh)
- Body acceptance → write your beliefs out and dig into what’s causing you to feel inadequate
- Creativity or intellectual stimulation → pick up a new hobby, listen to a podcast, or read a great book
- Career fulfillment → think about where you’re feeling resistance in your career and what you’d either seek in a new job or without your current position (bonus points: spend small amounts of time each day working toward your dream. I love this video from Mel Robbins)
- Spiritual fulfillment → consider meditation, or one of the many spiritual books out there to help you feel more connected to the world and deepen into a personal practice
Some Conflicting Feelings to Look Out For
Now that you’re on the path to working through your needs and honoring them, there are a couple things to look out for:
- The more food becomes less of a crutch for you in numbing out or avoiding emotions, the more you might, you know, feel your feelings.
- You might feel those feelings a little stronger than you previously did. That can be less than fun, and if you find yourself in that place, it can be useful to seek out support.
How to Stop Emotional Eating in 3 Steps
To summarize, here are the three key steps to work through in those moments you find yourself on the couch with a bottle of wine and enough cheese to feed the French army:
- Ask yourself: am I hungry?
- Ask yourself: what am I actually feeling?
- Ask yourself: what do I need right now?
If you’re struggling with these steps, know that you’re not alone and know that help is available! We’ve all been there around these parts, so we know what you’re going through. My suggestions would be to set up a free breakthrough call with one of our coaches today – we can help you get to the root of your emotional eating and any other behavior around food that you want to shift. Or, we have an awesome free class that you can tune into here, to learn the 5-step strategy our clients use to break the diet-binge cycle, put an end to emotional eating, and finally stop obsessing about food all day (without needing meal plans or willpower). It’s a game-changer!