When Overeating is Driven by Emotional Hunger
Story: Julie M. Simon
We all enjoy eating and, on occasion, will eat when not hungry or overeat just because the food is incredibly tasty or because it enhances our personal or social experiences. An afternoon out with a good friend is certainly more enjoyable with coffee and a pastry. And what would a good movie be without a bag of popcorn? There’s nothing wrong with occasionally using food to enhance enjoyment and celebrate life. The problem arises when we use food in this way so often that we are overweight or our health is at risk.
If you regularly eat when you’re not hungry, overeat at meals, or choose to eat unhealthy comfort foods more often than you’d prefer, there’s a chance your eating has an emotional component to it. A craving, or an exaggerated desire to eat in the absence of true physiological hunger cues represents an emotional appetite. And emotional hunger often feels the same as physical hunger.
Many emotional eaters believe their eating challenges are the result of factors outside their control.
“There’s no time to eat healthy and exercise while working full-time and raising a family.”
“There’s constantly food around at my job, and most of it is processed and high in fat; it’s just too tempting.”
“Socially, we eat out regularly in restaurants, and it’s nearly impossible to eat healthfully without offending others.”
“I’m a foodie—I love food and eating.”
While these factors are reasonable and may play a part in your overeating, they do not represent the true cause of your inability to regulate your intake. Emotional eating highlights a difficulty in connecting to yourself; in paying attention to your mind, body, and spirit signals; and in responding appropriately to meet your needs. It’s a sign that you’re lacking self-care skills that are generally learned in childhood.
No doubt, your emotional eating has helped you cope daily with emotional states like anxiety and depression, general stress and self-defeating thoughts. But it isn’t a very effective long-term strategy for meeting your needs and desires. Not only does it lead to poor health and weight gain, but it also can never be a substitute for learned skills. And you won’t learn more effective self-care skills by going on another diet!
Focusing on external solutions, such as the latest diet or exercise regimen, is like trying to solve the problem of a stalled train by giving it a new coat of paint and polishing its wheels. No matter how much paint or polish we apply, the train will remain stuck. We need to access the engine that drives the train and accurately diagnose the problem. It’s our inner world of emotions, sensations, needs and thoughts that drive our behavior. In order to understand and resolve the behavior of emotional eating, we have to tune in to and explore our inner world.
You can address your emotional eating by establishing a regular practice of checking in with yourself. When you want to grab food, try this three-step process first:
STEPS TO ADDRESS YOUR EMOTIONAL EATING
Step 1: Ask yourself “What am I feeling in this moment?”
Perhaps you just had an argument with your spouse and now all you can think about is ice cream. Pull away from the kitchen and grab pen and paper. Sit upright and ground yourself—feel your rear in the seat and your feet planted firmly on the floor. Jot down what you’re feeling. Feelings include both emotions and bodily sensations. Research shows the act of writing down your feelings helps regulate your nervous system and interrupt wayward behaviors.
You write that you’re feeling angry, frustrated, hurt, drained, lonely, and sad. You notice your head hurts, your shoulders are tense, and your stomach is in a knot. Ask the noisy, thought-generating part of your brain to be quiet for a moment. Notice your breathing. Breathe in relaxation; breath out tension. Try placing one hand on your heart and one hand on an area of tension. You’re beginning to calm down.
Step 2: Ask yourself “What do I need in this situation?”
See if you can identify a need that you can meet yourself, rather than one that involves someone else changing. For example, rather than writing that you need your husband John to be less reactive, you might write that you need peace and harmony in your relationship. Maybe you need hope things can improve.
It may take some flexibility and creativity to meet your needs. It’s often easier to meet physical needs than emotional needs. The more you let go of rigid expectations, the more you’ll open yourself up to finding a satisfying solution.
Step 3: Ask yourself “what’s the truth?”
Access an inner supportive voice—the mature, wise, kind, and loving part of you—and reassure yourself that your feelings are valid and your needs can be met.
Using this voice, jot down a few validating, hopeful statements, such as: “It makes sense to feel hurt and angry when John yells at you. The truth is, you both prefer peace and harmony. Let’s revisit this discussion on the weekend when we’re both more relaxed.”
The moment the urge to use food is strong is an opportunity to practice and build new self-care skills. Every time you practice these skills, you’re “wiring-in” new neural patterns, making it easier to calm yourself and set limits with yourself. You’ve been looking outside yourself for the loving-kindness and nurturance you crave; you’re beginning to discover that your true source lies within.
As an emotional eater, you may use food:
- To dull or tranquilize emotions that are difficult to cope with, such as anxiety, anger, sadness, frustration, hopelessness, loneliness, shame, guilt, and even happiness and joy
- To calm yourself when you are experiencing unpleasant bodily sensations such as nervousness, agitation, or muscle tension
- To soothe and comfort yourself
- For pleasure, escape, fulfillment, and excitement
- To handle stress
- To silence negative, critical, self-defeating thoughts and quiet your mind
- To manage feeling overwhelmed
- To distract yourself from low-motivation states like boredom, lethargy, and apathy
- To procrastinate
- Because your life lacks purpose, meaning, passion, and inspiration
- Because you feel so much regret regarding your life
- Because you feel deprived in life and want to have no limits
- To try to fill up an inner emptiness
- To reward or punish yourself
- To rebel against someone or something
- To ward off sexual attention
- To feel safe
About the writer →Julie M. Simon, MA, MBA, LMFT, is the author of “When Food Is Comfort” and “The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual.” She founded the popular Los Angeles–based and online 12-week Emotional Eating Recovery Program and offers workshops at venues like Whole Foods and UCLA. She lives in Los Angeles and you can visit her online at overeatingrecovery.com.