What is Emotional Overeating?
April is Emotional Overeating Awareness Month and to commemorate it, I’ll be sharing a series of blog posts about emotional eating, what it is, how to be aware, and why awareness about emotional overeating is absolutely crucial for weight loss success and peace with food.
Emotional overeating is a huge topic—one that deserves far more attention than it typically gets. Overeating is itself a complex topic, with multiple causes, but a major cause of overeating, weight gain, and weight regain is emotional eating—using food as a way of attempting to cope with or control feelings. Here’s the rub—if emotional overeating isn’t addressed, if you don’t get to the root of what drives your overeating and find other strategies for addressing these issues, the overeating either returns, or gets replaced by something else that doesn’t really work and is often problematic.
Let’s start by getting clear on what emotional overeating really is.
Emotional eating is when we use food as a way of coping with feelings. Just about everybody is an emotional eater sometimes. Emotional eating becomes a problem when it is making you unhappy, getting in the way of your life, your health goals, or your ability to be at your best. Emotional eating is not a reason to blame yourself, it’s a signal that you need to look beyond food to understand what is driving your eating and to identify emotional eating tools and strategies that can really address these issues.
If you are an emotional eater, you might eat to try to take care of yourself when you have a negative emotion. An example would be drowning your sorrows over a breakup in a pint of ice cream. It might feel soothing and like comfort or a “treat,” at least for awhile.
Emotional eating can be eating as an outlet for a strong emotion. A client summed this up when she said, “I don’t like conflict with other people. I tend to avoid it. So when I get angry, I eat at people.” She likes crunchy or chewy foods. Her eating in those situations carries the message, “I’ll show them.” When she overeats in this way, she knows she is angry and she channels it into eating. The problem, of course, is that she’s the one who suffers and the anger eventually reemerges.
Another type of emotional eating is eating to go numb or to bury feelings. Another client in our emotional eating program says that she too is uncomfortable with anger and conflict, “. . . so I try to make it go away.” She uses emotional overeating to stuff feelings.” I go through the drive-thru on my way home from work and then I zone out and eat. Sometimes I don’t even taste it, but it calms me down. . . until I realize what I’ve done and get mad at myself for screwing up again.”
Emotional eating can happen in positive situations too. We live in a society that teaches us to turn to food in just about every situation. We associate food with all sorts of feelings and many people haven’t developed a lot of strategies or tools that they can use that aren’t food.
Many busy women try to use food as a form of self-care or comfort. If you’ve had a difficult day, if you are worn out and short on time, if you don’t feel comfortable prioritizing your own needs or saying no to the requests of others, food can be a convenient way to sneak in “something nice for yourself.” It can be cheap, it’s just about everywhere, and you can eat while you are doing the twenty other things on your to-do list. The problem? Eating on the fly or while multitasking is not really indulging, the eating is often mindless and unrewarding, and comfort eating or reward eating tends to leave you feeling unsatisfied and frustrated with yourself.
If you are an emotional eater, it’s important to take the time to identify your emotional eating triggers, whether they are feelings, situations, or even certain people or relationships. By getting to the root of your overeating, you can start learning how to respond with tools and strategies that are more effective. This can make a tremendous difference in your relationship with food, your desire to overeat, and, yes, the number on the scale.
In the next posts in this series, I’m going to share several things that every overeater needs to know about emotional eating and three essential keys to taking charge of emotional overeating and ending struggles with food.
Take good care,