Should Emotional Eating Be Your Focus? | TMOHP Episode 051

True story: it’s possible that emotional eating isn’t the thing you should be trying to change - even if emotional eating is the reason you’re overeating. I know that statement might sound awfully wrong, but stay with me.

It’s not unusual for me to hear from women in the following situations:

  1. They just read or listened to something and made the connection that they are an emotional eater. It makes sense, but it doesn’t feel all that helpful because they don’t know what to do about it.
  2. Someone says she’s struggled with emotional eating forever. Nothing seems to work, she’s burnt out on trying, and feels like she’ll be fighting this fight with food for the rest of her life.
  3. Someone identifies that they eat to stuff emotions but they just aren’t able to implement any of the strategies that might help. And of course, they're probably now feeling frustrated with themselves for not being able to “make things work” which causes more overeating much of the time.
  4. Or finally, someone reaches out to me for help with emotional eating. They had found some strategies that seemed to be working for them but, like everything else they've tried, these things worked for a while but didn’t last.

Today I want to address something very important - and that’s how to determine whether or not you should be focusing on emotional eating and whether this approach is going to work for you.

In this episode:

  • Why you can be an emotional eater but focusing on it might not be your best approach
  • How focusing on emotional eating might just lead to more overeating instead of less
  • The power of the Hidden Hungers Quiz and why I recommend you take it sooner rather than later
  • The effectiveness of small, strategic steps

Featured on the show:

  • Start targeting the real, underlying reason you overeat. Take The Hidden Hungers Quiz
  • Your Missing Peace  is my 16-week program for women ready to stop overeating and emotional eating for good. Enrollment is open and NOW is the perfect time to join us! Go here to learn more
  • Private Coaching. One-on-one coaching is for you if you’re looking for something that’s completely individualized and specific to your situation. Openings are limited. Learn more here.

Episode Transcript

You know, those Russian nesting dolls, those wooden dolls, I think they're called Matryoshka dolls. They're the wooden hollow dolls that you open one up and then there's a smaller one inside. And then you open that one up and then there's another and another, I feel like this episode is kind of like a set of those Matryoshka dolls.

Now, here's what motivated me to record this today. It is not unusual for me to hear from women in the following situations. Situation "A" they just read or they listened to something, maybe this podcast and they made the connection that they are an emotional eater and they've made this connection. It makes sense, but it doesn't feel all that helpful because they don't know what to do about it.

That's one situation, then there's situation "B", where I hear from someone who says that she struggled with emotional eating forever, as long as she can remember, and nothing seems to work and she's burnt out on trying, and she feels like she's going to be fighting this fight with food forever. And that just seems inevitable. So that situation "B". 

And then there's situation "C", which is somebody identifies that they are eating to stuff emotions, indeed, but they just aren't able to implement any of the strategies that might help. They have read about it. They have done their research. They have worked with people. They just can't implement.

And of course, they're probably now feeling frustrated with themselves because they haven't been able to "make things work," which then causes more frustration and more self blame and sometimes more overeating. 

And then the final scenario that motivated this episode is one where somebody reaches out to me for help. They have been working with strategies that seemed to be working for them. They found some things that seemed to be working for them, but then like everything else they've tried, it seems like the things they were doing worked for a while, but they just didn't last and they are frustrated and they're again, looking for something new. 

Today I want to address something very important, and that is how to determine whether or not you should be focusing on emotional eating and focusing on addressing your emotional eating, and whether this approach is actually going to work for you. And if you're having a strong reaction right now, or if you're thinking this is in opposition to so many things I've talked about, don't worry. I think if you stick with me, this will make sense. 

Let's talk about whether you should focus on emotional eating. If this isn't the first episode of this podcast that you've listened to, then you have almost certainly heard me say that there is a reason you overeat. Always. And if the reason you're eating, isn't a need for fuel, it is a need or a desire or a craving or an attempt to get something else.

This is always true. We turn to food for a reason, even if you're not necessarily fond of that reason, even if you wish you were choosing a different habit, or if you aren't too pleased with the results that it brings you, there is always a reason. And this is that first Russian Matryoshka doll- the reason. It's not uncommon to be curious about why you're eating when you aren't hungry and discover that you're eating in response to a feeling you're eating to avoid it, or to push it down or to try to change it or to feel better in that moment. It is not uncommon to get curious about the reason you're overeating and discover that that reason you're eating is emotions. That you are emotionally eating. 

So this isn't uncommon and this is where your intention to be smart and to create a new, better relationship with food can go sideways or can get you off track. This is what I want to talk about in this episode. 

You've learned, you know, that there are reasons that you eat and that the smart way to cure those cravings and to lose those habits is to address the reason itself, right? To address the reason to get to the root of your overeating. And it is true. It's true that if you can tackle the reason that food has its power, then food loses that power and then you don't have a craving or an urge that you need to fight with anymore.

It is really brilliant. So how come so many people end up knowing that they are emotional eaters, but they still feel stuck with that habit? Why is it that knowing that emotional eating is an issue for you or emotional eating is the root of what's going on; why is it that, that doesn't put you on a path to getting your power back from food?

The reason is because there's more to it. There is a reason that you eat always. And just like when you open up that Matryoshka doll, you find another one. There is a reason that you emotionally eat. If emotional eating is happening for you. There's a reason for that. Now sometimes emotional eating shows up in- let's call it its purest form. So say you're overeating because you're angry. You're somebody who eats her anger because anger makes you incredibly uncomfortable. Maybe you feel guilty when you feel angry or you've been taught that it's not acceptable for women to get angry. Maybe you feel paralyzed and stuck and overwhelmed and you don't know what to do.

So anger comes up and you eat to numb. You eat to push down your anger. This is an example of emotional eating. And in this case, this example that I'm describing, you're going to get a lot of mileage about learning ways to cope with these feelings of anger or by learning how to express anger or learning, how to feel more comfortable and accepting of anger as a human normal emotion.

And in this situation, as you do these things, as you figure out which of these things are helpful to you, you're going to feel less compelled to turn to food, to push away feelings. You're going to use these strategies and anger's going to feel maybe not completely comfortable, but it's going to be a more comfortable emotion. And then as that feeling becomes less threatening and feels more acceptable. And as you're learning about what you need, and you are accumulating more resources for coping with the angry feelings. As those things happen in this situation, you're going to feel more powerful and more in control and safer. And the food and that urge to overeat when anger comes up is going to feel so much less powerful and so much, the struggle around feeling angry and wanting to eat is going to be incredibly lessened.

That's what happens when emotional eating is emotional eating in its purest form, and you deal with it by learning more about strategies for tough emotions. Okay. But let's try another example. Let's say that you are somebody who is swamped at work. You're having a tough time at work. You've been working long hours. You've been trying to complete a project that feels impossible to complete it's an impossible project. Then, because you've been so busy at work, some of your other habits, like maybe the walk that you take in the morning to clear your head every day, those habits have fallen off your radar. You've been working late nights. You've been eating poorly and now your boss who can be completely insensitive, has unfairly criticized you. Okay. And so now you go home or you get off your virtual meeting or whatever the situation is, and you just tear into a pan of brownies because you are just so pissed. 

And you know, what makes you even more frustrated? It's that, you know, you're an emotional eater. You know that you avoid conflict and that you're eating to stuff down your anger. And, you know this isn't helping eating these brownies in this example. But you're also tired and you're stressed and you're overly hungry. And in this moment you just don't care enough about any strategy or approach because you don't feel like you have any extra bandwidth to deal with anything.

So you eat the brownies way, too many brownies for your own physical comfort. And then later you berate yourself and you blame yourself for not doing the right things to take care of yourself. And maybe you also start cycling through thoughts like "this isn't going to work" and feeling like maybe you're just addicted to food and that you just need to be tougher on yourself and you start that whole mental cycle. Does any of this example sound familiar to you? 

Emotional eating doesn't always show up in its purest form as strictly emotional eating. More often than not there are other things at play. There are hidden hungers at play. Reasons that emotional eating is particularly seductive in this particular moment. And just like what happens if you try to address overeating by focusing on what to eat instead of attending to the why, why you're overeating and spoiler alert that doesn't work. If you try to address emotional eating in a vacuum and you ignore what's going on that is making emotional eating so inevitable in this moment. You're not likely to be successful. And, if you combine this with diet mentality, right? That way of thinking that tells you that all overeating and all failures to change your eating are your fault. Then you also get into a cycle of overeating with a big dollop of guilt and self blame on top of that, which is hardly a recipe for future confidence and future success.

So let's revisit hidden hungers. Hidden hungers, lead to eating when you aren't hungry. They lead to eating to cope. Now hidden hungers, which is a term that I created, but I think it's pretty, self-evident what it means. Hidden hungers spring from things like exhaustion, like stress, being too busy, not getting enough self care and me time.

Hidden hungers spring from being really hard on yourself or having expectations for yourself that just aren't reasonably attainable. I mean, think about it when you're exhausted, when you're stressed, when you're too busy, when you aren't getting what you need, when you are coming down really hard on yourself. These things lead to hidden hungers, which are reasons that food and overeating can become so powerful. And the hidden hungers that I'm talking about here are particular, hidden hungers that are so common in the lives of smart, busy women. But when you have these things going on in the background, food and the temptation to reach for something to eat, to blot those things down, or to temporarily take care of those things, you know, like a band aid that becomes so tempting.

Here's the other thing about these hidden hungers, they can get all tangled up because one tends to lead to another. When you are stressed and when you are too busy, then it's easy to get exhausted. And also once you start seeing the hidden hungers in your own life, your first response is likely to see the others and to see how they stack up one on top of the other. Kind of like a row of dominoes, right? It's like this chain reaction. And so it is really common for your first response to be feeling overloaded or overwhelmed, like learning about hidden hungers is just one more thing. And that can contribute to the cycle of overeating. Right? And I'm mentioning this because if that cycle is happening for you right now, I want you to know that it is human and normal and not insurmountable. It's actually exactly why I created the free hidden hungers quiz, which is on my website. 

The thing is when you have hidden hungers going on, adding one more thing to the mix is very likely going to feel like overload or overwhelm. And it, it's not going to be something that you're going to deal with in the same way that you would, if you didn't have the hidden hungers going on.

So learning, oh my goodness. There are all these things called hidden hungers that you should address, which would be helpful to address. Doesn't necessarily feel helpful. It can feel overwhelming. Learning that you have emotional eating happening when you are stressed and you are busy and you are already feeling like you're not getting what you need. Doesn't necessarily feel like helpful or useful information or information that you can apply when it gets thrown into the middle of a mix of hidden hungers. And it can all lead to more of this whole cycle of hidden hungers and overwhelm and stress and overeating. 

So, can you see why in the midst of a situation like this, having the awareness that what you're doing is emotional eating isn't necessarily helpful? Or it is not necessarily the most helpful thing. And having the awareness in the middle of a busy, stressful, overwhelming, exhausted day, where you're already too hungry and you haven't got what you needed, or some combination of those things. Having the awareness that what you're doing is emotional eating isn't necessarily going to lead you to the most helpful next step. 

Again, this is why I created the hidden hungers quiz, because it's not helpful to find out that you've got one more thing going on. Oh, by the way, you have emotional eating going on in the midst of all this other stuff. And it's also not necessarily helpful to be told that you have this whole tangle of other stuff going on.

The quiz is meant to help you identify where to start. What is the primary hidden hunger that is going on for you? It may not be the one that you have the most of it may not be the one that you are most aware of, but it is the one that if you start to take small doable steps to address. It's the place where you're going to get the biggest bang for your buck. It is the place where you can start most easily untangling the tangle of what is going on. You can start unlayering these Russian dolls, these Matryoshka dolls that are leading to your overeating. 

So taking the free quiz is my top recommendation from this podcast episode. And I will put the link in the show notes. Just to review, here's why. Peace with food, peace, with food and freedom, freedom from overeating. These things mean that you address overeating from the roots, because that is how you heal your relationship with food. Jumping into the middle of a tangle, and then trying to find non-existent bandwidth non-existent time and energy. Energy that you just don't have to address emotional eating if you're tired or you're stressed or you're short on time already, or if you're already feeling put upon. Jumping into the middle of this and trying to find energy that you don't have to address emotional eating. It's likely to only increase the tangled up mess. 

So to go back to some of those examples that I shared in the beginning of feeling like knowing that you're an emotional eater and nothing works, or you get strategies that seem to be helpful to you, but they don't really last, or you get the awareness that you're an emotional eater, but you look at your life and you say, well, what else am I supposed to do? I don't have other options. This is why some of these situations arise, because there are definitely situations where focusing on the emotional eating first or as your next step, really isn't the helpful thing to do. You're going to be more successful if you get strategic. And if you attend to what's going on behind the scenes. The reason for eating, but also the reason for the emotional eating, you're going to be more successful and it's going to feel a lot better if you strategically tackle the dominant, hidden hunger. 

And I'm talking about the dominant, hidden hunger. One hidden hunger, because it is not helpful in this situation to try to tackle them all at once, which is probably what your brain is going to try to insist is necessary because that is how human thinking, how our human thought patterns go. So you see all these hidden hungers and you're likely to think, well, I have to fix them all. But guess what? When you are in the midst of a cycle like this, and you see a whole bunch of things that feel like they need to be changed. This just causes more stress and exhaustion and overwhelm and busyness if you start tackling all these things. Which leads to more of a hidden hunger cycle, which leads to more overeating. 

So take the hidden hungers quiz, or if you already know what your dominant, hidden hunger is. Even if you think you have two or three or four, pick the one. Because if you take a doable step, a step that allows you to truly increase your capacity to pay attention to yourself, something like resting or extending yourself some compassion. These are doable steps, taking a break. When you take a doable step that allows you to truly increase your own internal resources. Sometimes that emotional eating is going to take care of itself without focusing on the emotion at all. And even in situations where that doesn't happen, when you address the underlying hidden hungers strategically. And remember you start with one. When you respond to the reason that emotional eating has you by the throat, even when you just start with a small, doable step. That emotional eating becomes a whole lot easier to tackle. 

Just remember, there is always a reason and don't forget to look for it. And if you haven't taken that quiz in a while, it is probably time. It takes just a few minutes. It's just a few true false questions. You can find it in the show notes, or you can go to There's a reason you eat. There's a reason you emotionally eat. You don't have to tackle it all at once and it can be easier. 

I'll talk to you soon.

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Your Missing Peace is the psychologist-designed program that provides the tools, the support, the coaching, and the confidence to create freedom from emotional eating and overeating. Finally - emotional eating help done right! Your Missing Peace is specifically designed for smart, high-achieving women who are DONE with diets, who want a lasting solution, and who are ready to take their power back from food, from overeating, and the scale. 

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