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How to End Emotional Eating

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

I just finished reading an article giving advice on how to tame emotional eating. ("Tame the Emotional Eating Beast for Good: 3 Ways to Get Back on Track" by Dean Anderson. www.sparkpeople.com/reso
). While I agree with the three tactics given, I have serious reservations about recommending them for use without a deeper understanding. I believe that they may be a good stepping stone from binge eating to freedom from emotional eating, but without greater awareness, these techniques could just become a replacement crutch for food, and so only working well until one returns to the superior comfort given by food (and I say superior because if something worked better I suspect you'd be doing it already).

Here are the three tactics for dealing with the so-called Emotional Eating Beast (paraphrased):

1. Endure the Beast's rantings (i.e., your desire to eat for emotional reasons) as long as you can through postponement (e.g., I'll eat in 10-15 minutes after I finish what I'm doing) and hope the Beast's tantrum stops before you give in.

2. Distract the Beast with something bright and shiny (e.g., a bubble bath, a walk, a good book, phone a friend) and hope it forgets why it wanted food in the first place.

3. Let the Beast roam free, but only where it can't hurt itself (and you) too much, such as within a small, padded cell (e.g., let yourself eat, but only have healthful food in the house so you can't binge on chocolate, pastries, ice cream, etc.).

All three of these suggestions are working against the Beast and not with it. What if it isn't a beast at all, but a hurting child who is afraid of being hurt again? What if the powerful and seemingly insatiable craving for comfort food is really a distressed child looking for her security blanket, because it doesn't know how to cope with the pain or fear any other way? From my own experience and a lot of work with a therapist, I would like to think of this internal struggle in the context of a child rather than a beast.

Assuming we are dealing with a hurting or frightened child who is seeking her security blanket, let's review the three taming tactics. First, would you ignore the needs of a frightened and crying child with the hope that she will eventually just shut up, or would you try to sooth her? Would you try to convince a child who is afraid of the shadows on her bedroom wall that she should substitute her teddy bear for her favorite blanket and hope that she will be too distracted to think about the scary shadows, or would you try to eliminate the reason for the child's fears either by talking to her or by installing a night light until the fears subside? If a child is throwing a tantrum, would you "compromise" with the child by letting her scream, cry, punch, and kick as long as it is against a pillow or mattress and not people, or would you recognize that the child needs to learn to communicate her needs instead of trying to use emotional blackmail?

Isn't emotional eating an attempt to sooth the hurting or frightened child without dealing with the cause of the emotions? When a person eats for emotional reasons, isn't she eating to IGNORE or DELAY having to deal with the feelings? Isn't she eating to DISTRACT herself from feeling the feelings? Isn't she eating to COMPROMISE with herself, whereby she eats to sooth with food instead of working toward emotional resolution? All three of the above tactics simply replace food with another soothing stand-in, but none of them deals with the reason why you need to be soothed in the first place! In order to free yourself from emotional eating, you must do the hard and often painful work of emotional resolution. The good news is that emotions are not your enemy, but are actually a part of you trying to help yourself be true to the real you.

When a person wants to eat for emotional reasons, it means emotions are arising that need to be dealt with. Either the emotions can be felt and the message emotions bring can be learned, or emotions can be soothed or suppressed. Emotions are clues to and messages from our true selves. This is true of any emotion, but let's take anger as an example: You are angry because an injustice is perceived. That's a clue to what matters to you and that something or someone is threatening who or what you care about. Should you suppress the anger by eating comfort food or should you figure out what the perceived injustice is and deal with it? My guess is that if someone is eating to sooth, then she already knows deep down that something is wrong, but she does not believe she has the ability to right the wrong. This might not be true, but she will never know because she eats instead of listening to her deeper self. I understand this because I was a very angry child. I witnessed so much injustice and would repeatedly say, "But that's not fair!" And the consistent response by adults was, "Life isn't fair." What could I, a child, do? No one explained anything, no one asked me why I thought the situation was unfair, no one did anything other than implicitly tell me over and over again that my feelings did not matter. I was constantly frustrated and angry with nowhere to put my emotions, so I suppressed them under anything I could eat that would be tasty, distracting, and soothing. As an adult, I still used the same coping strategy, which is, "Don't feel your feelings, because your feelings don't matter. Instead, eat food in order to distract, ignore, and suppress painful or unwanted feelings."

Instead of eating or using a stand-in soother for dealing with emotions, I suggest the following:

1. Just Observe

Each time you feel compelled to eat for emotional reasons, take a few moments before giving in to the cravings (or implementing one of Dean Anderson's tactics) and notice what you are feeling. Also, identify what happened immediately prior to your uncomfortable feeling(s). Something triggered your feelings and it is likely that something in the now triggered something with roots in your past. For example, every time I got off the phone with my mother I would feel frustrated and agitated. I would have such a strong urge to eat a chocolate bar. If I gave in and ate the chocolate, the craving would go away, and so would the frustration and agitation. What I was doing was eating to suppress the feelings. The goal of the cravings wasn't really for food, but for emotional suppression or relief. I was distracting myself and ignoring my feelings as I immersed myself in the multi-sensory pleasure of eating the chocolate bar. The sugar rush was the biochemical soothing finale. I succeeded in tamping down the feelings at least until the next trigger.

If I had listened, what were these feelings trying to tell me? If I were honest with myself I would have recognized that I was frustrated because I felt stifled. I wanted to speak my truth when my mother said something about me or to me to which I disagreed, but I learned long ago that I could not because my mother would shut me down, get upset, and then blame me for ruining a perfectly good conversation. My feelings didn't matter; I was expected to take whatever she dished out without complaint or challenge. This process of observation can be lengthy. It took me a long time before I could accurately identify what I was feeling and why. Sometimes I still am not sure, but I know that there is a reason and I will learn of it if I am persistent.

2. Acknowledge Your Choices

Perhaps, after a lot of inner work, you can now recognize your feelings and the triggers that send you into craving mode. But perhaps you also do not feel skilled enough or safe enough to confront the cause directly. That's okay, because being heard can go a long way. So hear your inner child. Listen to what she has to say. Acknowledge your feelings and know that they are valid and do matter. They are important because they are clues to what matters most to you.

For example, in the above example I felt frustrated and agitated after talking with my mother. I recognized my feelings and grew to understand that I was feeling that way because I felt stifled and unable to communicate my truth. At this point I would not want to confront my mother, because I already know how likely it is that I will experience a negative reaction. However, I can acknowledge to myself that if she does not want to hear what I have to say, if she only wants to speak at me and not with me, then perhaps she is not someone worth sharing with. I can accept that I could CHOOSE to say what is on my mind, knowing that I will likely upset her, or I could CHOOSE to withhold from sharing with her. I could CHOOSE to avoid unnecessary interactions with her. I could CHOOSE to learn assertiveness skills and postpone a confrontation until I am emotionally stronger. What is important here is to recognize that you have choices and that you can choose what is best for you in that moment. Once I recognized that I have choices, I no longer felt stifled because of the risk of retribution. Instead, I felt empowered that I chose to withhold sharing my thoughts with someone who would not accept them.

3. Be Proactive

As a final step, follow your emotions to find your truth. Realize what is important to you and stand up for yourself and your needs, wants, and desires. Set clear boundaries, then don't let others violate them without consequences. If you don't know how, learn how. Assertiveness is a skill that can be learned. It may not be easy and it may take a lot of practice, but it can be done.

As a final thought, I would add that compassion and kindness for self is helpful throughout this process. Know that you are doing the best you can with what you know right now. As you learn and explore, you will gain insight and understanding, which will help you to eventually overcome your emotional eating. Know that you probably will slip up, but that's okay because it is all part of the learning process. Try to remember the child inside and treat yourself as you would treat a hurting and fearful child who is trying to help you speak your truth.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    I also found this to be a very insightful response.
    Sometimes it feels like sparkpeople has some pat answers to incredibly difficulty issues.
    Thank you for taking the time to write this.
    1466 days ago
    Thank you for this--I'm going to have to read this again (and again). I struggle the most when my hormones are making both my emotions and my cravings go into overdrive--I will go through this again.
    1871 days ago
    OMG I love love this! I just came back to SP and had your blog as one I followed years ago. Glad you are still here, and yay and thanks for posting such a meaningful, measured, and sensible approach.! I was reading a book on self compassion and this really resonates. thanks again emoticon emoticon
    1872 days ago
    I love the beast/child metaphor. Thank you so much for sharing. By thinking of emotional eating as a child, I immediately think of nurturing. I need to develop empathy and understanding of my food issues rather than pumping myself with self-deprecating shame.

    1922 days ago
    emoticon compassion and kindness is the best approach.
    I read this article many years ago, and found it interesting but not very helpful.
    I mean I saw the logic in what he was saying but I never felt like actually trying it.

    I found cognitive therapy and mindfulness meditation more useful,
    and I like your 3 steps too. Just Observe is a great starting point.
    1950 days ago
    Thank you for this timely post. It is something I need today to prevent what I feel is coming due to an event that just happened. I am going to reread this and hopefully I won't have a bout of emotional eating today. Thank you so much.
    1950 days ago
    Very insightful.
    1951 days ago
    Thanks, KDYLOSE, for your thoughtful comment. I like your solution for obligatory phone calls. I may just have to give them a try.

    I avoid nuts when I'm in weight loss mode because they are very calorie dense and delicious, so it is too easy for me to overeat them, plus I can start to crave them if I eat them too often. However, when I'm particularly active or in maintenance, then I will have a small handful on occasion.
    1951 days ago
    This is very well thought-out and articulated. Maybe you should write for Spark!

    I had a very similar dynamic with my mother over the years. After always feeling like I 'flunked' her phone calls, I finally came to understand and accept, like you did, that I was not really going to share anything with her, that the phone call was just a formality I could play my part in without becoming too involved. While I was on the phone I found it helped to clean house, chop vegetables, do something to keep busy.

    Also I'm just curious, your food plan is similar to mine but why do you avoid nuts?
    1951 days ago
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