How to Stop Emotional Eating
*** A Guide to Understanding and becoming more Aware of our Unconscious Patterns that Result in Emotional Eating.
*** Disclaimer - the contents of this guide are for informational purposes only. Before making any diet or lifestyle changes in general - and in this guide specifically - it is recommended that you first get the approval of your medical doctor and/or licensed health professional.
An emotional eater is someone who overeats because through eating they are able to seek some sort of comfort, fill an emotional void and/or temporarily relieve stress. It has nothing to do with willpower or being weak.
The foods that tend to be preferred are ones that are high in carbohydrates and sugar. Things like desserts, fast food and anything doughy and sweet.
Emotional eaters suffer many negative consequences that they know all too well. There is the physical discomfort, the financial cost, the health repercussions and, something that is most difficult, the shame that comes with it.
If it seems like a steep price to pay, it's because it is.
Why would anyone endure that?
Getting bigger makes it uncomfortable to be in one's own skin. Sleeping, walking, breathing and just getting around doing the routine day to day tasks become much more difficult, and take much more energy.
The health risks of being overweight - diabetes, cardiovascular disease etc. - are well known to most by now.
And finally the SHAME they feel about having their problem be so visible. Knowing that they are being judged all the time, and looked down upon as weak minded is not an easy thing to bear.
Who would pay such a horrible price when the solution is simply to eat less?
The answer, is people who are looking to avoid something, that to them is a lot more difficult to bear than everything else mentioned above.
There are parts of ourselves or of our lives that we avoid. We simply don't want to see. To make ourselves conscious of them would feel threatening, like facing death (or even worse, public speaking!)
Maybe you are in a bad relationship and are avoiding the inevitable break up that needs to happen. It might seem catastrophic if your whole life was built around it. Kids, career, family and community. The loss would feel devastating. Or maybe you are not assertive enough and can't get your needs met because you can't say, "no," can't ask your boss for a raise etc,. You'd be anxious all day long because every encounter with every person is a mini exercise in confrontation. And for you, confrontation feels especially threatening.
In almost all cases, underneath it all is an avoidance of anxiety and/or pain.
So we avoid the anxiety. But oddly enough, avoiding the anxiety causes even more anxiety and so we look for ways to soothe ourselves and get a break from the continuous, daily tension.
Over time emotional eaters have learned that food can help alleviate some of the pain and anxiety they feel. Some people gamble, some drink, smoke, do drugs, use sex, shop or work too much. Others, eat too much.
[And those who do all of the above are called fun people to be around 😀 ]
All are forms of coping with the seemingly, unbearable anxiety mentioned above. They are ways that people have learned to use to try to fill an emptiness, distract from, avoid and placate their anxiety and pain.
PREPARING YOUR MIND
Emotional change is gradual and non-linear, which is a fancy way if saying it takes time. When this reality isn't accepted, people generally become frustrated and start looking for something new that promises a faster way forward. They watch The View or listen to their favorite Youtube "bro" and jump from one bandwagon to the next, looking for the "right way." Only to look back after 10 years of this chase to see that their time and efforts were all wasted.
Had they only taken their time and did a little each day, properly and conscientiously, what a foundation they would have had by now, in terms of being a new and different person.
If this describes you, it's not too late to make things better. It never is.
BUILDING YOUR BRICK WALL
The actor Will Smith appeared on a talk TV show and told the story of being a teen and working for his father. His father asked Will and his younger brother to build a LONG and LARGE brick wall that was needed for the family business.
It seemed a formidable task and Will was reluctant. His father sensed that and told him, "you don't have to build a wall ... all you have to do is lay one brick as best you can. And then do it again and again ..."
Will did as his father asked (or ordered) and worked on it everyday after school. Then one day, after months of work, it was done. After laying the last brick Will stood back to take a look and he almost couldn't believe it was there. He looked at it, as if to say, "where did this come from?" He was in disbelief.
[Cheesy story I know, but it does illustrate the process of change well.]
Big change happens with small steps taken daily, regularly and with your best effort for that SMALL action.
PART 1 - MANAGEMENT & WEIGHT LOSS
"If you can't go back to your mother's womb, you'd better learn to be a good fighter - Anchee Min"
As was mentioned previously, emotional change is slow and gradual and so we can't cure emotional eating overnight. It would be demoralizing though to have to wait months or years for us to lose any weight, and so we need to manage our eating in the least painful and MOST enjoyable way possible, until we can "cure" ourselves.
So, let's lose some weight.
To do that we will need a strategy with a clear set of actions. I call them "Tactics" (or tips if you like.)
Remember, you are not going in guns blazing; you are trying to chop down a tree with a steak knife. Sucks I know. That's why you don't give up enjoying food (and lots of it if you like) while working on yourself. More on that below.
Tactic # 1 - Questions
1- Am I hungry, or do I just want food to distract or calm myself?
The answer, is a little of column A and A LOT of column B. The purpose of this question though is to increase your awareness of BOTH how you use food to soothe and of the anxiety you are avoiding.
Afterwards, you can still eat and enjoy the food as long as you know what you're doing. No use feeling guilty.
The general purpose of this question is to be more mindful of what is going on inside our heads. What exactly are we feeling? Where in our bodies (breathing, tension)? What are we hiding from, or what do we not want to confront or see?
Or am I eating for enjoyment, which is perfectly fine to do from time to time?
Building up this awareness over time begins to give us some control as we can now see what's going on. Anything we are unaware of has much more influence over what we do everyday. This awareness will also give us the ability to make better choices so that we start moving in the direction we want to go in.
Take 10 seconds and ask yourself this question just once per day, right before you eat something. Any meal/snack at any time of day will do.
2- Since I am going to overeat/binge right now, how can I do so in the best possible way?
See the tactics below (3-5) for the answer to that question. But it is important to ask if you want to lose weight and still satisfy the craving.
Tactic # 2 - Data: Getting a Cheap Calendar
For this tactic you will need a pen and a cheap dollar store calendar.
If you're under 20 and you don't know what those are, downloading a calendar app works just as well. Just saying.
As it stands now you probably don't have a very good picture of your overall binge/emotional eating patterns. The purpose of the calendar is to better illustrate that for you and should only take 30 seconds at most each day.
For an entire week (and make sure it is a typical week), write down the times during the day that you overeat. For example, if you had too much breakfast write down, "AM-EA" or "8am - EA" with the "EA" standing for emotional eating.
Do this once, in the evening just before bed or anytime after your last meal of the day. You may have only 1 instance per day, several, or you may have a mix of both. After 7 days go by, look back and take note of your overeating patterns for the past week.
Since we tend to be creatures of habit, the next week will likely look the same as the previous one.
That's it for this tactic.
We'll need this calendar for the last tactic, Tactic #6.
Simple so far.
Now for the fun.
Tactic # 3 - Eat, Drink and be Merry
MODIFYING - Maintaining the Pleasure and Satisfaction
Let's face it, it's gonna happen.
Instead of beating ourselves up, why not enjoy it as much as we can?
In other words, since we are going to eat emotionally, why not try to make it have the least amount of negative impact on our weight and health, AND, make it a tasty, enjoyable experience at the same time?
We CAN make modifications, eat a lot and lose weight at the same time. It's not that difficult to do.
This tactic uses the strategy of modifying to accomplish that goal. That means that you would continue to eat the same amount of food you normally would in a day, but modify it somewhat so that it's better for your health.
All the while keeping the level of enjoyment you get from food the same - or at least close to it.
The weight loss system we use here at EatingLove is insulin-based (i.e low carb) rather than the traditional method of calorie counting. Learn more about how that works here.
A) Ingredient Swap
This beneficial change will mostly come about by replacing sugar and carbs overall with better ingredients. Doing so impacts your insulin in such a way so that your metabolism switches over to burning more body fat (all day long), resulting in sustainable and ongoing weight loss.
- Using sweeteners instead of sugar. In drinks like coffee, tea, iced tea and sodas, and in recipes that require sugar.
- Using almond flour instead of regular flour for baking muffins and grilling pancakes etc.
- Using higher fat foods and less carbs. Think pizza with ultra-thin crust and lots of melted cheese.
I know. I get that most of this stuff is widely known already. But, I believe that most people underestimate the incredibly VAST WORLD of foods that are out there, that are delicious, satisfying and low to no carb. Like for example ...
... sugar free chocolate pancakes made with almond four, hazelnuts, blueberries and syrup sweetened with sweetener. Nothing too specific really.
People are eating like kings without gaining weight. Many of them shedding pounds in the process. All it takes is a tiny bit of resolve and a bit of time to build up a menu of foods that you can't wait to chow down on every evening.
You won't even feel like you're dieting, it will be that good.
Once you have your menu created - chicken wings, pizza, brownies, cheese bread etc., - it will be easy for you to maintain the switch from the older foods you were accustomed to eating to these newer ones. Also it won't feel like a sacrifice because you'll be able to eat a lot of food that is both appetizing and satisfying.
B) Replacing Bad Food for Better Food
Say you feel like eating some gooey, soft brownies (difficult to imagine I know but bear with me here). You just finished reading the above section on modifying for the 6th time in a row, because it's such an awesome read, and you know you can make a low to no-carb version to eat instead.
But, you don't feel like getting up off the couch and making them.
In that case try eating something else instead that's easy to make (or buy) but isn't as bad for you. It may not be a great choice, but certainly better than the alternative.
For example, instead of eating the regular brownies you were about to eat for dessert try:
A Mountain of Popcorn with Real Butter.
Get an air popper and pop a MASSIVE bowl of popcorn and use REAL BUTTER for the topping.
Butter has lots of calories but this suggestion is much better than eating something with lots of sugar or high density carbohydrates, which would elevate your insulin much more than the popcorn and over time cause weight gain.
Popcorn is still a carb, but it has much less of an effect on insulin than do sugary desserts. Replacing sugary foods with ones that keep insulin lower, done consistently really helps when the time comes to step on the scale.
Now I do understand that brownies and popcorn are not even close to being on the same planet when it comes to satisfying those cravings. A bowl of chocolate, sugar free ice cream would have been a better example perhaps.
The point here is to understand that you have another tool at your disposal, the tool of replacing. Replacing junk for better junk, high carb for higher fat, your husband for the pool boy.
Eating a lot and still enjoying your food - this is our goal as we manage our emotional eating.
Here are some more examples:
Appetizers - Instead of garlic bread, potato skins or bread sticks, a better appetizer to try is a Caesar salad with all the fixings.
Again get a MASSIVE bowl and chop up lots of romaine lettuce and add the full fat dressing, croutons, bacon bits and parmesan etc. Lots of leafy greens, fiber, fat, flavor and very little carbs compared to the alternatives mentioned previously.
- This is one of those foods that is reported to be much healthier than regular chocolate and, in my opinion, a good replacement to the regular milk chocolate because it has less sugar generally and is very RICH in taste.
That rich taste also satiates your palate quickly so that you are satisfied with less.
Sugar Free Chocolate Pudding
Sugar free pudding and sugar free Jello are not only good replacement foods for store bought desserts, they are good replacements for the regular version of themselves.
Sugar free pudding can be made at home with milk and is quick and easy to prepare. Sugar free Jello has almost no calories.
You can eat 6 bowls a night and not have to worry. [Concerned about sweeteners? Watch this video}
There are a many ways of replacing the unhealthy foods you were going to eat with ones that are healthier, but that you STILL ENJOY. Get creative and look around at the many recipe sites that are doing just that, and begin to build your recipe arsenal that will change your body (and health) forever.
The food has to satisfy, and make you feel full. Start with one dessert or one meal at a time. When you become used to that healthier food and are liking it as much as the old, start to shift more in the same way.
Repeat as many times as you can over the months and years.
The title of this tactic was "Eat, Drink and be Merry" and so it is very important that you do just that.
Enjoy the food you eat and feel satisfied. No pain.
Tactic # 4 - The Sweet (sugar free) Drink
Something to enjoy and/or use as a crutch.
Drinking something that is sweet (again using sweetener instead of sugar) like diet sodas or lemonade, ice tea, smoothies etc., can be another useful emotional eating tool. The idea is to consume it after dinner to help counter the pull to overeat for the rest of the evening.
It uses the same principal that nicotine patches and low alcohol beverages do. It gives a modest amount of reward (pleasure) and very little of the negative side effects.
So it's used for gratification, but also ...
... to get you through the day.
The sweet drink may not end up warding off ALL of the food you would have otherwise overeaten but it will some, and that's a good start.
Have one, two or even 10. If it's sugar free why not? So what if people think you have a prostate problem or are pregnant because you're running to the bathroom every 10 minutes? Just smile and keep them guessing for extra amusement. Hey, whatever works.
Smoothies work well too. Greek yogurt, milk, fruit and sweetener (if you even need it depending on how much fruit you use). Lots of protein, fiber, vitamins, flavor and very little carbs.
See this blog post on why I think fruit is okay for weight loss.
A couple of other useful suggestions that are somewhat related are to chew gum and/or brush your teeth right after dinner.
Gum takes time to chew, so it occupies your mouth for a good while and gives it a minty taste which "may" shut down the desire to eat other foods because of the clash of the taste of mint and other foods. Okay, a bit of a long shot but it does burn time you'd spend otherwise eating.
As as for brushing our teeth that's simple. We're lazy.
We won't want to eat if we have to go through the thorough process of brushing and flossing again. So brush early and use that as a deterrent to late night emotional eating. If you live in England you can skip this tip as it likely doesn't apply ;)
Tactic # 5 - Minimum Intake for Maximum Effect
This principal states that one should find the point at which they have expended the least effort or time to gain the maximum benefit and no more.
In our case that means to try to stop eating as early as possible.
For example, you're watching Netflix and have in front of you plate of 5 large, hot brownies. You eat them all because, well because they are there. So ... enjoy.
Next time you are in that situation, check in with yourself to see if you're still enjoying the brownies after eating say just 3 of them.
Odds favor that you still are but not as before. A big bite of brownie at this point yields much less satisfaction than first one you ate. The law of diminished returns states that you will enjoy the brownies less and less the more you eat of them - one of only 2 concepts I retained from a semester of economics.
Pay attention to when you feel you don't need anymore and stop there. You will still feel the urge to eat the remaining brownies so at this point switch to using the sweet drink to keep getting your flavor/consumption fix.
You're stopping the binge early (when you get no more benefit) and switching to something benign - the sweet drink. A simple but convenient tactic and another tool to use to combat emotional eating.
Tactic # 6 - Daily Time Slots
Many over eaters find that there is a certain time (or times) during the day when the urge to overeat is at it's highest. This is the point at which most of the damage is done; meaning that's when they tend to binge eat or indulge in junk food the most. It's also an enjoyable part of the day so remember to keep it that way.
The idea here is to pinpoint those times for yourself and get to know your patterns of overeating. Does it happen at specific times, after/between certain events like a stressful day? Or is it random?
The calendar from Tactic # 2 above will be helpful for this.
Once you find your pattern, use all the tactics above to get you past and through these difficult time periods with the least amount of damage while still retaining the enjoyment you get from eating.
Seeing your patterns reveals to yourself that you are not an all or nothing emotional eater. That you can eat normally or refrain at times, and that you just have to get through certain parts of the day and that there is more to your life than your problem.
Six different tactics.
Six different ways of managing and dealing with the beast. Use all six tactics on a regular basis and you will see results. It is impossible not to.
Start with Just One
Start with one, start slowly and inch your way along.
PROJECT AN ENTIRE YEAR FORWARD.
Imagine where you'll be in 1 year after applying these 6 tactics.
The year is going to go by anyway. Might as well have something to show for it.
Always remember the golden rule when it comes to emotional eating management and losing weight:
TO MAKE IT HAPPEN THE PROCESS HAS TO BE PAIN FREE
Using the six tactics, it can be. Lose weight, eat a lot and enjoy it.
PART 2 - EMOTIONS
"What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark? It would be like sleep without dreams. -Werner Herzog"
The first part of this guide focused on a painless, minimal effort method to managing and taking control of your emotional eating, so that you can improve your health and lose weight.
The way to fix, heal or get rid of this problem entirely is by going to the source.
Emotional change is difficult and takes time. That's why we try very hard to turn our attention away from our pain and anxiety.
This is done through behaviors like keeping busy, eating, watching TV/movies, checking email and social media, and doing just about anything we can to avoid just sitting there with our thoughts and feelings.
In childhood, you were overwhelmed by your emotional environment which is to say you experienced trauma. Not knowing what to do, you started to build defenses from the trauma you couldn't handle.
Without them you wouldn't be able to function and so you counted on them to help you cope and endure your volatile environment.
They also had you shutting down your emotions or tuning out from them altogether. Anything that threatened to make you aware of them was either ignored or met with resistance of some kind. It was the best you could do and extremely helpful at the time. And although it came with a heavy price, there wasn't much of a choice really.
As you grew up you became even better at building defenses - a process that became automatic and unconscious. They grew and solidified into a fortress.
Again, you did what you could, to keep yourself safe.
As adults, the defenses built to protect you started to cause problems. Your relationships and life in general weren't turning out the way you wanted them to.
Your coping mechanisms such as comfort eating, drinking, shopping, sex, working too much etc., started to become a problem.
Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place
At this point you were in a bind. Continue to ignore your emotions and watch them slowly take over your life,
... face what has been unbearable to face and feel like you're going to die.
The choice is obvious. What to do about it isn't.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
"I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become. - Carl Jung"
The process of rebuilding your psychology is a lot of work and many people are put off by that. It is the unfortunate reality. The good news, is that the project that is you doesn't require more than doing a little bit each day, consistently over time.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
The first thing you need to do is make the decision to take this project on seriously. To set aside a certain amount of time each day and each week to do something productive, some work that will help you grow. You don't need lots of time for this, just a little each day but making sure it's everyday.
1- Journaling. A couple of sentences of what you noticed about yourself in certain situations that day. How you felt, what you think it means. What went well and what you fell short on.
Five minutes or less each night is all it takes.
2- Group Therapy. There are plenty of free therapy groups online for almost any issue. You don't even need to have the same affliction, just join and listen.
You don't have to talk if you don't want to either. The value is in listening carefully to what others are expressing and feeling in order to recognize it in yourself. When you do, you become much more aware of what you are feeling and that alone allows you to change and grow without needing effort or willpower.
You automatically change once you see things (yourself and your situations) differently.
Group therapy is highly underrated. It's uncomfortable at first but look around, ask questions and let them know you just want to listen. You'll see soon enough that it's no big deal. You'll also realize there's so much for you to gain and that you should have started years ago. Like all good things in life.
3- Therapy. A good therapist is supposed to be like a polished mirror, reflecting yourself back to you. The good, the bad and the ugly. That's what you pay them for. Like group therapy, the purpose is to make you more aware of what's going on inside.
Therapy is expensive but is helpful if you can afford it. Whether you can or can't, I highly recommend doing numbers 1 and 2 above.
- Five minutes of journaling each night and 1 or 2 group therapy sessions per week.
All free and it will only take you 2-3 hours per week max.
I again highly, highly recommend that you put in that time as you don't want to wake up 5, 10, 30 years later and regret the waste of years (your years), when you could have started this simple and free inner work plan today.
SOME JOURNALING AND INNER WORK TIPS
1- BE SPECIFIC - Focus, and Clarity are key.
When turning inward you'll at first get a fuzzy notion or vague idea about what's going on. What you'll need to do on a continual basis is to extract out more and more from that vague notion that you have.
Consider these 4 images:
Image 1 - You think you see a small person, but that's about it, (maybe a creepy pair of eyes if you're on acid).
Image 2 - You know you see a small person and that they are outside.
Image 3- You see a small person, probably a boy, on the grass (and those creepy eyes turned out to be large boulders or cliffs).
Image 4 - You see a small person, definitely a boy, outside, not on the grass but on a rocky path, looking at a large rock formation with a blue sweater, on a cloudy day.
As you clear the image up, not only do you get more information but you get more accurate information (ex: what the boy was standing on, weather etc.)
Apply the same principal to yourself
Imagine that when turning inward you focus for a moment and realize you're feeling bad.
The description of "bad" tells you something but is vague and not very helpful. Then you continue to focus on that bad feeling by thinking about it, journalling and listening in at your online group therapy. You realize after awhile that that feeling could be better represented as loneliness.
With more focus you realize that you're lonely because you felt rejected recently and pulled away from people in your life emotionally. Now you have one possible pattern of behavior nailed down, which you do that makes you feel bad. Because of this realization, you can now begin to do something about it like choosing a different response when people reject you.
That was just an example, but from that focused work comes a much better awareness of how you truly feel, the story behind it and what's driving your mood and behavior in the present. Gaining these little insights from time to time will help with your pain. Their effect is cumulative too, so that as you continue to focus in this way and see more of yourself, you'll grow and be able to regulate your emotions much better.
With this new knowledge you will have broken down some of your resistance and feel better as a consequence. You will also be able to make better decisions now that you know what you are really dealing with (i.e. having more accurate data.) Decisions like who to befriend, how to manage your money and which eating contest to partake in. All are serious considerations.
Stay focused and dig deep for everything relevant that comes up while doing your inner work. Be consistent with it and in time you're guaranteed to be a different person who displays a steadier, more self-assured demeanor.
Once you have this knowledge/skill you can then:
2- RE-FRAME YOUR PAST
See Your Parents Differently (Accurately).
Some people think their parents did a great job. Others can't stand them.
As a child you looked up to your parents as benevolent, all-knowing, mature adults. That was your default view of them. Whatever they said or did was, in your view, likely correct, because after all what do you know?
They were your whole world and whatever world they created must have been the correct one. Therefore if they were angry or neglectful towards you, it must have been your fault somehow, and so you were bad, defective or shameful.
We grow up but keep this same assessment of ourselves and of what happened in the past.
Looking again carefully with new, grown up eyes allows us to see our parents and our childhood in a way that is more reflective of reality, and not what we imagined or experienced it to be. Gaining this new perspective helps change your perception of yourself and of your parents and other people in general.
Look at your parents again now from your grown up point of view. Try to really see how in some instances they were immature, and were likely wrapped up in their own trauma and reacting negatively towards you because of that. Not because of you. That's something that is impossible to see as a child but not now.
The reason for this exercise is to see that they weren't really "qualified" to be the authorities that you thought they were, and in the way that you needed them to be for your emotional development (obviously they were qualified to take care of you in other ways.) In other words they were not fully developed adults psychologically. I'd say that most people in fact aren't.
It's just how life is. And so whatever messages you picked up about yourself from them, whether they meant to or not, were not coming from an authoritative place.
That exercise knocks them down a few pegs from the "authoritative" pedestal they were standing on in your mind's eye.
The way you interacted with other family members, neighbors, friends, teachers and coaches also have to be re-evaluated from your new grown up perspective. They weren't all fully, mature adults either. If you had a teacher who told you that you'd never amount to anything then you can now look back and see that that teacher was like a grown up child and really couldn't deal with their anxiety or resentment properly. Same with most of the other adults that had a negative impact on you when you were young.
Challenge what your parents and others did and said to you that was hurtful. Talk about it in group therapy or with a therapist. Then, go and talk to your parents about it. About what bothered you, how you felt etc. This will do wonders for you. Talk with them every week or two and reconnect in general. This is a selfish act (in a good way) that is more for you than them, even though they will benefit too.
It will get you from feeling like this:
To feeling like this, with the adult you consoling the child you:
If speaking to them is no longer possible then write letters, regardless of whether they read them or not. If they are not alive anymore then write letters to them anyway and express your thoughts.
It's really powerful.
Do this over and over and over again ...
Your parents represented the world when you were young. They shaped you, hurt you and set you up with your present psychology. To fix you, you need to go back to the source and fix those deeply, powerful, early relationships.
You don't have to like your parents and it doesn't have to be a warm, cozy affair. You simply need to learn to talk with them, and expose yourself in an assertive and calm manner. Tell them how you feel, what you think, who you are etc,.
That's how you reconnect with the world in general and how you approve of yourself.
The way you are with them carries over to the way you are with the rest of the world.
***Note: If you really want to grow FAST, try asking them to stay with you for 6 months. Invite your in-laws to join the fun and you'll be cured in a month tops. it's all about how bad you want it 😀
Finally, the title of this website is Eating Love. When you overeat you are not only distracting yourself from your pain, you're also compensating for being disconnected from yourself and others. You are in essence eating the feeling you want from love, connection, and social bonds.
It's reported that the happiest and healthiest people in the world are those who are able to be themselves while having strong social ties. Make every effort to connect with family, friends and anyone in your community, and strengthen those bonds to the best of your ability.
In my opinion, there's nothing more important or more gratifying in life than that.
Becoming your own person and then connecting with others.
An ant on the move does more than a dozing ox.. - Lao Tzu