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What is Emotional Eating?

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A woman consuming food struggles with her thoughts on how to stop emotional eating

Emotional eating impacts far more people than you think. But what is emotional eating? Have you ever wondered what emotional eating is all about? The reality is, emotional eating is a psychological term covering a broad set of common eating behaviors that people may not realize qualify as emotional eating. It could even be impacting your own eating choices as well as your health and weight loss outcomes. 

So, if you want to discover what qualifies as emotional eating, how to recognize the signs, why it matters, how it impacts you, and the best ways to work through unwanted emotional eating, then you are at the right place.

You’ll also get three tried and true practices that you can use right now to help yourself in the moments when emotional eating is about to take control. But first, let’s explain what emotional eating is.

So, What is Emotional Eating?

Have you ever found yourself turning to food when you’re anxious, stressed, or bored? Maybe you have a go-to angry-eating food or a favorite, soothing food you reach for when you feel depressed, unhappy, lonely, or confused..

Any eating behavior primarily triggered by an emotional state can be called emotional eating. And it’s not just negative emotions. We can even emotionally eat when we’re excited and feeling good about ourselves, giving ourselves a reward, or just seeking new or favorite flavors just for the joy of eating. 

You might also find yourself eating not based on how you feel, but based on trying to avoid something you don’t want to feel.

The easiest way to recognize emotional eating is to notice when your eating choices:

  • Are not only about getting nutrition and fueling your body
  • Create feelings of stress, guilt, or shame
  • Don’t feel fully in your control

Emotional eating is the act of consuming food not because we’re biologically hungry, but because we’re using food to regulate our emotions. 

For most people, emotional eating feels like a constant battle. A part of us knows we’re going to do it, yet we don’t know how to stop ourselves. We can find ourselves in constant food worry. And the strategies we use to prevent ourselves from emotional eating – more willpower and more control – just don’t work in any sustainable way.

The good news is, most of us intuit that there’s a better place we can get to. We want to feel a sense of freedom and peace with food. A happy, empowered and balanced relationship with food is our natural state.

So if you struggle with emotional eating and constant food worry, then a great place to begin is to examine and define exactly what emotional eating really is. The first step to overcoming any unwanted behavior is to take a step back, observe, gather data, and find the hidden wisdom in our challenge.

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The Emotional Eating Breakthrough

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What’s the Problem With Emotional Eating?

Most people see emotional eating as the problem itself. It’s our enemy. It’s something we need to fight, attack, and dominate into submission. It’s a kind of war, and we have to win it. With this approach, the problem is that we’re fighting our own self. If one hand fights the other, who wins? The reality is, this strategy of fighting emotional eating and attacking the self never works. 

In the eating psychology work we teach, we have a core principle that guides us through any unwanted eating concern, and it’s this: 

Our relationship with food is a great teacher.” 

No matter what challenge we face with food, it’s here to help us grow and learn and heal and transform. This is no different from the rest of your life. From the time we arrive on planet Earth until the time we depart, we are learning and growing. Sometimes our lessons are quite sweet and easy. At other times we grow through challenge. Such is the wisdom of Life. 

The real problem with emotional eating comes when we turn it into a self-attacking battle instead of seeing it as information, and an opportunity to grow and learn more about ourselves in a self-compassionate way.

More to the point, our eating challenges, in this case emotional eating,are here to help us become the best version of who we came here to be. So in the big picture, our job is to learn how to listen to emotional eating, to welcome it, and to discover how it’s here to teach us. 

Notice that we’ve taken a completely new and novel approach to emotional eating. No more fighting. You don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed. You don’t need to speak unkindly to yourself. The unwanted behavior called emotional eating is trying to help you learn and grow so you can become your best self. Emotional eating is a great teacher.

Definition of Emotional Eating

To define emotional eating, we need a new, self-compassionate approach. To understand what it’s trying to teach you, let’s take another look at the definition of what is emotional eating:  

Emotional eating is the act of consuming food not because we’re biologically hungry, but because we’re using food to regulate our emotions.

It’s as simple as that.

Another way to say this is that emotional eating is using food to soothe our emotional needs.

Humans can regulate emotions in all kinds of positive, healthy ways. 

  • We can deal with unwanted or uncomfortable emotions by talking to a friend. 
  • We can listen to music. 
  • We can exercise. 
  • We can read a good book. 
  • We can watch an inspirational video. 
  • We can go within – reflect, or journal. 

On the  other hand, we can also regulate our emotions in less healthy ways, like: 

  • Distracting ourselves with entertainment. 
  • Using mind and mood-altering drugs. 
  • Getting lost in the temporary thrill of gambling. 
  • Engage in some retail therapy. 
  • Turn our focus from ourselves to others via behaviors like gossiping. 

And, many of us, turn to food.

The act of using food to soothe our emotional needs often leads to temporary relief, to a moment of peace and pleasure. We simply feel better when we eat. Eating creates an almost immediate release of pleasure chemistry. But soon afterward, emotional eating leaves us in a state of guilt,  shame, or self-judgment, and often results in our body feeling overly full and heavy. And nobody likes that…

Contrary to most conventional advice, in order to genuinely gain control over any unwanted habit, there’s one very important and key prerequisite: we must discover the brilliant reasons behind its existence. What most people haven’t been taught is that every unwanted habit contains hidden wisdom. Once we uncover that hidden wisdom, we are on our way to transformation and freedom.

The Hidden Wisdom in Emotional Eating

1. Emotional Eating and the States of Stress and Relaxation

Emotional eating takes us from a stress state (sympathetic nervous system dominance)  to a relaxation state (parasympathetic nervous system dominance). We turn to food for emotional regulation because it actually works. It can be perfectly safe. It reliably soothes us both biologically and psychologically.

The point is, emotional eating has a genetic and scientific basis. It’s a perfectly reasonable strategy. Emotional eating does not mean you’re a willpower weakling. It does not mean you’re a failure, or that there’s something wrong with you. Every human throughout all of history has used food from infancy to regulate emotions. 

When you focus on these false conclusions – I am weak. I lack discipline. I just need more willpower and motivation. I’m lazy. I’m fat. I’m a glutton – you simply give the unwanted habit more power and momentum. 

Of course, as adults, we all know that emotional eating can have its drawbacks. But before we focus on the drawbacks, we simply need to embrace how emotional eating is actually useful to us and why it makes scientific and cognitive sense.

2. Emotional Eating Reveals the Part of Us Whose Needs are not Getting Met

Take immediate gratification, for example. This is a term that psychologists use to describe the part of us that wants what we want when we want it. It’s the little kid in us that doesn’t care about long-term consequences. It’s the part of us that wants the ice cream now. That wants the sugar now. That wants cake now.

It’s the part of us that does not want to hear “No” –  that’s not so good for you. The child’s mind does not understand long-term consequences. You can’t reason with a four-year-old by saying, “hey, eating too much sugar might give you diabetes in forty years, so we better not eat it right now.” The mind of a child is all about the present moment and what it wants right now.

We all still have that small child’s voice somewhere inside of us. Our job is to learn when we can soothe that part of us with food, and when it’s best to simply let the adult voice in us make our decisions around food.

We have other parts in us, in addition to the inner child. There’s an inner rebel that can feel too constrained by all the food rules. There’s an inner hedonist who wants to experience joy in life. There’s an inner perfectionist who only wants the very best for us. These are a few of your inner archetypes that, in trying to meet a positive need, may be using food instead of other, healthier strategies, to get your attention.

So emotional eating is all about learning how to manage the part of us that wants immediate gratification, or freedom, or more joy – but maybe doesn’t know how to best go about it. To manage that part of ourselves better, we need to look a little deeper.

3. Emotional Eating – any Habit, Really – Contains a Hidden, Positive Message 

Here’s a secret: every unwanted habit has a message for us. It’s trying to teach us something. It’s like your guardian angel is whispering something important into your ear. Our job is to listen up. And as we listen and learn what our unwanted habit is trying to help us with, we can graduate from that habit and find freedom.

So what’s the hidden message in emotional eating?

Emotional eating is asking us to attend to our emotions in a whole new way. It’s asking us to look at what’s really going on in our lives. To explore what’s truly happening in our inner world.

  • Emotional eating might be asking us to see where we are holding back from speaking the truth
  • It may be asking us to communicate better with loved ones
  • It may be asking us to consider making an important life change or course correction
  • It could be drawing our attention to a relationship that needs a bit of TLC 
  • It could be an invitation to stop putting things off, to allow more love and connection into our life, to let go of old grudges and disappointments or, to start focusing on what’s good about us rather than what we think is wrong

Emotional eating is asking us to get real with ourselves. And it wants us to ask the question: How is the wisdom of life asking me to grow as a person?

So, emotional eating is all about us growing. And as we all know, sometimes, growth is difficult. Doing work on self requires commitment, some courage, humility, self-honesty and a trust, and faith in life, or in a higher power.

Our relationship with food is often the place where so many people are being asked to grow. It’s just how life works.

So if you’re working with emotional eating, consider yourself in the classroom of life. You are getting your doctorate in self-awareness, self-nourishment, and personal power. It’s going to take practice. Trial and error. Trial and success.

Three Simple Practices on How to Deal With Emotional Eating

With all this in mind, here are a few tried and true practices that you can use right now to help yourself in the moments when emotional eating is about to take control:

Practice #1: What Else?

When you’re about to emotionally eat and you’d like to turn this habit around, ask yourself “What Else?” What else can help me soothe my feelings and manage my inner world other than food? Is it a phone call with a friend? Some favorite music? Some inspirational reading? Moving your body? Cuddling with your dog or cat? Or anything that can give you the good feelings that you’re seeking in that moment. 

This is a practice of learning to delay the instant gratification of eating and replace it with something that simply works better for you. Think of emotional eating as an unconscious and automatic habit. It just does itself. So to change an unconscious and automatic habit, we simply need to introduce consciousness. 

By asking yourself “What Else?” in the moment you’re about to emotionally eat, you’re bringing in consciousness. You’re calling forth awareness. You are introducing the Light. That’s how you change an unwanted habit.

Practice #2: Breathe Before Eating 

For most people, when we’re about to emotionally eat, we’re in a physiologic stress response – also called sympathetic nervous system dominance. During a stress response, we want instant relief, so we reach for food. Food, by the way, can naturally and instantly destress us. 

Now, when we breathe deeply by taking 5-10 long slow deep breaths, we put the body into the physiologic relaxation response, and we can do that in less than a minute. This can help us let go of the urgent need to reach for food. It’s all about changing your neurochemistry in the moment you’re about to emotionally eat by using the age-old practice of conscious breathing. 

So deep breathing when you feel the need to emotionally eat coming on is a powerful practice that anyone can do. 

Practice #3: Call a Cease-Fire

Forgive yourself if you emotionally eat. Stop the self-attack, let go of unkind words, and step out of self-judgment. These are punishments that simply don’t work and only serve to make the unwanted habit stronger. 

Consider this: If self-attack truly worked, then it would have done so long ago. 

There is not a single personal growth approach or psychological system that has proven successful for personal growth by focusing on self-attack and self-hate. Emotional eating is always asking us to learn to love ourselves into change and transformation, not hate ourselves into it. Bullying yourself doesn’t make you grow and heal. Forgiveness and self-kindness does.

P.S. Interested in learning more about emotional eating and finally finding freedom with food? Would you like some deeper wisdom and guidance in your emotional eating journey? If so, we’d love for you to learn more about our special program, The Emotional Eating Breakthrough. This is a 10-week online transformational experience that’s designed to help you finally find peace with food. You’ll learn from the originator of the field of Eating Psychology, Marc David – and you’ll be guided through a true mind, body, heart and soul approach combining the best of psychology, science, and personal development. The powerful tools and techniques you’ll discover in the program address the root cause of why we emotionally eat, forever changing your relationship with food.

New Course…

The Emotional Eating Breakthrough

Are you struggling with overeating, stress eating, or emotional eating? 
Learn more about our new Emotional Eating Course.

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