I have this vivid childhood memory from when I was around nine, of hanging out at my friend Sara’s house, eating potato chips. I remember watching how quickly she ate, and trying to pace myself with her. She would take a chip, I would take a chip. She would wait, I would wait. Why was I doing that? Excellent question! The reason is because I literally had no idea whether I was physically hungry or not. Emotional eating was such a big influence on my food intake, I didn’t even know what true physical hunger felt like.
Emotional eating has affected me as long as I can remember.
My major coping mechanisms as a kid, and as an adult, was food. I used food as entertainment pretty much every day. I remember polishing off an entire box of macaroni and cheese to fill the time between when I got off the school bus and my parents got home.
I also used food to deal with my sadness and stress over my parents’ divorce. I didn’t know this was what I was doing, but I have vivid memories of eating until I felt sick. I would take a bite of a cookie, throw it out because I wasn’t even hungry, then immediately grab another cookie. To my friend Teresa, who one afternoon watched me clean her cupboards out of food doing this “take a bite, throw it away” routine, I am sorry. Send me your address- I’ll mail you a grocery store gift card.
Later in life, my stress eating turned into a glass of wine (or three) after work every night to wind down. But I’ve since learned emotional eating isn’t always this dramatic.
Emotional eating is more common than you think.
I worked with a weight loss coach for six months last year as part of a group coaching program. As I result, I’ve had the chance to take to a lot of people over the past year about emotional eating. And what I’ve learned is this:
- Nearly everyone does some emotional eating. Even skinny people! My normal-weight husband fully admits to nervous-eating during Brown’s games. I’m not entirely sure why, since they nearly always lose (too harsh?). He also occasionally eats out of boredom. But the key to staying thin is he does this maybe twice a week, not twice a day.
- Many people don’t realize they do it. Emotional eating has been a habit for so long that it’s completely unconscious. I know several overweight people who full-out deny emotional eating, and I suspect they simply aren’t aware of it. Many people in my weight loss group didn’t even realize they use food to cope with emotions until they tried to stop. Then all the stress, boredom, anger, etc. bubbled up to the surface, because they didn’t have food to buffer.
Emotional eating can be very subtle.
Not sure if you eat to deal with your emotions? Read the questions below and see if they sound like you:
- Do you ever eat when you aren’t hungry, or eat past the point of being full?
- Have you ever eaten because you were bored?
- Do you ever eat to soothe yourself if you’re upset, sad, or stressed?
- Have you ever been hungry only for a specific food? (Emotional hunger often shows up as cravings for a certain food, whereas true hunger is satisfied by any food).
- Do you ever eat to celebrate something good?
Why do we eat our emotions away?
None of us are born with the ability to regulate our emotions. Watching my 4 year old stomp around because he dropped his fork, I can see this makes perfect sense. But it’s not something I was really aware of until I started thinking about emotional eating. We learn how to cope with emotions, good and bad, from our earliest caretaker. So if your mom eats ice cream to deal with a bad mood, or celebrates a new job with dinner at a favorite restaurant, you’ll likely do that too. The fantastic thing is that you can learn to deal with your emotions in a different way at any stage of life. I actually wrote a blog post on how to cope with intense emotions, so that is a good place to start.
Why is emotional eating a problem?
For some people it really isn’t. If you’re at a healthy weight, then you probably don’t do a lot of emotional eating. But I recently sent out a survey about emotional behaviors. I asked participants if they ever engaged in the behaviors I mentioned above, and had them respond with “frequently, occasionally, sometimes, or never”. “Frequently” was scored 3 points, “occasionally” received 2 points, etc. And guess what? People who had a higher emotional eating score tended to have a higher BMI.
Emotional eating takes away your control of what you eat.
For me, emotional eating meant I never really had control over what I ate. Emotional eating kept me at a weight which was heavier than what I wanted. I always thought losing weight would be easy if I could stick with a plan, or didn’t have food cravings. And you know what? I was right. Weight loss was a whole lot easier once I learned to cope with emotions without using food.
I’m working on creating an emotional eating challenge to help people identify and improve their emotional eating behaviors. I’ll link to it here as soon as it’s ready, but if this is something you would be interested in, you can get on the wait list here.
“Do your emotions affect your eating and your weight? Take the quiz to find out!”