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2 tools for understanding and overcoming emotional eating

Posted October 6

Emotional eating is much more common than some realize, and can feel absolutely overwhelming to the person trying to make sense of it. While it may be easy to blame the food, here are two tools to more effectively overcome emotional eating. (Deseret Photo)

If someone tells you they are not an emotional eater, you can assume they’re an emotional eater and a liar. We all eat emotionally to a certain extent. Food is social, it holds memories, and we feel comfort, satisfaction and pleasure from it. It becomes an issue when we use food to consistently distract from or numb uncomfortable emotions.

It’s much more common than some realize, and can feel absolutely overwhelming to the person trying to make sense of it. It’s really easy to blame the food and become rigid and restrictive with what foods are allowed in the house or on a diet plan. Unfortunately this only works to increase emotional distress, feelings of deprivation and cravings for the very foods that may be felt to be problematic. Restriction breeds rebellion.

In my experience there are two ways to work effectively with emotional eating. They complement and support each other while also being their own unique skill or tool.

1. Feel the emotion

Imagine that a 2-year-old is trying to get your attention. She may start by saying your name or tapping you on the leg. What happens if you don’t answer? If you have experience with 2-year-olds, you know that she gets louder and louder and more obnoxious until you answer. However, if you had responded the first time, it’s likely she just needed to be listened to, validated, helped and then sent on her way.

The same could be said for your feelings and emotions. The more you ignore them, the bigger they get. The middle part of your brain, called the limbic system, is responsible for processing emotions.

In his book “Mindsight,” Dr. Dan Siegel, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, teaches the reader about a technique called “name it to tame it.” Neuroscience has found that naming the emotion like “I feel sad” can actually decrease the stress response in the brain. When you name it, your brain increases soothing neurotransmitters that are sent to your limbic system to calm it down. The very act of moving toward the emotion, naming it and aiming to understand it decreases its power over you.

I feel like a big hurdle to doing this is the common propensity of judging yourself for how you feel. Maybe you feel like you shouldn’t feel frustrated so you avoid acknowledging it. Maybe you feel like you should feel happy so you avoid acknowledging your true emotion. I encourage you to separate who you are from what you feel. Please note that in our “name it to tame it” example above, we used the phrase “I feel sad” not “I am sad.” Feelings, thoughts and emotions are only activity of the mind, not who you are. Acknowledging them gives you a chance to be transparent, honest and authentic and move toward growth and healing.

Another hurdle is identifying how you truly feel. If you say “I am angry” and don’t feel the calming neurotransmitters doing their job, it may be because you didn’t identify the true emotion. Maybe you feel hurt, which is making you feel angry. Aim to understand and validate rather than judge and react.

Why is feeling the emotion important? Because if you can move toward the emotion, then you won’t need to move way from it — and toward food.

2. Avoid emotional reactivity

The second technique may seem to be at odds with the first, but I assure it is not. We aren’t trying to avoid emotions, just avoid letting them get to a point where they feel unmanageable. In working with clients I find there are very specific triggers for emotional reactivity.

First, you don’t stand a chance against emotional eating if you aren’t eating consistently, regularly and adequately. It’s very difficult to think cohesively, rationally and clearly when you are overly hungry. Our brains only burn glucose for energy, so if blood sugar levels are dropping, you can expect that not much fuel is getting to your brain. If you are prone to emotional eating already, feeling overly hungry just creates the perfect storm.

I encourage you to eat balanced meals (carbohydrate, protein, fat, fruit and/or vegetable) three times a day, adding snacks between if meals are longer than three to four hours apart. I am certain that you will feel more level-headed in many areas, including with food. Skipping meals might make you feel like you are saving time, but I assure you it’s only backfiring.

Second, establish clear work-life boundaries. If life feels out of balance, it’s easy to become burned out, drained and reactive. I encourage you to set clear work-life boundaries, being sure to include time for your own personal hobbies and passions. Be realistic and appropriate in setting those boundaries, but do set them.

Third, find ways to be proactive in self-care to avoid “crisis mode.” You can handle what life throws at you if you cultivate resilience regularly. This will mean different things to different people, but some good examples might include taking regular breaks during the day to get up and stretch, turning on music while you work. Put a project aside for a bit to work on something less draining (but that lets you still feel productive), practice time management by planning your day ahead of time, start your day with meditation and/or prayer to feel connected and grounded, eat meals away from your desk, set regular sleep patterns and make time for physical activities you enjoy.

I hope you are getting the idea that your emotions, feelings and well-being matter. Being too busy for them or pretending they don’t matter is likely manifesting in emotional eating. See it as a sign that coping strategies and self-care behaviors are inadequate and take steps to support yourself.

Emily Fonnesbeck is a Registered Dietitian and president of Emily Fonnesbeck Nutrition Consulting. Her nutrition passion lies in helping people make peace with food. EMAIL: emily@emilyfonnesbeck.com

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