Understanding Emotional Eating—and How to Stop

This is part three in the Break-Up with Dieting series. I’ve explained why diets fail and how failing your diet has nothing to do with willpower. In this third segment, I discuss how our emotional eating creates barriers when making healthy relationships with food.

It was a Friday at 9 p.m. I finally got home after a long day at work, and I felt emotionally drained. My husband and I planned on making dinner that night. But as I was pulling out the ingredients to make dinner, I mindlessly grabbed this tub of leftover cookie dough we had in the fridge and proceeded to eat it with my hands.

My husband came to help me in the kitchen, and when he saw what I was doing, I just said, “I don’t know why I’m eating this.” He laughed, put the lid on the container, and put the cookie dough far out of my reach. 

Truth be told, I knew exactly why I was reaching for that cookie dough, but I was too scared to admit it to him. I had a bad day, and when I typically have bad days, I reach for food that makes me feel good. Especially if it’s something I can immediately eat and not have to wait and prepare. 

My reaction to eating a certain food—like cookie dough—to feel better is probably one you’re familiar with. I mean, it’s what pop culture tells us we should do. Bad breakup? Eat chocolates in bed and watch movies all day like Elle Woods, or “wallow” with a bucket of ice cream and lots of pizza like Rory Gilmore. We’re taught that the “healthy” way to handle our emotions is to confront them, and of course, eat our way until we feel better.

But think about it: How many times have you attempted to “wallow” over whatever emotion you are feeling with a tub of ice cream and actually feel better afterward? Did the tenth scoop really make you feel better?

I’m the queen of emotional eating

The cookie dough incident in my kitchen isn’t the first time I’ve reached for some kind of food to make myself feel better. I’m the queen of placing food with particular emotions. So much so that I had particular meals planned for particular moments of my life. My “break up” meal was always Chinese food and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked. My celebration food was always wood-fired pizza. Anytime I would get together with a girlfriend who wasn’t feeling her best? I would pick up some cookie dough and a bottle of cheap champagne.

Let me preface this post by saying that this is not to make you feel guilty. In fact, I’m here to teach you how to completely remove emotions from your eating altogether. You shouldn’t feel guilty about what you eat. Better yet, you don’t have to feel anything at all.

As you can see, I was the queen of attaching emotions and food. I always knew I could rely on a delicious meal to make me feel good in that moment, whether it be as severe as a breakup or as small as a bad day. 

The foods I would reach for were never vegetables, of course. It was always some kind of food that would give me that delicious feeling of a sugar-high. Something that would taste so delicious that maybe, just maybe, that small fleeting moment will take my pain away. But unfortunately enough, the moment was just that. Fleeting.

Even after all your efforts to make yourself feel better with food, surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly), your emotions are still there. They didn’t magically disappear like you thought they would.

Yet somehow we still turn to this as the solution for our problems, and honestly, I don’t think it’s our fault. Emotional eating is something that has been so ingrained into the human condition that we can’t help but continue to turn to it—even after watching it fail over and over and over again.

Emotional eating is a passed-down behavior

My mother has always been a champion for my happiness. She cared so much about my wellbeing, that sometimes she didn’t care if that meant breaking the rules. I can’t even count the number of times she would crawl in my bed before school pleading me to play hooky with her so we could go shopping. All so I could feel better from whatever terrible tragedy I experienced the day before.

She’s also the kind of woman who loves to indulge in a treat with me whenever one of us feels down. We would make brownies from box mixes, scoop large amounts of mint chip ice cream in a bowl, or eat Oreos by the sleeve. She even would keep little bowls of candy around the house or snacks in little trays for easy grabbing.

It was never her fault that this is what we did. Eating to feel better was something that was also engrained in her thanks to a combination of her family, friends, and the culture around her. So my reaction to eat food when I’m feeling any kind of emotion was unfortunately passed down to me from her, with a little help from my friends who agreed that Ben & Jerry were “the only two men for me.”

Even studies show this to be true! Springer Science & Business Media published a study “Eating Their Feelings: Examining Emotional Eating in At-Risk Groups in the United States” which states the following:

Social expectations toward food consumption have evolved over the years and with the increasing availability of foods, particularly high-calorie foods, overconsumption becomes an even greater concern. Evidence from this research also suggests that individuals who emotionally eat may be doing so because others are socially facilitating such behavior. Finally, despite regulatory and policy efforts to create more informed consumers by providing nutrient content information on labels and packaging, emotional eaters possess little motivation to process this information.

Springer Science & Business Media

Eating food as a reaction to some kind of emotion really wasn’t my fault. It’s what I was taught by so many around me because sadly, we’ve made emotional eating a cultural norm. Eating to feel better, to “treat yourself,” is encouraged.

Think about it: How many times have you reached for food, when you really didn’t even feel hungry in the first place? Was it because of a particular emotion you were feeling? Did someone encourage you to do so? And most importantly, did that particular food actually satisfy whatever you were feeling? Did you truly feel content not minutes, but hours after consuming it?

Feeling shame makes things worse

In her book Secrets From the Eating Lab, Traci Mann, Ph.D., Professor of Social and Health Psychology at the University of Minnesota, dives deep into failed diet culture with many years of research, and emotional eating is a topic that she does expand on. Here’s what she wrote in part of her book.

“To be fair, guilt has its redeeming qualities. Because guilt is a negative response to a real or perceived failure, it tends to motivate people to try to repair what went wrong. On certain occasions, this can be useful. The problem is when guilt starts to morph into shame. Shame occurs when instead of feeling bad about a particular mess-up, the feeling spreads to a more general sense of messing up, causing you to feel like a bad person. Shame is more painful than guilt, and to add injury to insult, shame has been shown to lead to a release of—you guessed it—the stress hormone cortisol, and another kind of cell in the immune system (called a proinflammatory cytokine), which, among other things, can promote the growth of disease. In addition to these physical problems, shame is also linked to psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and eating disorders.”

Traci Mann, Secrets From the Eating Lab

Now I’m not in the camp of encouraging guilt, I think guilt is a feeling we should never feel. But Dr. Mann’s point does bring up something particularly interesting about the human condition. If we have wronged someone, our natural reaction (or the “guilt” we feel) would be to apologize and fix it. So while it’s not exactly “guilt” in the same way we see it, understanding something that was wrong and wanting to make it right is a naturally good reaction.

Feelings of shame, however, is not what we should feel. When you feel shameful, your reaction to eating ice cream goes from “sweets aren’t great for me” to “I am the worst and I have no self-control.”

So often we dwell in shame after eating a meal, and according to Dr. Mann, it’s not even doing us any favors. Along with the laundry list of physical problems one faces because of shame—like depression and anxiety—shame releases cortisol, a stress hormone that increases the glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream which turns on our natural “fight-or-flight” tendencies. According to an article published by MayoClinic, “[cortisol] alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear.”

And, of course, high levels of cortisol also naturally causes an increase in appetite and a metabolic shift, leading your body to store fat. So the reason why you continue to reach for food under stress or feeling immense shame is actually a natural reaction to the cortisol hormone flooding through your body and creating an even more intense appetite than you felt before.

Stress and shame, two natural reactions of emotional eating, are wreaking havoc on your body and soul. Yet we don’t seem to think that having stress or shame towards our food isn’t as big of a deal as stress or shame we feel about other “bigger” things in our lives, like cheating on a partner or stealing from someone.

It’s time to remove emotional labels from your food

Do you have categories of “good” and “bad” foods in your life? For example, if you a burger and fries instead of a salad, would you consider those to be “bad” foods? Would you start telling yourself that it’s a “guilty pleasure” and it’s “sinful” to be eating it?

While culture has taught us to attach emotions to our eating habits, it has also taught us how to attach titles or emotions to particular foods. Salads are good. Burgers are bad. Chocolate cake is sinful. The list goes on.

You see, when we attach an emotion to our food, we also attach that emotion to ourselves when consuming it. How many times have you consumed a “guilty pleasure” and yourself soon consumed with guilt?

So if we were to detach feelings and food, what would our eating habits look like? Would we indulge in a chocolate cake without feeling guilty or sinful? Could we order a salad with delight simply because we love it, not because it’s a food that’s “good” to eat?

I know this seems impossible, especially if you’ve been so used to dieting and restricting yourself from your guilty pleasures. But I promise you, the key to feeling fully healthy is to look at all foods as equal and to understand them from a nutritional, scientific perspective. Chocolate cake is great, not sinful, and we can fit it into our diet when we fully understand our bodies and nutrition (which I’ll talk about more in the next post.)

To requote the Eating Their Feelings study, instead of being consumers with “little motivation” to process nutritional information, we can people informed by the science of our bodies and nutrition, without having the tangled-up mess of our emotions always getting in the way.

How to detach those emotional labels

This week, as you eat something, take some time to think about why you’re eating with these simple questions.

  • Why are you eating this particular item? Is it because you are truly hungry, or simply eating to fill an emotional need?
  • If it’s emotional eating (or even “treating yourself”), what’s something different you could do that would make your body feel better for the long term?
  • What emotional label have you attached to the food you are about to eat?
  • What language can use around that food so you can detach that emotional label?

I’m a huge fan of this article by Time that gives some insight into stress eating, and practices you can try to combat it.

When I find myself leaning towards emotional eating, I like to journal. It helps me to work through whatever complicated emotion I’m feeling at the time, instead of eating something to suppress whatever emotion it is. I also like to find someone to talk to—whether that be my husband or a friend. Grabbing a coffee with a friend and just talking through what you’re currently working through can be super transformative, and will help you create an even healthier relationship with your food.

This is part of an on-going series.

I’ll be writing more on this topic as time goes on, so if you want immediate updates from me, get on my email list.

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