At a seminar I gave recently on emotional eating, Cyndie, an attractive, well-dressed woman in her late forties came up to me and shared: “Even though I’m obviously overweight, I don’t think that I’m an emotional eater because I don’t eat at all when I’m sad or depressed. In fact, I can’t eat at those times. I tend to overeat at meals and I eat when I’m under stress at work.” When I asked her why she believed she ate too much at mealtime, she responded “I’m a foodie; I just love food.” And when I inquired as to why she felt she needed food when she was experiencing stress at work, she claimed “It helps me calm down.”
Cyndie is an emotional eater. Emotional eater’s don’t just eat when they’re sad or depressed. They eat to cope with a wide array of unpleasant emotional states such as: boredom, stress, anxiety, worry, fear, anger, hurt, guilt, shame, rejection, loneliness, emptiness, insecurity and powerlessness. They eat in an attempt to soothe, calm, comfort and distract themselves from these emotions, even if they’re not aware they’re experiencing them. In addition, emotional eating represents an attempt to bring into one’s life more pleasure, excitement, celebration and reward.
Whether or not we label ourselves “foodies,” we all eat emotionally at times; food is incredibly satisfying, soothing, calming and pleasurable.The problem arises when we overeat to such an extent that we are significantly overweight or our health is compromised. This is the case with Cyndie–she is fifty pounds overweight and she was recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
It took a bit of sleuthing to find out what was underneath Cyndie’s emotional eating. When I shared with her that I thought she was eating emotionally, she responded “Wow, I must really be out of touch with my emotions; I just thought the problem was that I love food and have too much stress in my life.” I asked her what would happen if she ate the foods she loved, in smaller portions. She said that when she tried to limit her portion sizes, she felt deprived. I asked what she felt was missing in her life–what was she really feeling deprived of?
Cyndie began to tear up. “Where should I start? I’m divorced and don’t think I’ll ever find another partner at my age and at this weight. I’ve just been diagnosed with diabetes, although I thought that was just genetic since my mother has it. My mother is getting older and needing more help and care. My teenage daughter and I have a strained relationship. My job is super stressful and I don’t feel excited about my work anymore. I just don’t feel that fulfilled by life. Hmm, I guess I’m filling up on food because I don’t feel I can resolve any of these situations.”
One thing is clear–eating more food will not help Cyndie solve any of the challenges in her life or end her sense of powerlessness. But she has taken the first step: she attended the seminar and she mustered the courage and willingness to look more closely at her situation.
The good news is that we can stop emotional eating by being willing to pay attention to our emotions and allow them to guide us to the unresolved issues in our lives. If you think your eating has an emotional component, start with the following small baby step:
The next time you feel like eating when you’re not physically hungry,want to choose unhealthy comfort food when you are hungry or eat beyond full, turn inward for a moment, connect with yourself and ask yourself: “What am I truly longing for?” “What is there not enough of in my life?” You might be surprised by the answer. You may not be able to meet this need or desire immediately, but remind yourself that overeating or snacking on junk won’t get you any closer to your goal either.
In this moment, is there some other way you could take care of yourself? The moment when the urge to grab food is strong is an opportunity to practice and build new self-care skills. Yes, you may feel somewhat unfulfilled and a bit uncomfortable if you refrain from eating, but think about how uncomfortable you already are with the extra weight, poor health and chronic self-disappointment. You’ll feel better about yourself if you push away from the food and nourish yourself in some other way.
Say something to yourself like “Even though I’d like to eat more food in this moment, it’s not really food that I’m yearning for. I’m feeling _____ and would like more _____ in my life.
When I asked Cyndie to try this with herself, she stated: ”Even though I’d like to eat more food in this moment, it’s not really food that I’m yearning for. I’m feeling overwhelmed and stressed by all my work and care-taking duties and would like more quality down time in my life.”
Your feelings, needs and desires are valid. Begin addressing your needs and desires by giving yourself the gifts of patience, compassion and kindness. You deserve support and love–commit to give this to yourself. Over time, you can resolve the issues underlying your overeating.
Cyndie continued: “I can start by giving myself the love and support I need. I can commit to working on being kinder to myself, to carve out more alone time, and to say ‘no’ more often to things I really don’t want to do.”
Your emotional eating represents an attempt to disconnect from unpleasant emotional states and bring more pleasure into your life. You can and must end this disconnection by being willing to pay attention to your emotions and needs. They are your most precious guides. Get to know them well.
Julie M. Simon, MA, MBA, MFT is a Licensed Psychotherapist and Life Coach with a full-time private practice specializing in the treatment of overeating and associated mood disorders. In addition to her education and twenty plus years experience as a psychotherapist, she is a Certified Personal Trainer with twenty-five years of experience designing personalized exercise and nutrition programs for various populations. Julie is the founder and director of The Twelve-Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program, an alternative to dieting that addresses the mind, body and spirit imbalances that underlie overeating. Julie offers individual, couple, family and group psychotherapy as well as classes and seminars. In addition to overeating, Julie offers psychotherapy and coaching for the following issues: relationship challenges, including marriage and couples, career development and transitions, work related stress, self-esteem, childhood dysfunction and trauma, grief and loss, co-dependency, self-care skills, and assertiveness training. Julie is the author of the upcoming book The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual—A Practical Mind/Body/Spirit Guide for Putting an End to Overeating and Dieting. Visit her website at www.overeatingrecovery.com.