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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Are You An Emotional Eater?

There’s a holiday weekend coming up, and you know what that means: food, food, and more food! It can also mean getting together with family, which can occasionally lead to petty disputes that turn into major resentments. Today’s post is about something that I believe is a factor in all overweight people’s lives: emotional eating.

There is a common misconception in society that fat people are fat simply because they love to eat. A lot of people think that all fat people do is just sit around in front of the TV and stuff our faces with junk, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, simply as a hobby. Many “reality” shows have helped spur that perception along, and there is a segment of the “fat population” who do live these kind of lifestyles. However, even those who do eat to excess are not doing it simply because they love to eat. They are doing it because it’s the only way they know how to cope with difficult emotions.

Food is not evil. Food is pleasurable, and it’s meant to be enjoyed. But anything done to excess is not good. Thin people are emotional eaters too. Everyone uses food to comfort themselves now and then … but when it’s a tactic that’s used on a regular basis, it becomes a problem. I guess it wouldn’t be so bad if the food we were tempted to binge on was carrot sticks and celery … but let’s get real. When we binge, that’s not what we eat. We go for the good stuff -- the sweet, salty, fatty stuff. And overindulging in that kind of food is not healthy for anyone, fat or thin.

From my own experience, I know there was a very lengthy period in my life when the only way I knew how to relieve painful emotions was to eat them away. One of my favourite things to do when I had a quiet room to myself, was to grab a bowl of potato chips and a good book, and snuggle myself on the couch with both of them. Then I would just lose myself. I would eat, and read, and eat and read … a lot of the time I didn’t even absorb the words I was reading. It was very comforting, and I looked forward to that time by myself. I knew it was unhealthy to indulge in this every day, but I couldn’t stop myself. I felt like it was my only respite from my daily life. I needed that peace and quiet, and that feeling of safety and security.

I felt like my life was totally out of my control. Nothing was going the way I expected it to. I was horribly lonely. I didn’t have a boyfriend, didn’t have a job, my friends had all started their lives with marriages and kids, and I rarely saw them anymore. My dad had gone through a horrible illness and decline, and an equally horrible death. I felt alone and abandoned. I was terrified. When I thought about my future (which I did on a daily basis), I had no idea what was going to happen to me, but I suspected that nothing that did happen was going to be any good. Plus, I was always the sensitive type. I tended to nurture every bad thing that had ever happened to me and re-enact it in my mind, over and over again. So I ate those feelings away. I ate to stuff all that fear and trepidation down. The food was like a battering ram, stuffing those feelings right back down my throat.

A lot of us eat to stuff those feelings down. And there is such a range of negative emotions to draw from – they can range from what seems like simple boredom to outright terror. It’s amazing how the mind can take a seemingly trivial incident and turn it into a catastrophe, especially for us creative types. I think a lot of overweight people are deep thinkers because a lot of large people are isolated. They’re afraid to get out there and live life, so they stay safe in their homes. And what else is there to do when you’re stuck at home, but eat and think? It’s not a good combination.

If you’re an emotional eater, it’s crucial that you learn how to deal with the emotions that trigger you to eat. This is not necessarily to lose weight; it's more of a conscious decision to take better care of yourself. Even if you can’t stop yourself from turning to food in order to deal with difficult emotions, the first step is to recognize what you’re doing.

The next time you feel tempted to appease that uncontrollable urge to eat when you’re not hungry, try this exercise*. It doesn’t matter how stupid you think it is, or how useless you think the exercise will be. Do it anyway. If you still want to eat afterward, then go ahead. But do the exercise first.

Take pen in hand and number from 1 to 5. Finish the following phrase:

If I let myself admit it, I feel sad that … (do this five times)

Take pen in hand again. Number from 1 to 5. Finish the following phrase:

If I let myself admit it, I feel mad that …

Take pen in hand a third time. Number from 1 to 5. Finish the following phrase:

If I let myself admit it, I feel bad that …

You might find yourself surprised at what comes out the other end of that pen. You also might be surprised at the calm and relief you feel when you answer these questions. Nobody else has to see it but you. What’s important is that you become aware of what’s going on inside you. Before any kind of change occurs, there has to be awareness. You cannot change anything without becoming aware of it first. I believe it was Einstein who said that madness is when you keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result.  "You cannot fix a problem with the same consciousness that created it."

*FROM: “The Writing Diet” by Julia Cameron


  1. I am most definitely an emotional eater and have been from a very young age. I have had numerous therapist tell me that I'm trying to fill a hole inside of me or that food is the only thing I can control in life so that's why am an emotional eater. I know what I'm doing is wrong and unhealthy but as I see it there are worse things I could be doing like; coke, cutting myself, starving myself ect. I am in no way trying to justify emotional eating but for some reason it really makes me mad when people are like well exercise when you feel that way or do something you love like read a book or draw a picture. There is so much more to that underlying reason that I am emotional eating that I don't want to draw a picture. I really enjoyed this blog and it does make you think maybe next try something different but it's something that people turn to and have for years so it's not going to change overnight.


  2. Hi Amy,

    Thank you for your honest, heartfelt comment. I have gone the therapist route, and I've had 'well meaning' people tell me to do this or that instead of eating ... but if they don't have this problem, they really can't understand how deep it is. you're right, it's not going to be solved overnight or get miraculously better by drawing a picture, but if you just keep being aware of it and thinking about why you do it, it's a definite step in the right direction.

    I also liked your point about comparing it to other addictions, like drugs or alchohol. I think a lot of us are so used to being the 'good girls' that that is one reason why we 'chose' this addiction, if you will ... we can still be addicts but we aren't getting into criminal trouble and embarrassing our families and all that .. it's kind of a 'safe' addiction, a 'respectable' one, if you will. but it can be just as damaging as any other addiction.

    it is very, very complicated. just keep being aware of it. you're way ahead, if you just do that. eventually, you may feel like you understand what drives you to eat when you're not hungry enough to actually stop yourself now and then.

    much love, sweetie!

  3. if im upset ill eat more yes strange how i dont lose my appetite habit more often