Emotional Eating

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Last week, I received the following email from one of my patients:

“I wanted to touch base about a concept that keeps coming up in food podcasts/books/articles, etc. The idea of ‘emotional eating,’ and what that even means. I understand that it is the idea of food being comforting and thus using it as a coping mechanism, but isn’t food almost always tied with emotion (happy, guilty, satisfied/pleased, disappointed, etc.)?

“I think this concept is referring to eating when not hungry to deal rather than other ways, but often I hear rethinking if that cupcake in the middle of the afternoon is what you need or to call a friend or go for a walk.’ Yes, I agree that sometimes if I am tired, I will crave these foods, and realize I just need a nap. However, what if I crave a sweet snack in the middle of the afternoon, after lunch, because I am hungry and that’s what I want? To be honest, I don’t love this idea because it feels judge-y. Am I interpreting it wrong?

“Also, on a Friday after a long week, I look forward to a drink, a meal of my choice, and some popcorn in front of the TV. Does that make me an ‘emotional eater,‘ too? I don’t think that is wrong but maybe this is not how I should be coping with stress…? Thanks!”

“Emotional eating” is a buzzword phrase that seems to be everywhere lately. Many of my patients come to me to help them stop “emotionally eating” because they see it as a problem or a failure on their part. I thought it might be a good idea to explain what I believe emotional eating is and what it isn’t and whether it should be seen as problematic or not.

From the time that we are babies, feeding (i.e., via breast milk or formula) is one of the very first ways our parents/caretakers take care of us and show us love. Feeding and eating are primal actions that serve as a way to keep us alive; we depend on our caretakers to help us with this at the beginning. When a baby is hungry, he or she will cry, and the caretaker will provide nourishment to take away the feelings of discomfort from hunger and give the baby satisfaction. This basic hunger-crying-feeding-satisfaction loop happens over and over again and basically cements itself in the infant’s brain that the only way to get rid of one’s uncomfortable hunger is to cry until mom or dad gives the infant nourishment. This way, a very strong connection is forged between food and love as our caretakers are the first ones in our lives who provide both of these necessities to us.

As we grow up, food and eating situations are often connected with emotions. For instance, you might have very strong and fond memories of your grandmother’s apple pie and how lovingly she served it to you on special occasions. Or perhaps you remember how your dad used to make you the perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich for school every day, cutting off the crusts just so, and how this made you feel loved and special. We collect these eating/emotion experiences throughout our lifetime, and as a result of this, we can elicit some of the above emotions by eating some of the associated foods.

I believe that while eating can often be associated with emotions, it does not necessarily need to be problematic. When most people nowadays use the term “emotional eating,” I believe they are referring to the behavior of trying to cope with negative emotions or situations by eating comfort food in the absence of hunger. In my opinion, someone occasionally dealing with their emotions by eating is not a big deal, but if it becomes a chronic habit that is bringing discomfort or pain and/or not truly helping to assuage that person’s negative emotion or situation, that would be something to be curious about in a very neutral and self-compassionate way. It’s important to realize that feeding ourselves comfort food sometimes even if we are not hungry is one way that we are trying to take care of ourselves. It might not be the most helpful or effective way to give ourselves self-care, but it is a self-care attempt nonetheless.

In response to my patient’s thought that food is “almost always tied with emotion,” I would say that many eating situations are not necessarily connected with emotion. For instance, I had an apple and a piece of cheese for snack today, and while it was tasty and satisfying, I didn’t have any emotions associated with it. I also think one can crave a cupcake in the afternoon for no other reason than it is what they are humming for at the time. It doesn’t have to be emotional.

At the end of the day, “emotional eating” is something that nearly everyone engages in from time to time. In and of itself, it doesn’t need to be a problem, but if it becomes the only way that you cope with negative feelings or situations and it is bringing you distress, it would be worth it to try and develop other coping strategies (with the help of a therapist) to deal with these feelings/situations in a more constructive manner.

Stocking

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“I have to get rid of these leftovers or I will eat them all.” Sound familiar? The “them” in question could be leftovers from any holiday celebration that includes food, such as Halloween candy, Thanksgiving pie, Christmas cookies, New Year’s Eve hors d’oeuvres, Easter jelly beans, Memorial Day barbecue, or birthday cake and ice cream.

The aforementioned strategy for dealing with such leftovers sounds logical on the surface and might even seem to work for a little while. If the food is not there, you cannot eat it, right? As the never-ending cycle of holidays continues though, the strategy of avoidance reveals its downsides: stress, anxiety, deprivation, reinforcement of an oversimplified and misleading good/bad food dichotomy, and increased risk for episodes of overeating or outright bingeing.

An alternative does exist, one that takes less mental and emotional energy, allows people the freedom to enjoy holiday favorites without going overboard, and makes peace with food. This alternative is stocking, which is a well-known technique among practitioners who help people with emotional eating, compulsive eating, binge eating disorder, and supposed food addictions.

Stocking is the antithesis of quickly ridding the house of holiday leftovers, and it may initially seem counterintuitive. A full explanation of the technique requires more time and space than would be appropriate for this newsletter, but here are the highlights for your consideration.

Uncouple morality from food and eating behaviors

In order to feel more comfortable with stocking, people need to rid themselves of the good/bad food dichotomy and be able to temporarily put the hard science of nutrition on the back burner. Not all foods are the same nutritionally; it would be ridiculous to proclaim that an apple has the same nutritional value as a Twinkie, and I am not arguing otherwise. What I am suggesting, however, is to strip the moralization away from food. An apple is just an apple; you are not good or virtuous if you select it for your snack. A Twinkie is just a Twinkie; you are not bad, guilty, or weak-willed if you choose it instead. Sometimes your body’s cues will lead right to the apple, other times to the Twinkie, and either outcome is okay.

Establish an abundance of food at home

Identifying what food will feel best in your body means little if you do not have a reasonable shot of providing said food for yourself. Therefore, one of the tenets of stocking is to keep a wide variety at home, including foods that are seen as taboo and can trigger overeating or bingeing.

When our body is asking for a food we do not have on hand, we tend to overeat on the foods that are in the house. This can certainly occur with both adults and children, but we especially see this with teenagers who live in food-restricted households. Well-meaning parents might keep foods high in salt, sugar, or fat out of the house because they think that doing so creates a healthy food environment, but oftentimes it backfires. For example, the teenagers overeat on low-sodium potato chips that never really hit the spot while a small amount of regular chips would have done the trick, or they overeat on Newman’s Own fig cookies when really they just want a couple of Oreos.

Select foods based on intuitive-eating cues

One of the logistical differences between those who practice intuitive eating and those who do not is how food selection begins. Standing in front of the open refrigerator or scouring the pantry and cabinets and selecting whichever foods call to you is an external process that differs greatly from asking internal questions about what temperature, texture, flavor, color, etc., food will feel best in your body at that moment and seeing where it takes you.

These cannot be treated as leading questions. In other words, if you have stocked up on, let’s say, Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, and you are trying to convince yourself that your body does or does not actually want the ice cream, then stocking will not work. Keep an open mind, ask these questions neutrally, and see where your body’s cues take you.

Maintain the inventory of foods at home, especially of triggering foods

Maintaining the abundance of food in the household is an important element of stocking. If the supply dwindles, you might feel like you need to hurry up and eat a particular food while it is still around. Should you ever run out and then buy it again, the food regains its luster. If you are stocking Doritos, for example, maintain a supply of, say, ten large bags at home. As soon as you finish two bags and are down to eight, go out and buy two more.

Be patient and use a neutral voice

Initially, you may find yourself eating certain foods when your body does not actually want them, but as you keep up the practice, eventually your trigger foods will blend in with all of the other foods in your pantry and no longer sparkle the way they do when they are brand new to the house. Until then, abstain from judging yourself harshly for eating episodes that do not go as you would have liked. Remind yourself that you are still in the early stages of the process and you are learning. With a neutral voice, examine what happened so you can respond differently when similar circumstances arise in the future.

Enjoy your new-found peace with food

Imagine how different your experience with leftover Thanksgiving pie would be if you routinely kept slices of pie in your freezer for whenever your body wanted them. Contrast the fretting you feel about the remaining Halloween candy to the relaxed liberation of always having a few bags of peanut butter cups in the pantry year-round.

For the stocking technique to be successfully implemented, foundational work to dispel nutrition myths, break up the good/bad food dichotomy, and uncouple moralization from food choices is necessary beforehand. Because this process takes time, it is probably too late for the stocking technique to be much help for you this Thanksgiving unless you have already been working on these prerequisites.

The cycle of holidays will continue though, so if you get started now, you might find you have a much more relaxing and enjoyable experience with this February’s Valentine’s Day chocolates than you would have if you continued down your current path.