How to stop emotional eating

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Emotional eating is eating in response to emotional cues, often to cope with or soothe difficult emotions, rather than in response to hunger.

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Understanding eating and emotions

Food is necessary for survival and serves important social and cultural purposes. Eating can be a source of comfort, pleasure, and positive memories. Many people eat in response to certain emotions at least some of the time, and doing so is not inherently harmful. However, some people may experience emotional eating that feels compulsive, disrupts their lives, feels like their only strategy for coping with difficult emotions, or causes extreme guilt and shame. 

What prompts emotional eating? 

Individuals can be more vulnerable to emotional eating when they are experiencing:

  • anxiety
  • boredom
  • grief
  • coping with mental health concerns
  • uncomfortable emotions 

Individuals who experience anxiety, depression, and stress may turn to foods for comfort. Food provides reward signals to the brain through pathways such as the mesolimbic dopamine system (MDS), which is thought to mediate the processing of motivational salience, pleasure, and reward. (1) 

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Is emotional eating considered disordered eating? 

In some cases, emotional eating can bring about a restriction-binge cycle, which can feel scary and out of control. Both emotional eating and binge eating can be triggered and exacerbated by restriction. This can happen both in response to physical deprivation and psychological restriction, especially when certain foods or food groups have been mentally labeled off-limits. So yes, emotional eating or compulsive “overeating” can be classified as disordered eating.

How to stop emotional eating 

For individuals who want to stop the cycle of restricting and emotionally eating, or who want to work on developing alternative responses to difficult emotions, there are several important factors to consider. Because emotional eating can be a response to physical or mental deprivation, eating enough food consistently is essential, as is making sure that no foods are labeled bad or off-limits unless there are allergies or intolerances. Regularly incorporating any foods that were previously restricted can reduce out of control feelings around them.

Building a relationship with food that factors in physical needs, pleasure, and satisfaction can involve with following: 

  • Mindfulness
  • Intuitive eating
  • Recommendations from a registered dietician familiar with disordered eating
  • Understanding hunger queues

Mindfulness is the practice of cultivating increased awareness of one’s thoughts. Mindfulness can be enhanced through simple exercises such as: slow deep breathing, guided imagery, and body awareness. These practices can be incorporated into making decisions around food. 

Intuitive eating is a strategy for making peace with all types of food, while reducing the stigma of “good” and bad” foods. This concept was developed by Dieticians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.

The 10 Principles of intuitive eating, are: (5)

  1. Reject the diet mentality
  2. Honor your hunger
  3. Make peace with food
  4. Challenge the food police
  5. Discover the satisfaction factor
  6. Feeling of fullness
  7. Cope with your emotions with kindness
  8. Respect your body
  9. Movement - feel the difference
  10. Honor your health - gentle nutrition

These approaches can help with understanding hunger cues. Hunger is not something that needs to be fought or resisted, but rather a useful signal of your body asking for fuel. Consider practicing feelings of awareness and gratitude when your body signals hunger to your brain.

When emotional eating becomes an eating disorder

Some people dealing with emotional eating that they find distressing may be experiencing an eating disorder. Working with an eating disorder dietitian, eating disorder therapist, and other professionals can help identify beliefs, behaviors, and physical problems that might be related to this distress. 

Reducing emotional eating can be part of a person’s treatment goals for eating disorder recovery. This should be accompanied by developing strategies for eating enough food to meet physical needs, incorporating a variety of foods regularly, and practicing multiple strategies for emotional regulation. Intuitive eating may not be possible right away for people who have eating disorders if they don’t have consistent hunger and fullness cues, but it is a goal that some people want to work towards in recovery. 

For people without eating disorders who want to work towards a better relationship with food, it can be beneficial to work with a dietitian who specializes in intuitive eating. 

Specialists at Within Health are available to help you learn about emotional eating awareness and behavior strategies. We acknowledge that people affected by emotional eating are coping with powerful forces in the brain, and difficult-to-break cycles of behavior. Within Health offers compassionate support with evidence-based interventions to help improve relationships with food.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Resources

  1. Pierce, R. C., & Kumaresan, V. (2006). The mesolimbic dopamine system: the final common pathway for the reinforcing effect of drugs of abuse?. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 30(2), 215–238. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.04.016
  2. Adams, R. C., Sedgmond, J., Maizey, L., Chambers, C. D., & Lawrence, N. S. (2019). Food Addiction: Implications for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Overeating. Nutrients, 11(9), 2086. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11092086
  3. Kerin, J. L., Webb, H. J., & Zimmer‐gembeck, M. J. (2018). Resisting the temptation of food: Regulating overeating and associations with emotion regulation, mindfulness, and eating pathology. Australian Journal of Psychology, 70(2), 167–178. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajpy.12169
  4. Grilo, C. M., Crosby, R. D., Wilson, G. T., & Masheb, R. M. (2012). 12-month follow-up of fluoxetine and cognitive behavioral therapy for binge eating disorder. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 80(6), 1108–1113. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0030061
  5. Intuitive Eating. (2019, June 3). Retrieved April 29, 2022, from https://www.intuitiveeating.org/

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