I’ve found that emotional eating is the most common cause of weight gain. Here is a great resource for emotional eating. I highly recommend you check it out even if you don’t think you’re an emotional eater yet wonder why you haven’t been able to lose weight.
Coming home from a long day at work. Feeling tired and stressed out. You were planning to finish a couple of chores, yet you have had a long day. You aren’t really hungry however you feel a craving for a certain snack. You know you shouldn’t eat it since you are trying to implement healthier eating habits. However your mind rationalizes that you deserve it, besides it’s just one snack right? how bad could it really be? So you find yourself reaching for the snack and consuming it. Afterwards you find yourself feeling a bit lazy, and instead of doing your chores you decide to just relax, watch some tv or surf the web. You rationalize that you have had a tough past couple of days and deserve a break.
Emotional Eating Defined
Emotional eating is motivated by emotions instead of real hunger. For me, usually negative emotions including fear, anger, stress, or disappointment have triggered emotional eating. Sometimes emotional eating is triggered in anticipation of a future event that you perceive will be tough, stressful or scary. Emotional eating is where the phrase comfort food stems from. Comfort foods might differ from one person to the next, but they are those foods and snacks that you tend to reach for to deal with stress or to reward yourself. Some common comfort food include ice-cream, cookies, fried food, pies/pastries, pizza, and potato chips. It’s normal to eat comfort foods occasionally, or as a planned cheat meal if you are on a strict nutritional regiment or are trying to lose weight. However for an emotional eater, reaching for a comfort food isn’t voluntary it’s rather uncontrollable behavior. Usually an emotional eater has a very tough time saying no. Also most emotional eaters only become conscious of indulging in comfort foods after already consuming them.
After consuming comfort foods, an emotional eater might feel guilty and as a result be tempted to eat more in an attempt to numb negative emotions. On a logical level, an emotional eater knows that they need to stop doing it. However on a practical level, when an emotional eater experiences negative emotions they are tempted to indulge in consuming comfort foods to deal with those emotions. In a way an emotional eater is like an alcoholic who gets drunk to avoid stress or other problems they are experiencing in their lives. To clarify, I’m not judging emotional eaters, and I’m not trying to label them. I would guess that the majority of people have indulged in emotional eating at one point or another whether or not they realize it. I myself have to work on my own emotional eating tendencies, and realize how tough it can be. I would also guess that emotional eating is one of the reasons why the majority of Americans are overweight.
Consequences of Emotional Eating
Weight Gain – Emotional eaters tend to overeat and therefore add on extra body weight. Some emotional eaters are overweight. Others develop eating disorders in an attempt to avoid gaining weight, which introduces the next consequence.
Eating Disorders – In an attempt to combat weight gain, some emotional eaters develop eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. Some emotional eaters become addicted to exercise, and exercise for several hours at a time following a binge or an overeating episode to avoid future weight gain.
Light Depression – Usually an emotional eater feels really guilty about their overeating and occasional binges the next day. As a result an emotional eater will often promise themselves not to do it again, however sooner or later they do, and as a result feel helpless. Going through this cycle often leaves an emotional eating feeling a light depression that’s always clouding over their life.
Loneliness – Since an emotional eater can’t stop engaging in the habit, they often start thinking there must be something wrong with them. They tend to make emotional eating a secret, they don’t talk about it with others. They feel that they aren’t normal, that maybe they aren’t a disciplined enough person. An emotional eater usually has good friendships, even at times a significant other just like everyone else. Even if an emotional eater is very honest about their lives, they will often keep emotional eating a secret from all their friends, relatives and significant others since they are ashamed of it. This often leaves them feeling lonely and maybe not understood.
Lack of Progress in Life Goals – An emotional eater often indulges in food as a way to numb out bad emotions. As a result when they are working on life goals whether they are financial, career or relationship goals and encounter a roadblock they often consume comfort foods in an attempt to distract themselves from having to deal with the real problems. They of course don’t do this consciously, for many emotional eaters it’s an automatic response, just like how after a bad day at work an alcoholic might just stop by the bar instead of considering finding a different job.
There are many other consequences of emotional eating, however these are the most common and serious ones. I’ve experience this myself when dealing with emotional eating and as a result this is a bit of a difficult topic for me to write about. As I’m a writing this I’m remembering past emotional eating episodes and consequences and as a result feel a deep sympathy for other emotional eaters.
Payoffs of Emotional Eating
So if there are many tough consequences of emotional eating why would anyone engage in it? or why would they keep engaging in it after experiencing the consequences? Well there are payoffs of emotional eating, just like they are payoffs of being an alcoholic, or a drug addict.
Never Having to Face the Real Problems – Usually emotional eating is a cover up for emotional, and psychological issues a person needs to deal with. For example, a big issue for me was constantly seeking other’s validation and having a tough time saying no and establishing personal boundaries. As a result when a friend would invite me to go to a boring or uninteresting event, I would often go along for the ride. The next day I would be feeling a bit depressed and might indulge in eating comfort foods to numb out those bad emotions. If I would of paused and asked why am I depressed or feeling down, I would of probably discovered the real problem, and realized that I need to set firm personal boundaries. However in a way discovering the real problems is tough because it often requires one to take tough actions and make tough choices. In my case that meant having to end some friendships and start new ones from scratch.
An Easier More Passive Lifestyle – Never having to face the real problems allows an emotional eater to live a very passive relaxing and comfortable lifestyle. An emotional eater will often resort to food instead of having to say step out of their comfort zone. As a result an emotional eater can live life in a sort of daze where they are breathing, walking, and talking yet not really alive. For example, an emotional eater will never really experience fear, they will tend to consume comfort foods to numb it out. And after they are done consuming the food they will usually keep putting off that scary action or choice they know they should take care of.
Maintaining One’s Pride & Ego - Admitting that you might have an emotional eating problem requires lots of humility. Often times an emotional eater’s pride and ego will prefer keeping emotional eating a secret even if it means never seeking treatment, or having to face the issue.
Solutions That DON’T Work
In order to protect his/her pride, an emotional eater will usually rationalize that they don’t have an eating problem instead will try to treat the obvious consequences of overeating.
Better Eating Habits – Since an emotional eater will notice that they are gaining weight as a result of indulging in comfort foods, they assume they need to eat healthier foods. They will try to change their eating habits, and might be successful for short periods of times. However once they experience a negative emotional spike, any kind of sadness, fear, worry etc. they will usually go back to indulging in their comfort foods.
Exercising – Just like an emotional eater might try to improve their eating habits, they will also try to exercise regularly. They reason that they don’t have an eating problem and just added a few extra pounds that they need to loose. An emotional eater might be successful at dropping a few pounds with exercising. However once they experience any negative emotional spikes, they will usually go back to indulging in their comfort foods.
Steps to Dealing With Emotional Eating
- Admitting and Accepting The Problem – There is nothing wrong with being an emotional eater. In fact it’s pretty common in our culture that we came up with the term comfort foods. Accept that emotional eating is something you need to deal with. None of us is perfect. Being an emotional eater doesn’t define you. So there is no need to feel guilty about it. Accepting that you have a problem is the first step to dealing with it.
- There is No Magic Pill – I have to work on my emotional eating tendencies and believe me I’ve looked and tried every solution out there, and still haven’t found the magic pill. By magic pill I mean a solution that you can immediately implement that will take care of the problem once and for all. You will have to work on your emotional eating one day at a time.
- Identify Triggers – You will need to identify what triggers your emotional eating. This can slightly differ from one person to the next. Start journaling about every emotional eating incident you experience. Whenever you overeat, pause and think about the series of events or negative emotions that lead to it and make notes. After doing this for a week or two you will get a good idea on what specifically triggers your emotional eating. This step can be tough, especially if you feel really guilty after you overeat. Forgive yourself, don’t judge your overeating, and just assess the situation from a logical perspective instead of an emotional one. In a way you are acting like your own therapist.
- Be Conscious of Your Emotional State – After you identify your triggers, you have to start being more aware of your emotional state at all times. Occasionally start asking yourself how do I feel right now? This will help you break down the automated response of resorting to food for dealing with tough emotions.
- Accept Negative Emotions – If you are feeling down, accept that. Realize that you will hopefully live a long life and there will be other times where you will feel a light depression. Don’t try to fight it, accept it. Once you accept it you can deal with it.
- Ask Questions – Once you accept a negative emotional state you need to pause and ask the following questions. Asking these questions will help you slow down instead of automatically resorting to food for comfort:
- What lead to my current emotional state? What sequence of events occured earlier? Is there a stress or problem that’s causing this?
- If I overeat right now, will this make that stress or problem go away?
- If I overeat will I really feel better? or will I just be running away from a stress or problem that I’ll have to deal with eventually anyways?
- What if I DON’T overeat? will I regreat making this decision later?
- Act Anyway – No matter what kind of an emotional state you are in, you need to take the right actions. This is a very common trait of successful people. Read my post I don’t feel like it to learn more about this idea of right action.
- See a Therapist – If after trying to deal with emotional eating on your own you aren’t seeing any progress see a therapist. You should be able to find one who specializes in overeating and emotional eating issues. However realize that seeing a therapist isn’t a magic pill, while a therapist might help, you will still have to put in the work.
I’ve found that emotional eating is the most common cause of weight gain. Here is agreat resource for emotional eating. I highly recommend you check it out even if you don’t think you’re an emotional eater yet wonder why you haven’t been able to lose weight.