Getting to the Bottom of Emotional Eating

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Emotional eating can affect one’s mental and physical health. Learn what’s needed to put food back in its proper place.

Stephanie M. Smith, Psy.D.

Everyone has an emotional relationship with food, according to Stephanie M. Smith, a clinical psychologist at Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento.

That relationship is only a problem when it becomes emotional eating. Signs include eating when not hungry, feeling embarrassed being seen eating, craving comfort foods, eating “mindlessly,” or eating past the point of feeling full.

Identifying emotional eating is one thing; getting to the root of it is another. Learn more from Dr. Smith.

How does emotional eating begin?

It often develops in childhood, if one is anxious, hurt, or not feeling in control. Food is our first sign of being loved. If we don’t know any other way, then food can be our only love. Emotional eating is a way to cope, and it may be triggered by many stressors in life — conflict, being a primary caregiver, financial issues, or any sort of difficult circumstance.

Who suffers?

Often the people who emotionally eat are the ones keeping it together in other parts of their lives. They are the social hubs, manage things at home, take on hard projects, and may do the emotional labor in relationships. Then they use food to push down their own unaddressed needs.

Like all eating disorders, data skews toward women. However, emotional eating is a coping strategy used by many men and boys, as well. Perhaps because men are often made to feel that they are not allowed to feel what they feel, food can be their companion and means of connection.

What is the initial approach to addressing it?

There needs to be the recognition that there is an emotional root to the eating behavior, and then exploration of what is behind the eating. This may be a realization that certain things trigger emotions, such as the anniversary of a death, work stress, or especially challenging people. Once a person knows their triggers and how they make them feel, the connection to food behaviors becomes much clearer.

How does change begin?

It begins through self-awareness and self-compassion. We look at new ways of managing feelings. How can you spend time, money, and energy on feeling good?

In some instances, we remove the go-to foods for emotional eating from someone’s life. If you binge on ice cream when you are stressed, it may be best to not have it around and instead have healthy foods you enjoy on hand. Sugar and some fats are addictive and act like pain-killers in the brain. Instead of using these foods to cope with pain, it’s helpful to get to the source of the pain and actively address or cope with it.

With time, change may include having assertive communications with people, taking meds if prescribed, and exercising. It may mean saying good-bye to some unhealthy relationships but starting new, good ones — a lunchtime salad group or a walking club.

What may surprise us about emotional eating?

It is very akin to other sorts of addictions, in that it is an unhealthy coping strategy that can become a pattern that may seem impossible to control. But people can manage this behavior. The instinct to numb emotion with food will always be there, but we can learn not to act on that instinct.

Also, it is heart-breaking to learn just how much shame many emotional eaters have about themselves. Emotional eaters are not lacking in discipline or lazy. They are responsible people who are too used to pushing down their own needs. While others may have struggles invisible to the outside world, this group of people is often overweight and may be forced to wear struggles on the outside for all to see.

What are resources for help?

See your general practitioner, who can connect you to a therapist. If possible, work with someone who specializes in binge or emotional eating. There are lots of books on the topic, as well. Finally, the Binge Eating Disorder Association has valuable information.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. Jeannie meagher

    How may I get an appointment with Dr. Stephanie Smith?
    I suffer from emotional eating and have had this for my entire adult life.
    I am now 71 and don’t want to die from being overweight.
    I live in Sacramento.
    I can easily go to South Sacramento.
    Please help me.
    Thank you.

    • Lynn Mundell

      Thank you for your comment and interest in your health! Individual referrals to Dr. Stephanie Smith are not possible at this time. However, there are several excellent practitioners in both the Behavioral Medicine specialty within medicine departments, as well as the Department of Psychiatry, who have specialty in the area of emotional eating and could be excellent partners in health for you. Your primary care physician can direct you to the best treatment fit within your local facility. We wish you the very best on your recovery journey and thank you, again, for reaching out to us.

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