When I first met MaryLou, she said her biggest issue was emotional eating. She ate frequently when she wasn’t hungry and felt compelled to eat junk foods when things didn’t go well. That certainly suggests emotional eating, but it could also be the result of other eating issues or subconscious triggers.
Emotional eating is often used as a catchall for any eating that isn’t based on a physical need, such as overeating, eating when you aren’t hungry or eating lots of unhealthy foods. Yet there can be many reasons for these things, and until you have a clear understanding of the real issue you can’t solve it.
The most common reasons that tend to fall under the emotional eating category are emotional repression, emotional deprivation (or restricted rebellion), perceived pressure and unconscious beliefs.
MaryLou was taught at an early age that junk food was bad and that she could only have it for special occasions, like when she had a good report card or on her birthday. On those days, she could have anything she wanted and as much as she wanted. She remembers those events vividly, because she got to indulge in lots of chips, candy, cake and ice cream, and then she often got sick. But it was always worth it to her. Unconsciously, she believed that going on a binge as a reward for doing something well or on special holidays was her right and that feeling terrible afterwards was to be expected. Of course, as an adult, she got to decide what was a special occasion or worthy of a reward, and instead of a few times a year she overindulged a few times a week.
This is a form of eating driven more by a belief than an emotion, although it can trigger emotions as I will describe with restricted rebellion. Other unconscious beliefs that drive food behaviors include: eating everything on your plate, not wasting food, getting your money’s worth, leftovers are bad, healthy food is too expensive, healthy food doesn’t taste good, and many more. You can probably add a few of your own to this list.
MaryLou’s belief about junk food created a dynamic that led to another type of eating, where she felt emotionally deprived on the days she wasn’t being rewarded or celebrating. As she enforced the rule that she couldn’t have the food she craved except under certain conditions, another part of her rebelled against this rule. That part of her wanted the cookies, chips and chocolate all the time, because it wasn’t sure when the next reward was going to be and felt deprived and restricted by her strict belief. So when she finally did give herself permission to have these foods, she went on a greater binge to make up for feeling deprived between binges.
This rebellion against being restricted of food or specific foods is one of the most common forms of emotional eating. Whether you feel should be restricted by the beliefs you carry, were recently restricted by a diet, was restricted as a child or anticipate being restricted by an upcoming diet; you have a high likelihood of having an emotional reaction and overeating that food or foods to make up for not getting your needs met – whether you really want or like the food or not. You won’t be able to help yourself.
MaryLou had thought her biggest issue was eating when things didn’t go well, so discovering that she was out of control with food when things went well as a reward had been a huge eye-opener for her. Yet her reward eating had a common relationship to the times she ate to cope with challenging or upsetting situations. In both cases she had a lot of emotions, but she wasn’t acknowledging them. Instead of feeling deserving and celebratory when things went well or feeling angry and frustrated when they didn’t, she turned to food and pushed those feelings down into her body unexpressed. This is classic emotional eating. And then because overeating and eating junk food made her feel badly about herself, she then ate more in an attempt to avoid feeling ashamed for what she was doing. Again, this is typical with emotional eating.
When you repress either positive or negative emotions by turning to food to feel good, you lose the ability to really feel and express your feelings or to get your needs met that are associated with those feelings. In MaryLou’s case, she wanted to feel rewarded for the things she was proud of, and that is a valid feeling and need. But overeating junk food didn’t fill that need. Instead it made her feel worse and unfulfilled. She also had valid emotions when things didn’t go well, but the more she repressed them the bigger those emotions became so she was easily triggered when the littlest of things went wrong. She also hadn’t resolved the situations that upset her, so she felt more and more out of control and more often turning to food.
To MaryLou’s surprise, as she got to observe her eating patterns working with me, was how often she ate to please other people. She had no idea that was happening. There were many times during the week when she met people for coffee, lunch, dinner or went to networking events. Often she ate when she wasn’t hungry or had already become full, because she felt she needed to. If the person she was with wanted to share a pastry or dessert, she felt she had to say yes. If others were still eating, and she was done, she felt she had to eat more so they wouldn’t be uncomfortable that she was not eating. If she was offered an appetizer, she felt she had to have one so the waiter felt appreciated. If she didn’t eat everything on her plate, she worried the chef might think she didn’t like the food. Or if she wanted to order a light salad and others asked whether she wasn’t going to get more, she felt she should get something more substantial. In the end, she almost always overate and ate something she didn’t want.
Yet the people around her probably didn’t even really care what she did or didn’t eat. She was creating her own story about what these people were thinking and then tried to meet what she perceived were everyone’s needs but her own.
Belief & Emotion-Driven Eating
As you can see, emotional eating is a mix of beliefs and emotions that subconsciously drive eating patterns, and everyone has their own unique set of beliefs, emotions and needs. Because everyone is different, I have only touched the surface as to the many ways these can appear for someone.
The trick is to be able to see what is really driving your own eating choices and behaviors without judgment, and then to change the specific beliefs, feel the specific feelings and get your real needs met. If you simply call everything emotional eating, it will be much harder to detect what is really driving you and how to finally address the exact beliefs, feelings and needs.