The Slippery-Slope Dangers of Emotional Eating

Lisa Iannucci

Do you reach for a pint of ice cream after a breakup? When work has been too stressful do you seek out your favorite comfort foods, like pizza or chocolate? Do you ache for your mom’s comforting stew or cherry pie when the world gets to be a little too much? You might be an emotional eater.

Being an emotional eater means that you're reaching for food as a source of comfort or distraction or to numb some sort of emotion that you're experiencing,” said Shanna Windle of Shine Wellness in Winter Park, Florida, who is a holistic health coach specializing in emotional eating and Rapid Transformational Therapy. “An emotional eater is looking for a sense of comfort and safety, so they tend to pick things that are higher carb and higher sugar, looking for that feeling that we had as babies.”

The Mayo Clinic states that not only major life events, but even just the hassles of daily life can trigger emotional eating, including fatigue, financial pressures and health problems. Add in the pressures of Covid-19and studies have shown that there has been an increase in emotional eating over the past two years.

According to the University of Michigan Health, common signs of emotional eating are changing your eating habits when you have more stress in your life; eating when you are not hungry or when you are full; eating to avoid dealing with a stressful situation, eating to soothe your feelings and using food as a reward.

Windle says that some people recognize that they are emotional eaters, while others may not. “They might not have made that connection yet because they're experiencing anxiety, overwhelm or boredom at the moment,” she said.

Cina Hoey explains that emotions are not actually the problem in emotional eating, but it’s our attempts to repress, ignore, and deny our feelings that are the problem.

“The key to breaking the painful cycle of emotional eating is learning to allow your feelings to be there just as they are without the need to fix or change them,” said Hoey, a licensed psychotherapist in Farmingdale, NewYork. “Cultivating these skills of mindfulness, distress tolerance, and self-compassion will not only heal your relationship with food, but teach you to ride out even the most difficult feelings without resorting to self destruction of any kind.”

Windle explains that most of her patients who are emotional eaters tend to have body image issues or need to lose weight so she looks deeper at what their beliefs are surrounding food.

“I try to find out why you are reaching for food in these instances, and then we dig a little deeper and try to figure out better things that you could be doing to get your body to feel a certain way, whether it's connected, or community, or loved or even not bored.”

For example, Windle offers other options you can do in the moment such as calling a friend, taking a walk, playing with the dog or the kids.

She also suggests a form of hypnotherapy called Rapid Transformational Therapy, to help break the emotional eating cycle. “I take you back in a guided meditation to different memories that you have surrounding the issue that you're looking to address,” Windle explains. “At a very young age, that's when all these beliefs were formed. Then we work on rewiring that belief system.”

Not everyone can afford therapy, but there are things you can do at home to help you stop your emotional eating. “When you find yourself reaching for food, pause and take that moment to ask yourself what is it that you’re really looking to feel right now?” suggests Windle. “Is it comfort? Is it excitement? Or adventure? Is it love? And then think about how you can achieve that feeling through healthier means other than food?”

If you think you’re an emotional eater, consider starting a food journal to monitor what you’re eating and, more importantly, how you’re feeling when you eat. Visit the University of Michigan Health’s website for a numbered hunger scale.

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