Monday, May 17, 2010

How I Started to Combat My Emotional Eating

A few years ago, I walked into my condo after a hard day of work and was completely stressed out, frustrated and upset with how the day had gone, and I wanted to stuff my face. Ironically, I can’t remember what happened that day at work, but I can clearly remember how the rest of the night went. I heated up an individual serving of whatever meal I had cooked for supper that week and sat down to eat it in front of the news.

When I finished eating supper, I wasn’t even close to feeling satisfied. I had no idea what I wanted to eat, but I had an overwhelming urge to keep eating. I knew I was not physically hungry and that this was probably a desire for emotional eating. It got to the point that it was too strong to resist, and I ate a bunch more food.

Lying back on my couch staring at the TV after I stopped eating, I knew I shouldn’t have eaten any more food. I wasn’t hungry. Before I let myself get completely disgusted and mad with myself, I noticed this wonderful feeling. My stomach felt comfortably full, and I could feel this comforting warmth spread from my stomach to the rest of my body. It was very peaceful, soothing and relaxing. It seemed to melt away the stress from work.

I knew enough about eating problems and emotional eating to recognize that this feeling was not necessarily a good or healthy thing. I remembered reading a comment a celebrity with eating problems made in an interview about how she overate because it felt like she was hugging herself whenever she did so. I never understood what that meant until I noticed what I was physically feeling after that eating binge. That was the feeling the celebrity wanted when she overate. It made me understand more what I was trying to achieve whenever I overate.

I had known for years at this point that I probably had a problem with emotional eating. I’d been very overweight or obese for more than 10 years, and I had no underlying medical cause for it. There had to be some emotional causes. I could even recognize at times when I was eating for emotional needs and not for physical ones. I just had no idea how to “fix” this problem and stop my emotional eating, and nothing I tried seemed to work.

Fast forward to the beginning of 2009 when I decided to give my all to my latest attempt to lose weight in the upcoming year. I knew that I’d have to try to figure out how to combat emotional eating at some point over the next year if I wanted to succeed, but I also knew it would not be easy. I had no idea how to start. In some ways, that helped. I gave myself permission to start out concentrating on doing what I could do right away – join Weight Watchers, buy healthy food, fix healthy meals, start keeping a food diary – and just let the question of how I could stop my emotional eating rest at the back of my mind for the immediate future.

I did this for months. Once I started to feel a bit more comfortable with my daily efforts to lose weight and had a little success behind me, I started thinking about what to do with my emotional eating. I listened for any of the tips fellow Weight Watchers members had to share at meetings and made note of the ones I thought would work for me. I did some reading. I observed how I behaved and tried to note when I was eating for physical reasons and when I was eating for emotional ones.

I started to develop tactics for myself to employ to stop my emotional eating, and by the end of the year, I felt like I had a real handle on that problem. I’m not perfect, and I do still eat for emotional reasons occasionally, but not nearly as much as I did in the past. All ten of my healthy guidelines are tactics and strategies I’ve developed to combat my emotional eating, but I can break it down into short-term or immediate tactics and long-term strategies. For the next month or two, I'll write more about how I started to combat successfully my urge to succumb to my desire for emotional eating or eating for reasons that have nothing to do with physical hunger.

Do you have any tips for how to combat emotional eating?

Michelle Butler has made becoming a healthy writer a priority. She lives, works and writes in the Washington, DC, area. You can follow her on twitter at


Sally Kilpatrick on May 17, 2010 at 7:52 AM said...

I'm not sure how to handle emotional eating--for me it's more of a stress eating situation. I scarfed down two pieces of pizza before the Capstone Showcase because I was nervous about having to read my work. I didn't even realize what I had done until I had already done it. I keep telling myself that at least I recognized it after the fact; how many times had I eaten like that and not even noticed it?

I'm not really sure how to change the associations, but I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

Elise Hayes on May 17, 2010 at 8:11 AM said...

Recognition of what you're doing is a huge step, I think. I primarily snack as a form of procrastination. If something about my work isn't going well, I'll suddenly find myself in the kitchen, looking around. Just recognizing that pattern in myself helped. I still find myself in the kitchen pretty frequently, but most of the time I now realize what's happening in time to march myself back into the office, take a deep breath, and dive back in.

Anne MacFarlane on May 17, 2010 at 11:56 AM said...

I realized this past year that whenever I feel like overeating I'm alone. I rarely overeat in social situations because I find myself so engaged with other people I often forget about the food in front of me. Recognizing this fact was a real eye opener for me and helped me deal with some of the emotional eating.

Michelle Butler on May 17, 2010 at 8:18 PM said...

I consider stress eating emotional eating. Pretty much any kind of hunger that is not caused by hunger is emotional eating in my mind. I know a lot of folks aren't as comfortable with the term e.e. as I am, but I think of almost all of it as variations of e.e.

When I'm doing some stress eating, I know I'm often trying to comfort or sooth myself momentarily - ease my anxiety. Sometimes knowing what is going on can make me more comfortable with the unease and stops that urge to eat.

One of our guest bloggers quoted a therapist who had told her that she had to become accustomed to accepting emotional unease - comfortable with emotional unease - something along those lines. I found that insightful - just recognizing what was really "working against me" so to speak. Anyway, one of the things I'm striving to do is to learn how to handle emotions better. I'll explain more about this in the weeks to come - hopefully it'll be helpful.

Michelle Butler on May 17, 2010 at 8:21 PM said...

Recognition can help. Sometimes I'm so far gone, I need more help than recognition - but it is super helpful. Understanding what is going on can help me stop.

Some folks argue though that you should just have rules you follow no matter what to combat overeating - e.g. only eat 3 meals a day, no snacking, no sugar or you can only have one dessert a week, etc. Kessler is into that aproach.

Michelle Butler on May 17, 2010 at 8:26 PM said...


That had to be a powerful and hopefully helpful realization. Has it helped you come up with ways to guard against it or stop it?

Alas, I can overeat with folks and when alone. The latter can be caused more by loneliness than anything else, but I can't say I only overeat in certain situations.

I should probably admit that I've been doing some overeating in CA. My vacation is not stopping the overeating that started at the work conference. Ah well, I'm a work in progress in overeating. I pretty much knew that these 2 weeks in CA would not be ones when I lost weight. I'm having a good time though. :) I'm looking at the Pacific in San Simeon right now.

Richard Kuhns on May 17, 2010 at 11:06 PM said...

In any weight loss endeavor, it's important to remember that the brain has two primary directives–pleasure seeking and survival. From childhood we have learned to associate food with both. Associated with pleasure are what most call good emotions–happiness, joy, elation and so on. Associated with survival are what most call bad emotions–frustration, boredom, confusion, anger, depression and so on.

Unfortunately most programs to lose weight or deal with binging focus on food and forget the emotional programming.

Focusing on what you do or do not eat to control or lose weight is like trying to fly by flapping your arms. Better to focus on the stress of the emotion whether it be frustration, happiness, upset, anger, joy and learn to take it straight rather than diluting with food.

Yes, 95% of all diets and eating programs fail. Why? For a free report please go to

Michelle Butler on May 18, 2010 at 12:13 AM said...

Thanks, Richard. Your advice was helpful.

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