Emotional Eating

Dan DeFigioBehavior and Mindfulness

emotional eating

Emotional eating affects your diet’s success. It’s estimated that less than 10 percent of those who make weight loss resolutions actually keep them. Every year, tens of millions of people promise themselves they will lose weight, and while their intentions are good, most of the results are disappointing. Even if weight is lost initially, people usually put it back on – and often more! Studies show the more weight you lose, the lower your chances of keeping it off.

Emotional Eating Explained

Most people focus almost entirely on the “doing” aspects of weight loss, like diet and exercise. These are vital components of success, mind you, but there is an emotional component to food that the vast majority of people simply overlook. Emotional eating will quickly sabotage your efforts. In order to lose weight and keep it off long term, we need to do more than just think about WHAT we eat. We also need to understand WHY we’re eating.

From a very young age we’re emotionally attached to food. As children we’re often given treats, both to console us when we’re upset, and to reward us for good behavior. Most celebrations like Halloween, Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day are food-focused, and birthdays are synonymous with birthday cake. Even the mere smell of certain foods, like cookies in grandma’s oven, can create powerful emotional connections that last a lifetime.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we are conditioned to use food not only for nourishment, but for comfort. Whenever the brain experiences pleasure – whether it’s derived from drugs, a romantic encounter, or a satisfying meal – the brain releases a neurotransmitter known as dopamine. We feel good whenever dopamine is activated, but when we use food to become our reward, it can have negative health consequences.

Researchers have found a link between emotional stress and depression, and higher body mass indexes (BMI). Many of us can relate to the idea of overindulging at happy hour after a bad day at the office, for example, or eating a pint of ice cream to help us deal with a bad breakup. It’s easy to make going to the refrigerator a habitual way to try to calm down and relax.

Emotional Connections To Food

Here are tips to help recognize the emotional connection you may have to food:

  • Keep a daily food journal, and record food and your mood. Look for unhealthy patterns.
  • Identify foods that make you feel good and write down why you eat them. Do they evoke a memory?
  • Before you have any snack or meal, ask yourself: Am I actually hungry? If the answer is no, look for the real motive. Habit? Boredom? I saw food so I guess I’m hungry? Clock told me it’s time to eat?

Emotional Eating – Uncovering What You Really Want

Very often, the emotional eater will use food as a distraction against unpleasant feelings. When feelings like anxiety, depression, resentment, fear, anger, and shame rear their ugly heads, it’s all too easy to reach for the sugar as a way to give yourself something else to think about for a minute.

Using junk food as a distraction is a double-whammy — it adds unhealthy calories into your body, and it keeps you from focusing on what you really need. What you need is to be able to sit with your uncomfortable emotion without fear or judgement. Yes, you’re afraid, or Yes, you’re feeling inadequate. Cookies won’t change that. Step 1: Recognize and accept your feelings.

Step 2: Figure out what you really want. Is it peacefulness? Love and attention? A sense of control and empowerment? Eating cannot give you any of that. Once you’ve found your feelings, the next step is to find what you’re seeking. (Hint – it’s not sugar!)

The long-term goal is to take emotion out of eating, so that you see food as enjoyable nourishment. You no longer reach for food as a reward, or as a coping mechanism to cover up your uncomfortable feelings. You’ll be more mindful of your eating (see Chapter 8 of Beating Sugar Addiction For Dummies for tips on eating mindfully). Chapter 11 gives suggestions for building an emotional eating support system around you.

Here is an interview I did for the No Sitting On The Sidelines podcast where I discuss emotional eating and sugar addiction:


Dan DeFigio how to get off sugarIf you’d like to talk about emotional eating and your relationship with food, apply for a free consultation spot!