Glenn Mackintosh  - August 2021

The First Step to Overcoming Emotional Eating

Health fruits and vegetables

If you’re a member of my community, you’ve probably heard me talk a LOT about emotional eating …

I’ve shared how it’s like ‘triple dipping on a bad mood’, to how challenging emotions effect your food choices beyond emotional eating (by draining your willpower), through to the seemingly crazy (but super helpful!) idea that emotional eating can be a great gift, and even how to overcome the 5 main barriers to freeing yourself from emotional eating*!

However, there’s a simple, (but often forgotten!), first step that most people need to take before they truly free themselves from emotional eating, and to talk about it, I want to share an excerpt from my book.

"Let’s face it, emotional eating is not very fun.

It starts when you feel bad. And no one likes feeling bad. Your particular ‘badmay be stress, frustration, sadness, loneliness, boredom or some combination of the plethora of unpleasant feelings we naturally experience as human beings. No matter what you call these feels, you don’t like them and you want them to go away!

For many of us, eating is a convenient, cheap and reasonably socially acceptable way of dealing with our feelings. It doesn’t sound like a bad way to go about it (especially compared with smoking, drinking or drugs). And we may feel as though our comfort foods are something reliable we can count on, something we need to get us through the day – friends, even.

The trouble is, they’re false friends.

Emotional eating rarely does what it says it will. Research shows (and you already know) that overeating may provide temporary relief from unpleasant feelings – but shortly afterwards they come back. And they’re no longer alone: you’ve reordered the original feelings with a side order of guilt.

Part of this guilt is due to the food judgements we spoke about in Step 4 [of the book], so you may have already noticed it subsiding a little.

But it’s not only the food judgements that make you feel bad. Emotional eating is closely linked with binge eating, where you eat a larger amount of food than is considered ‘normal’ given the situation and often feel a sense of losing control. If your emotional eating has binge-like elements, or you find emotions trigger binge eating, it can be quite unpleasant, to say the least.

You may also have values around eating nutritiously. Remember, when we’re out of line with our values we feel bad. If emotional eating episodes cause you to stray too far from your food values too often, you’re going to feel worse, not better. All of these factors are reasons why emotional eating is like double dipping on a bad mood.

It’s not only the psychological impact, though. Emotional eating also keeps you locked in a struggle with your weight. The table below shows that emotional eaters tend to weigh more, gain more weight over time, and yoyo more6 than people who don’t emotionally eat as much.

We don’t want to make it all about the scales, but if you continue to gain weight after reading this book [or doing any type of intuitive eating / non-dieting work], you’re probably not going to think it’s worked for you (and you’ll start looking for something thinsane to lose it again). The reality is that the weight gain over time is another reason why emotional eating makes you feel like crap.**

(Note that you can check your own emotional eating score against this graph by looking at your ‘Difficulty Controlling Overeating – Emotional Eating’ score in this free Psychological Profile.)

When you put it all together, it’s not surprising that emotional eating is associated with depression, not to mention many other difficulties with psychological wellbeing, as well as being a barrier to having a positive relationship with food.

Let’s not catastrophise – emotional eating isn’t the world’s biggest problem – but when you free yourself from it, you are going to feel a lot better. In this step [of the book], I’m going to show you exactly how you can say goodbye to emotional eating for good. In fact, while it’s not without effort, overcoming emotional eating can be easier than you think!

The first thing I want you to reflect on is simply that emotional eating doesn’t work very well. There is no nutritional solution to an emotional problem. While you may already know it, connecting with this wisdom in real time is often the first step to overcoming emotional eating. If you can recognise that no matter how you are feeling emotionally, the answer is probably not in the fridge, pantry or local convenience store, you will have made an important breakthrough. We all want to feel better, and closing the door to something that is not the answer will have your mind opening up to what will be."

Often, the first challenge to freeing yourself from emotional eating is recognizing how ineffective emotional eating actually is. So I’d like you to practice this simple activity: just be mindful of what happens to you – physically, mentally, and emotionally – when you emotionally eat … just begin to notice what happens (and to what degree it helps or doesn’t help), and I’d love to hear about your experiences!

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Glenn Mackintosh 
Weight Management Psychologist

*If you’d like to see a real life story of overcoming emotional eating, please see this recent episode of ABC’s catalyst, where I help John through his challenge with eating chocolate and biscuits on the way to and from work (it’s a great little segment, and a really good episode as well)!

**Thus, the ‘triple dipping’ on a bad mood that I spoke about in my aforementioned blog!

References:
1. J.A. Redlin, R.G. Miltenberger, R.D. Crosby, G.E. Wolff & M.I. Stickney (2002). Functional assessment of binge eating in a clinical sample of obese binge-eaters. Eating and Weight Disorders, 7(2): 106–15.
2. P. Rozin, C. Fischler, S. Imada, A. Sarubin & A. Wrzesniewski (1999). Attitudes to food and the role of food in life in the USA, Japan, Flemish Belgium and France: Possible implications for the diet-health debate. Appetite, 33(2): 163–80.
3. V. Ricca, G. Castellini, C. Lo Sauro, C. Ravaldi, F. Lapi, E. Mannucci, C.M. Rotella & C. Faravelli (2009). Correlations between binge eating and emotional eating in a sample of overweight subjects. Appetite, 53(3): 418–21; S. Pinaquy, H. Chabrol, C. Simon, J. Louvet & P. Barbe (2003). Emotional eating, alexithymia, and binge-eating disorder in obese women. Obesity Research, 11(2): 195–201.
4. W.S. Carlos Poston, J.P. Foreyt & G.K. Goodrick (1997). The Eating Self-Ef cacy Scale. In S. St Jeor (ed.), Obesity Assessment: Tools, Methods, Interpretations. London: Chapman and Hall, pp. 317–25.
5. J.P. Foreyt, R.L. Brunner, G.K. Goodrick, G. Cutter, K.D. Brownell & S.T. St Jeor (1995). Psychological correlates of weight fluctuation. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 17(3): 263–75.
6. Ibid.; S. Byrne, Z. Cooper & C. Fairburn (2003). Weight maintenance and relapse in obesity. International Journal of Obesity, 27(8): 955–62.
7. M.A. Ouwens, T. van Strien & J.F. Leeuwe (2009). Possible pathways between depression, emotional and external eating: A structural equation model. Appetite, 53(2): 245–8.

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