Emotional over or under eating is something almost all of us have experienced and a lot of us struggle with.
Rest assured; all humans eat emotionally sometimes. It is a normal part of life to enjoy food and have it as a buffer in hard times. The struggle comes from feeling like emotional eating is happening to us and we don’t have a say in it. But when we’re able to have agency (i.e. I know why and when I am doing what I am doing and agree with this option) about our eating, this can change everything.
So, this post isn’t about us getting rid of emotional eating. Instead, I want to share with you my ingredients for how to overcome emotional eating. They’re the things that supported me to make food just food, even with the stressors of life. Some of these will be obvious, and some will be what you don’t find in most lists on overcoming emotional eating because they only scratch the surface layer and don’t understand the deeper roots of emotional eating.
What is at the root of emotional eating?
Emotional under or over-eating is driven by deprivation
This isn’t just deprivation of allowing choices with food, or using calories or diets or ‘healthy eating’ to try to“fix” the binging. But it is also deprivation of connection, rest, fun, speaking your truth, vulnerability, etc.
A quick way to find out if you are in deprivation, in any way, is to look at how you feed yourself and also get curious about whether your activities during any given week match your values. If not, you will likely have subtle or obvious emotions that will arise because something feels out of balance.
There is an unmet need that food is fulfilling
It was not a coincidence that when I was lonely, overwhelmed, fearful, suppressing rage, sad, I would binge on sweets.
Rarely do people binge on lettuce (I do see it occasionally but it’s rare). I can’t speak for you, but for me, cookie dough — the whole process — buying it, the time to either bake or unwrap and cut into slices, the creaminess, the graininess, the crunch, the sweet, the smoothness all brought different sensations and emotions of care and memories of not being alone.
When you compare that level of need for support and the lack of experience I had at identifying and riding the waves of emotions, of course, I ate because I didn’t think I had other options.
How did this over-coupled eating cookie dough experience change you might ask?
I recognized slowly over time that my life wasn’t getting better and my body was not feeling and decided to say to myself; “You can eat cookie dough. I won’t take it away. But we need to be with what is happening”.
As I learned to stay and not abandon myself, I realized that I was seeking connection and relief through the sensations the cookie dough provided, but it was a substitute for getting my needs met and I wanted to believe that I could learn to be competent at responding to feelings and life.
This leads me to the next point…
Food provides a haven for when things don’t feel safe
Neglect, emotional mis-attunements (such as our emotions being minimized, not acknowledged, manipulated, or we’re punished because of our feelings or needs), and real or perceived rejection of any kind, can lead us to develop strategies that are faux forms of relief, comfort or safety.
Food naturally becomes a self-reliant way of not feeling the feelings or sensations from past experiences not processed but triggered by current events or here and now stressors, that we have not yet built the resiliency to navigate.
To learn more about our philosophy about why we emotionally eat, these two resources do a more in-depth education around developmental trauma:
Relational Trauma: Mental Health Effects, Examples, and Healing (psychcentral.com)
All the little fragments: Understanding complex relational trauma (anniewright.com)
Another note on emotional or binge eating. The need to dissociate is not a disease. It is something the brain does if it perceives a threat. The aim of emotional eating is to be “not-embodied” or not in the body if the sensations, emotions or memories inside the body feel like a threat. Part of building our capacity to feel without dissociating with emotional eating, is building safety around our eating experiences and to practice with safe people. For more tools for meal safety, see www.tracybrownrd.com/free-gifts
How did I overcome emotional eating?
I would check in often, even hourly, to see how I was doing
Like, what do I really think and feel about what just happened? Do I really want to say yes to xyz? What do I want to eat if I was a person that didn’t worry about calories or believe that my body was my worth? How hungry am I? Could I eat or wait a bit?
I decided to stop dieting
Even thoughts of dieting activated trauma around not getting my needs met (fight, flight, freeze and people pleasing). So I had to talk with myself daily that; “I don’t do that; I am not perpetuating being a part of the cultural standards that were a part of hurting me”. It’s not like I never had FOMO thoughts of; “everyone else is dieting why can’t I?”, but I captured them and said; “No, those are not my values anymore.”
Practically, I started eating regular meals and snacks. Very simple at first (like 3 food groups) then by slowly exploring more varied and complex meals depending on energy level. Eating regular meals was an act of care that healed lots of triggered old wounds of “not good enough”. The more we care for how we are and what we need, the less triggers we will have.
I committed to letting go when I did emotionally eat
To overcome emotional eating there needed to be no more self-hatred or flagellation or fixing with more exercise, “healthy eating”, potions, lotions, etc.
Eating again when hungry made sense, so emotional eating did not become a thing to fixate on. This was a deeply moving experience and helped me build self-compassion for when I did emotionally eat.
I was intentional about connecting with my feelings
Literally, I had to sometimes look at a feelings wheel or sensations list to get to know my experiences. How does it feel for this chair to support me? The feeling of the sheets on my legs? What it felt like to be comfortably full. When my friend really shared her opinion with me in truth and love. Really naming things helped me build a vocabulary outside of “I am good or bad based on my food or weight”.
I stopped my revving motor
When my mind would race with obsession, I would say; “Oh I’m doing that thing/there’s that motor. I am not doing that right now” and I would do something else. LIke sit in the car and listen to music. Or push some furniture around, or pull some weeds, Move from inside to outside. Lay on the floor for as long as I needed to to be out of my head and really feel my body supported by the floor. I couldn’t always stop the thoughts, but I could use my body to get out of my head.
Of note: exercise was not a good idea for me because I was also healing from exercise compulsion at the same time.
I sought connection with others
Isolation is one of the biggest enablers of emotional eating. It makes sense. We get hurt in relationship, but we also heal in relationship, and I didn’t start healing my relationship with people until I started being with people that were relatively safe enough, more often. Even when I didn’t feel like it, it took the place of the times I typically ate to not feel feelings.
I found my ‘why’ outside of dieting
I really wanted a future. I really wanted to be eating disorder free. I was willing to learn to feel feelings, face rejections, traumas, not be part of the crowd or norm, and even trust that though hard, there were people that could be found that could “get me” to be in relationship with eventually. What this means is that I had to honor my needs for food, rest, play, connection, purpose, etc.
What is hard about emotional eating recovery is that we often do need others to mirror us and validate what we are struggling with. So, I am not suggesting that I was a lone wolf or in denial that I could do this by myself. With all the ideas above, sometimes I had professional support, sometimes not. When I did, I moved forward faster and with more consistency because it just felt good to be seen and heard. If you thrive with connection, I highly recommend you reach out to us so we can hear your story too at www.tracybrownrd.com/get-started
We (myself and the team) would love to hear from you. What tools can you see yourself trying today? Have you tried some, but consistency got lost somewhere and not sure where to start?
Don’t let beliefs that you can’t feel feelings without food stop you from giving yourself change. You can overcome emotional eating.
Much care and peaceful eating,
Tracy and team
P.S. The video below provides an introduction to this post and offers some more information and the very first, practical step you can take to overcome emotional eating. For more video blogs on emotional eating, check out this post.