The five truths about emotional eating

Truth 1 – There is always a root cause for Emotional Eating that has nothing to do with food.

The very first thing I work on with my Mindful Eating clients is understanding the Eight Hungers of Mindful Eating. Hunger may mean a ‘rumbling tummy’ but if we only ate when our bodies called out for fuel and nutrition, we would all have a normal, balanced and peaceful relationship with food. Sadly, this is not the case for many, and it’s fair to say that we all eat when we’re not physically hungry, so there must be other forces at play…

There are many reasons why we eat and one of the most powerful is Heart Hunger, also known as emotional eating. This is when we turn to food to reward, comfort, soothe uncomfortable emotions and relieve stress. It is not a physical need for food, but an attempt to make ourselves feel better with food.

Everyone eats to comfort and reward themselves to some degree and there is nothing wrong with mindfully eating something you love. The problem comes when we regularly eat to fill a hole in the heart, instead of the stomach, and use food as a coping mechanism. Emotional eating may cause us to overeat and put on weight, and in my experience, it’s the number one reason why we cannot stick to our chosen eating plan. What follows is often yet another diet: cue the exhausting cycle of hope, deprivation, emotional eating, failure and guilt.

Unfortunately, food can never truly satisfy Heart Hunger. Our emotions are the root cause – stress, boredom, anger, sadness and loneliness – and the drive to feel better. Food may distract us in the moment but all too often, after we’ve eaten the original emotion remains and now it’s accompanied by guilt, shame or denial.

Truth 2 – We learn ‘feel bad + eat food = feel better’ from the moment we’re born

Our relationship with food is shaped from the moment we’re born. In our first hours of life, we cry because we no longer have the continuous supply of nourishment from the umbilical cord, and we’re offered milk while being cuddled. You could say this is the first time we learn “feel bad (cry) + eat food (milk) = feel better (love)”.

This continues throughout our lives. As a child, when we fall over and scrape a knee, we’re offered a cuddle and maybe a cookie or some sweets. We reward a good school report with a trip to the ice-cream parlour and celebrate the journey to adulthood with the annual birthday cake.

As adults we continue to celebrate and reward ourselves with food at each of life’s milestones: you get the job, you get the girl/guy, you get the promotion and so it goes on. Celebrating the good times and savouring the delicious combination of good food and good company is one of life’s great pleasures and absolutely something to be enjoyed.

The problem comes when we also comfort and soothe with food, turning to food when we don’t get the job, we break up with our partner and we lose out on something we really wanted. In this case, food is a cure-all in times of difficulty which represents love, comfort, reward and a reliable friend. Sadly, it never works, and can often make us feel worse.

Truth 3 – I’m so stressed / anxious / sad / lonely, I think I’ll have some spinach to cheer myself up. Said no-one, ever!
When we eat to meet an emotional need, rather than physical hunger, spinach is just NOT going to cut it! We turn to foods that are sweet, creamy or salty – often the foods we ate as a child at a time when we felt safe and loved – think chocolate, biscuits, ice cream, custard or chips. In comparison, natural, unprocessed foods just don’t hit the spot.

Emotional eating is often a high-speed activity with little awareness of what we’re eating, let alone why. Add in some junk food and it’s easy to see why emotional eating can quickly get out of control.
Sugary foods trigger the same reward centre in the brain as class A drugs and it takes heroic willpower – that we often don’t have when we’re stressed, tired or sad – to stick to a moderate amount. The same is true of salty foods such as crisps and chips. Food manufacturers have spent millions to find the ‘bliss point’ of their processed foods – the precise combination of sugar, fat and salt – which keep us coming back for more.

Our brains are hard-wired to crave these foods as salt, fat and sugar were rarely available thousands of years ago. For early Homo Sapiens, eating their fill while they could was a sensible strategy to see them through the lean times. Our brains have yet to evolve to cope with the junk food readily available in every corner shop.

Truth 4 – All emotional eating is an attempt to return to a time when we felt happy, safe, warm and loved.
We’re all born with a normal, balanced relationship to food and eating. In part 2, I explained that we learn ‘feel bad + eat food = feel better’ from the moment we’re born yet babies and toddlers don’t overeat. They don’t wolf down their food at the speed of light and they don’t have a problem leaving food, regardless of how delicious it is.

Somewhere in childhood we develop an unbalanced relationship with food and eating by watching and learning from our parents and the significant people in our lives. This is why I work with my Mindful Eating clients to explore what they learned about food, eating and body as a child as it’s likely the root cause of their emotional eating challenges are buried in the early years.

For me, my Mum used to make me tiffin (a crushed biscuit and chocolate creation) which I ate with joy when I came home from primary school. Homemade treats like this were a rare occurence and I associated this with love. This is why chocolate covered biscuits were my go-to comfort food – and my downfall – and why I can no longer eat them, because one is never enough.

Truth 5 – Fill up on your life so you don’t need to fill up on food
In this final part, we explore how to overcome emotional eating. Identifying the reason *why* you eat when you’re not physically hungry is the first step, then learning how to meet that emotional need and nourish yourself without food is the second.

The truth is that food we put into the stomach will never ease an emptiness in the heart. To fill that hole we must nourish ourselves with love, put ourselves first and meet our own emotional needs, because let’s face it, no-one else is going to do it for us. Relentless self-care is the answer. And in a society where self-care is seen as selfish and easily evokes guilt, it’s not an easy task.

The emptiness in the heart can also come from living a life devoid of joy, meaning and personal fulfillment. When we’re hungry for life, we can turn to food to mask the low-grade sense of dissatisfaction and substitute food for whatever is missing.

Figuring out what self-care looks like to you and living a life of fulfillment will enable you to ‘fill up your cup’. Only then will you find true satisfaction with the food on your plate.

If it’s time to take control of your emotionally-driven food choices and eating behaviours, my six-week group coaching course, How to Overcome Emotional Eating, may be for you. Starting on Monday 29 June 2020, the course offers a safe, supportive space to explore, understand and overcome your emotional eating challenges so you can rediscover a peaceful, balanced relationship with food and eating. Please click here to find out more and register your interest. I’ll be in touch to arrange a free, no-obligation call to ensure the course is right for you. I look forward to speaking with you!