Simply put, emotional eating is “when a person eats over any emotion, such as fear, anxiety, worry, guilt, even happiness,” explains Dr. Coral Arvon, PhD, LMFT, LCSW, the Director of Behavioral Health and Wellness at Pritikin. “It’s eating to comfort yourself.” (Though it’s different than binge eating, which is when we feel the need to eat in abundance to thwart negative emotions.)
The reason eating, predominantly in the form of foods high in calorie density, works as a coping mechanism is physiological. “Food, especially sugar and carbs, set off a release of endorphins in your brain and light up your brain like heroine would,” Dr. Arvon says. “This gives you a sense of feeling complete and feeling good, taking you out of your worry.”
But the feel-good chemicals that come eating your feelings don’t last forever, Arvon adds. “It’s similar to drinking or smoking excess pot—it’s another way to just avoid pain. Eating a pint of ice cream, for example, is only a temporary relievance.”
Another negative: Although emotional eating isn’t inherently a “bad” thing, Dr. Arvon says it signals a missed opportunity. “Instead of addressing the situation headon, we’re ignoring it and using food to escape pain. And it’s in these moments of pain that can be our greatest moment to learn.”
Emotional Eating: More Than Just a Psychological Issue
Although emotional eating can be a psychological issue, for some people the culprit might be…nutritional. “There are many times people think they’re emotional eaters, and then when they come to Pritikin they find out it’s a combination of the kind of food they’re eating and their physiology,” says Kimberly Gomer, MS, RD, LDN, Pritikin’s Director of Nutrition. “Genetically, some people are born insulin resistant, and when they eat processed carbohydrates—like white flour, white rice and sugar, even fruit and juices foods—their body releases excess insulin.
“The cells that are released from the pancreas act like a key to release the insulin,” Gomer explains. “With resistance, the ‘key’ doesn’t work and the body gets nervous. It figures that the body isn’t getting the signal, and then the body thinks it’s not getting the glucose. One problem that arises is that the hunger hormone is released; you start eating the cracker or the cookie, and want to eat the whole box.” (Adds Gomer: “It’s no coincidence that the foods people always overeat are those same foods that affect insulin resistance, those very calorie-dense foods.”)
If you’re predisposed to insulin resistance, “you can treat it and make it look ‘normal’ on paper by losing weight, because belly fat makes it worse,” Gomer says. “Exercise and a high-fiber diet make it better, but you’ll always have the tendency based on your genetic makeup.”
What You Can Do To Curb Emotional Eating Triggers
Now, for some good news: You have the power to manage and even eliminate your emotional eating, by pinpointing the root cause, by outsmarting your own brain, and by paying closer attention to your needs. Here’s how to take action.
Rewire your brain with healthier habits.
“Ninety-five percent of our brain is composed of habitual, ‘old’ stuff, stuff from when we were kids, when we were a blank slate,” Dr. Arvon explains. “The old brain tells us, I’m not good enough, I’m going to fail. When the brain is in this fear mode, it wants to keep you safe, and the first thing it’s going to go to is an old habit, like eating.”
Luckily, Dr. Arvon says that our brains have plasticity, meaning we have the ability to “reframe, reshape, recalibrate, revisualize” our beliefs.
How to make it happen: Although it can take 66 days (or up to 90) to really change the brain, Dr. Arvon recommends thinking in terms of just 30 days to start. “Forming new habits is all about putting something new into a routine daily,” she says. “The key is bringing things down to their smallest, simplest form. For example, just for 30 days, commit to going for a walk or allowing yourself to watch a show on Netflix after dinner instead of having a snack. Give yourself a big check mark for each successful day. After 30 days of check marks, you’ll have a huge sense of accomplishment and will be motivated to keep going.”
Limit processed foods.
“When people come to the Center and don’t consume any processed food,” Gomer says, “they always say they’re not hungry. They also report feeling very emotional in general, but they’re not emotionally eating because of the fresh, unprocessed food that we serve.”
How to make it happen: If you know you’re highly insulin resistant (via confirmation from your bloodwork), Gomer says you might opt to, say, skip the bread basket altogether. “You might be better off with no rolls than trying to eat just one. Insulin-resistant people may find that they just can’t tolerate processed food.”
Emotional eating can be tied to restriction, Gomer says. “Even though there are certain foods to avoid for optimal health, at Pritikin we always make sure that our program is very individualized and that each person does not feel restricted. We don’t call Pritikin a ‘diet’; we call it an eating plan and we mean it.”
Another means of restriction, Gomer adds, is waiting too long to eat, which can cause people to overeat or emotionally eat because they’re too hungry.
How to make it happen: “The key is not delaying hunger too much, and then eating till light, comfortable and satisfied. Assess how you feel after you eat. If you’re eating high fat, high sugar or high salt, is that making you feel good?
“It’s also helpful to have a plan around food; don’t just expect it to appear on your doorstep.”
Using empowering words is another tool that can help rewire the brain to form new belief systems. “Affirmation is not something we believe, it’s something we want to believe,” explains Dr. Arvon. “If we already believed it, we’d be doing fine.”
How to make it happen: “The first thing we need to do is to set a goal,” Dr. Arvon advises. “Maybe it’s not to just stop emotionally eating, but it’s to be slim and strong. Then you choose affirmations that align and back up that goal (such as ‘I am at my ideal weight’; ‘I am strong’; ‘I am healthy and I feel powerful’). Repeat these words every morning. I even suggest writing them on paper and hanging on your bathroom mirror!”
Work on building a solid foundation.
“What gives emotional eating strength is stress, skipping meals, not exercising or sleeping well,” Gomer explains. “So when we establish this sturdy foundation, of healthy sleep, eating and exercise, the emotional eating starts to fall apart.”
How to make it happen: Find your sweet spot with sleep, eating and exercise. “That’s what we do at Pritikin,” Gomer says. “We hijack people from their lives and dump them into a new lifestyle overnight. It gives them time to take pause, and to figure out what’s useful and supportive and what’s damaging. You have the opportunity to deconstruct these three pieces in an environment that’s loving, supportive and science-based.”
Take the guilt out of the equation.
So you raided the pantry out of stress? Don’t overagonize! “Everyone at some point in their life overeats,” Gomer says. “When they’re not hungry, when they’re celebrating, when food looks or smells good. It’s only a problem when it’s a problem, such as when it’s causing you high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, or you can’t walk or move because you feel so bad.”
How to make it happen: “Beating ourselves up only it makes things worse,” Gomer says. “Instead, let’s deconstruct the situation, and take it for what is and what it isn’t. Again, it might not be a psychological issue, but a coping mechanism for what’s missing from your foundation (exercise, eating, sleep).”
Don’t resort to extremes.
Though it may sound counterintuitive, if you’re struggling with emotional eating, a strict diet or exercise regime isn’t the way to go. “What we should not do is abuse our bodies by engaging in intermittent fasting or excessively exercising,” Gomer advises. “In my 20 years of experience, emotional eating goes hand in hand with being on a diet.”
How to make it happen: “Take the experience as data, not a moral judgement,” Gomer advises. Then, pinpoint what needs to be tweaked in your foundation and go from there.
Take a pause.
“If you start to become aware that you’re going down a dark path, and doing the same negative behavior a few days in a row, it could turn into a bad habit,” Dr. Arvon says. “So we need to catch it, stop it as soon as we get to the second or third day and change it from there.”
How to make it happen: Know your triggers, she advises. Sometimes it can be as simple as watching the evening news that sends you to the kitchen for a nighttime snack. Instead of tuning in, take a bath, give yourself a little treat.
Breathing and meditation are the most impactful actions you can take, Dr. Arvon says. “Try breathing in calm for 6 counts, and then breathe out fear, stress or worry for 6 counts.”