Many people think of themselves as emotional eaters – but maybe they’re not…

Today I want to share 1 really important thing you may not have thought about that will change how you think about emotional eating.

I used to think of myself as an emotional eater.

If I was sad, lonely, bored, angry, hurt, or even overwhelmingly happy, I’d eat.

I spent a really long time trying to understand why I ate emotionally. I do not have a background of trauma. I have a normally dysfunctional family 😉… I never doubted that I was loved. While I wasn’t taught the kind of emotional intelligence that I now know is so important, I wouldn’t say I had emotional neglect growing up.

Because I thought of myself as an emotional eater, I worked very hard on learning how to process my emotions. And that did help a little tiny bit, but it wasn’t consistent and it didn’t solve the problem. I couldn’t resolve it fully until I was able to do this one thing I’m going to tell you about now.

We have to look at emotional eating through the lens of weight control

When you’re trying to control your body size and either dieting or ‘watching what you eat’, you become hyper-focused on food. This is a normal response to food restriction. Your body becomes hyper-focused on food because its main purpose is to keep you alive and if you’re restricting, however good you think your reasons are, to your body it’s all the same thing – a threat to your survival. This means you’ll be focused on food and primed to eat, even if you’re trying not to (especially if you’re trying not to!).  You also may not be eating enough. You might miss meals or eat less than is satisfying because you’re trying to control your weight.

This means you are already in a state of either physical deprivation (eating less calories than you’re used to) or mental deprivation (telling yourself what you should or shouldn’t eat), or both of these.

Here’s the really important bit. When you’re not taking your cues for eating from your body, but instead, you’re using your conscious cognitive control, you’ll be more prone to eating in the face of difficult emotions. Your conscious cognitive control really means your conscious mind: ‘Eat this because it’s healthy’, ‘don’t eat that because it’ll make you fat’ – that kind of thinking.

Strong emotions deplete our cognitive control. You know how when you’re feeling a really strong emotion you might not be able to focus on what someone is saying? You might forget where you put your keys? This is because emotion depletes our conscious cognitive control. It’s why you might lash out at someone when you’re feeling very angry, when you KNOW that this isn’t the best way to solve a problem. In the moment of heightened emotion, you’re not able to access that part of your brain.

With less cognitive control available to restrain your eating, along with the fact that you’re primed to eat because you’ve been restricting (either physically or mentally or both) – what will result will be what LOOKS like emotional eating.

But what instead, is actually eating in response to deprivation, in the presence of strong emotions.

Make sense?

So is there in fact such a thing as emotional eating on its own?

When I really and truly let go of trying to control my weight, and instead, turned my attention to feeding myself enough, consistently, and on listening to my body, emotional eating pretty much sorted itself out.

That was probably helped because I already had quite good skills in knowing how to navigate my emotional life (having spent so long cultivating this to try to solve my emotional eating!).

When I’m working with clients who come to me for help with emotional eating, we always start with untangling them from weight control and more often than not, this solves the problem of ‘emotional eating’.

And yes, if you’ve experienced trauma or neglect, and you’ve never dieted, perhaps you may be engaging in pure emotional eating, though I would say for the majority of people, their ’emotional eating’ has a backdrop of attempts at weight control.

Now this isn’t to say that there’s no place to develop your capacity to deal with your emotions! There’s always room for that – but not so that you’ll eat less or lose weight – because that approach will backfire on you and keep the cycle going. No, instead, it’s so that you’re living a more satisfying, integrated life.

With love,