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Mind & Emotions Interview: Emotional Eating

1. Please define emotional eating.  

Emotional eating occurs when a person eats food in the absence of felt hunger and/or physiological need in a conscious or unconscious attempt to alter their present or surfacing emotional state.   

2. How can you recognize your own tendency to emotionally eat? 

Eating in response to distressing emotional states is a significant part of emotional eating.   It’s important to remember that for various reasons, even pleasant feelings can trigger emotional eating. A person may notice themselves going to the candy jar at work more often than usual or visiting the break room where food is often brought in, “for just one more cookie” and then feel guilty or shame for doing so. For some, there may be a less impulsive approach to emotional eating, as they plan to eat certain foods in secrecy later in the day at home or in their car after driving thru a fast food restaurant. The actual process of fantasizing and planning the eating episode can help a person avoid distressing emotions that are present in the here and now and eating the food later isn’t as rewarding as one had anticipated.

I describe fast food drive thru pick up windows as, “The arm of shame, handing over the purchased food, along with the side items of guilt and shame for later.”  Arm to arm, body parts meeting quickly, faceless and nameless with the dread of being noticed and reminded that you have become “a regular.” I have heard people who struggle with emotional fast food eating call streets lined with fast food restaurants, “smorgasbords” and that it’s as difficult for an emotional eater to travel these roads and abstain, as it would be an alcoholic traveling past liquor stores and bars. 

Dissociation when eating is one of the trickery symptoms that is frequently part of this process. Dissociation is when someone appears present in the room, but they are unaware of their immediate surroundings while eating sometimes large quantities of food in a short amount of time.

3. What are the most common triggers of emotional eating?

Triggers for emotional eating may very from one individual to the next. The most common triggers may be surfacing feelings or needs that are difficult to name and express while in relationship to one’s self and others.

Unresolved (known or unknown) physical or emotional traumas can surface in a myriad of ways throughout a person’s life. This may lead to using eating food as a regulatory function, i.e., to shift from distressing physical and emotional states that are related to these unresolved traumas. Unfortunately, this occurs for a clear majority of emotional eaters and leads to often futile and costly yo-yo dieting plans that sadly ends in more guilt, shame and self-blame for “failing” the diet.

4. How can you channel the emotions behind emotional eating into something more healthy/constructive?

The first step is being able to notice, name and share feelings and needs with a trusted person in one’s life. This is much easier said than done when feeling states often only surface as body sensations and urges with an absence of cognitive labels such as, “I am feeling angry, sad or lonely.” These sensations and urges can result in impulses to eat to ease the discomfort and often feel out of one’s control. An important step for change in this pattern is to create a “pause” between the impulse to eat and the action. In the process a person begins to pause, identify what they need and reach out to people, other soothing relationships (even with pets!) and/or soothing activities such as walking or yoga, rather than food.  

5/6. How should we view our relationship with food? Do you have any tips for building a better relationship with food?

Isolated, impulsive, and shame-based eating has become symbolic of a greater need in our culture for authentic connection with each other, “warts and all.”  It is recommended that people become curious about their relationship food and how it has evolved throughout their life span. Patterns may be noted that lead to answers and healing of deeply embedded pain from past abuse, genetic propensities that contribute to food abuse and habits that evolved mindlessly to cope with life stressors and surfacing emotions. Change is possible and yo-yo dieting can once and for all be taken out of one’s  “go to” coping skill tool box.

7. When is it appropriate to seek help from a friend or family member, or maybe even a professional counselor?

A person should seek help if they identify with any of the above description of emotional eating. So many women and men do not give themselves permission to seek help and they suffer way too long from often debilitating emotional eating. When the quality of one’s physical, emotional and social life is affected negatively and even just a small part of you tells yourself that this isn’t good for me and I want to change, I recommend talking with a professional.  I have seen profound relief when an emotional eater gives themselves permission to talk with a trusted person in their life and/or a professional. Also, emotional eating does not discriminate in size, shape, age, gender, and race.


Author: Gail E. Gnade, PhD

Dr. Gnade is the Senior Clinical Director at Focus Integrative Centers Knoxville