Hungry or not: The upsides and downsides of emotional eating

Emotional eating has two faces

Instant gratification.

And remorse.

I just had one of those moments I would have eaten over in the past.  I would have wanted to stuff my face till I passed out, to obliterate the thoughts in my head and the emotions I’m now feeling. As one of my clients recently stated, emotional or binge-eating is a combination of “action and distraction.”  I have chosen not to take that particular hand-to-mouth eating action, because I’ve learned it doesn’t really help – not in the long-term. And in the short-term, the thrill of consuming large quantities of food as quickly as possible, and there is a thrill, is only temporary.

I know I’m not alone in this.  Most of us indulge from time to time, and use food to cope with unpleasant or difficult circumstances because it feels really good in the moment.  Your boss creates havoc at work, your spouse or partner signals the good times are over, your rent or mortgage goes up, you can’t find your favorite doodad – these situations generate stress, along with emotions and feelings that are difficult to deal with.

So what’s wrong with eating over our emotions? Nothing – at least not on the surface.  It’s become part of our culture.  Countless movies and TV shows feature scenes of unhappy or worried folks raiding the fridge, tearing cereal boxes open or digging into large tubs of ice-cream.  It happens, and it’s okay – once in a while.  There’s pleasure in the taste and smell of your favorite food, and comfort in the escape it brings from your troubles.  There’s excitement in the preparation of that midnight snack, and in the ordering of that extra large pizza as you anticipate its arrival.  In fact, addiction studies show that the preparation and anticipation of a (drug) fix is almost as good as the drug high.  It’s a relief to mindlessly chomp through a bag of cookies or chips, or to savor spoonfuls of your favorite desert gliding smoothly down your throat.

The problem is, though, that while an occasional binge or emotional eating session is harmless, you could be in trouble if it becomes more frequent over time.  Never mind the possible weight gain.  But worse (and yes, something is actually worse than weight gain), there is the little habit that grew.  Emotional eating does not become a problem if you can resist the urge when the stress hits the fan.

But if you’re one of those people for whom once is the beginning of a habit, and you give in to temptation on an increasingly regular basis, you are actually programming your brain to avoid feeling emotional pain by dulling yourself with food.  The problem here is that the more you do it, the stronger those neural pathways in your brain become, and the more you will want to do it, and the harder it will be to stop what can develop into a serious self-destructive pattern.  In some cases, this pattern can lead to obesity, or even worse, to an eating disorder.  People get freaked out over their weight gain, then diet too stringently, which can be a set-up for a binge backlash – a cycle which is inevitably followed by shame, self-disgust and the erosion of self-esteem.

Our patriarchal and seemingly rational society isn’t (yet) set up to recognize the importance to our physical and mental health and well-being of a full range of emotional expression.  We learn from an early age to avoid all but the socially sanctioned emotions that fit our gender.  For example, men learn its okay to express anger but not much else, and women have been taught to rely mainly on sadness and tears.  So it is not surprising that when other emotions emerge, since we are uncertain how to manage them, we become uncomfortable.  This leads some people to simply tune them out, or seek to escape via work, a hobby, exercise, or some other activity.  Some turn to alcohol or drugs.  And, as indicated in part by the growing obesity epidemic, more and more people seem to be turning to food as their preferred go-to avoidance technique.  Food – the tasty, relatively low-cost, always available, non-prescription antidote to feelings.

So the next time something or someone annoys you, eats at you, or pains you emotionally, and you want to use excess food to obliterate the pain or help you through, pause for a moment, and ask yourself if you can manage without it.  If you can, pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that come to mind.  Maybe even write them down.  If you can avoid temptation again, you are on the way not only to blocking a potential problem, but also to reprogramming your brain.  On the other hand, if you are having difficulty stopping yourself, get some help soon, before that pattern grows stronger.

To summarize:  emotional eating is not much of a problem if you don’t do it on a regular basis, but it becomes harder to control the more often you do it.  We human beings have a built-in capacity to look after ourselves and do what is necessary to survive – and that includes using the information provided by our emotions to let us know what we need and what we want.  Ignoring these emotions or blocking them out with food (or other drugs) on a regular basis means we may not be functioning to our best advantage.  Letting ourselves feel our emotions and trusting the information they provide is often not as painful as we imagine, and can be a rewarding way to live.