Emotional Eating

Emotional Eating

By Julie Alvira, MD, MBA

Do you have a craving sometimes for a particular food but do not know why? Can you recognize the hidden emotions associated with eating food even when you think you feel good?

“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.” –– Sheryl Sandberg

Our relationship with food

The words involved in our relationships can be also used for our relationship with food. Words such as intimacy, learning, love, growth, compassion, empathy, trust, uncertainty, pain, hurt, pleasure, communication, etc. We need to treat our relationship with food like any other. We will have ups and downs, learning experiences, setbacks, moments of fun, and opportunities for growth. Overall, we want to do it in a healthy way. For some, their relationship with food might not be like this. It starts to progress in another direction and gets in the way of their personal and social lives. Their relationship with food starts to have a behavioral component that can lead to overeating, binging, purging or very restrictive eating.

Emotional aspect of eating

In moments of stress, the body releases the hormone epinephrine, which suppresses the appetite. When the stress continues, cortisol is released, which has the opposite effect. After the stress passes, cortisol levels decline but in many people stress situations are triggered frequently. As a way of soothing that effect, these individuals turn to “comfort” (fat and sugar filled) foods. Research has found that 75% of overeating is caused by emotions. The problem is never food. It’s being unaware of the emotional triggers that lead to the behavior component that we cannot control. When overeating happens, it can lead to health problems like obesity, diabetes and even food addiction. HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, tired) is an acronym used to describe emotional situations that lead to overeating. With time, it can turn into a pattern that can be difficult to break.

We all feel bad at times and turn to food, of course we do. Who hasn’t watched a chick flick with a pint of ice cream after a break up? We all have done it! Emotional eating becomes a problem when it’s a person’s strategy for regulating mood. It’s their go-to solution all the time. After overeating, a person may feel shame and guilt. It’s not until we become aware as to why we’re choosing that habit that we can feel empowered again. At some point, we might think we don’t have a choice, but we do. The idea is to choose life force and find something you love enough to make the change and break the pattern. That something, in this case, is you.

A technique

There are several techniques but for now I’m going to focus on a self check exercise I learned at a workshop. Make a timeline from birth to your actual age. List every moment that has happened to you that made an impression on your life. (ex: bullying at school at 8, change of schools at 10, parents divorce at 13, puberty, etc.). Next to each incident on your timeline, note how each one made you feel such as sadness or anger. Attach the negative emotions to that episode. You are looking for that a-ha moment. That key moment which changed you and made a slow progress in your life to the point you started to self sabotage with food and using it as a survival strategy. That incident that disrupted the balance in your body and your eating and made you to start making conclusions and judgments about yourself which led to a self destructive pattern. Is there any moment in the present that has made you feel unbalanced about your body and eating that triggers the same negative emotions related to the incident in your past? The idea is to look for self awareness and bring clarity to this and start to intervene and decide. Do you want your power back and to make changes?

Another aspect…In your timeline, have you ever reached your weight goal to then alter it again after a while? If so, what happened around that time that altered the balance?

*It’s always recommended to consult with your physician before you start any eating or exercise plan.

Julie Alvira MD,MBA is the owner of Coach Dr. Julie, LLC. www.coachdrjulie.com. Julie helps clients in recovery get unstuck in their eating and physical exercise habits. She’s a certified master health and wellness coach, certified addictions recovery coach, and a certified advanced clinical interventionist. Contact: julie@coachdrjulie.com for a virtual or face-to-face session at her office.