How emotional eating keeps you stuck

today, me will live in the moment. unless the moment is unpleasant, then me will eat a cookie.

Yesterday morning, I was doing a writing exercise that asked me to think about painful places I don’t want to return to, and how that relates to my current writing. As I mulled over possibilities, one that came back to me was late 2009, when my dad was dying. At the same time, my mom was slipping deeper into the grip of Alzheimer’s, and our kids were either away at college or soon to be there.

So many exits, all at once. All that loss brought out something in me I hadn’t experienced since my teenage years: eating because I just wanted to stop hurting — even if it was just for 30 minutes.

I found myself “just happening” to run errands every afternoon, so I could go by a convenience store and pick up something I wouldn’t normally keep in the house. And then eating three-fourths of the bag, in the next five minutes. And it wasn’t a single-serving bag.

Thankfully, I attacked it pretty early on, so it didn’t gain too much of a foothold. I talked to my counselor about it, and I came to realize and accept that this particular food is one I just can’t eat at all, because it kicks off such fierce cravings for me.

I’ve since learned that repeatedly going to food-as-anesthesia impedes the emotional healing process. And as I was thinking through my writing exercise yesterday, this image popped into my head:


emotional eating cycle

Scientists know that alcohol and substance abuse can keep a person stuck, unable to heal from painful feelings.

“Anyone who abuses drugs or alcohol is at risk for stunting their emotional growth…. You may have spent years working hard to block out reality…. Every single problem that has been brushed aside is still there, waiting to be dealt with once you become sober.”

– Nikki Seay, Clearview Treatment Programs

There’s also reason to believe that if we’re using food in a dependent way, it may have similar stunting effects. Especially if we’re using it as a source of emotional comfort, anesthesia, or “happy pill.” Or if we’re using food to compensate or reward ourselves for whatever difficulty we’re going through.

Karly Randolph Pitman, a veteran of over 30 years of both overeating and emotional eating, lists these possible symptoms of emotional eating:

  • “You may… have strong emotions – you either… use food as a buffer… or… use food as a life raft.
  • You may be conscientious. You drive yourself hard with high expectations, internal criticism and perfectionism, and use food for comfort to make up the difference…
  • You may have poor boundaries…
  • Eating healthy foods may bring up intense feelings of deprivation
  • Food is your “mother” – what nurtures you and helps you feel safe. You feel anxious and scared about not having this love.”  (source)

Maybe you’ve tried to quit emotional eating by attacking the food problem.

Or maybe you’ve tried counseling or other attempts at the emotional side.

For me, the solution involved layers of both. I had some mental and emotional work to do, in the therapist’s office and on my own, but I also had to put some boundaries in my food habits. For me, permanently changing my relationship with food happened when I changed what I ate and why I ate.

The why meant dealing with my emotional triggers. The what meant changing the types of food I eat. The types of food you eat can have powerful healing properties which spill over from your body into your mind.

Philip Werdell, director of the ACORN Food Addiction Institute, says,

“When overeaters are separated from their primary binge foods, the first change is that they stop having physical cravings or… the cravings are lessened to the point where they are no longer overpowering. Even more important for long-term success, the mind of the detoxified food addict begins to change in remarkable ways. Where once they believed their own rationalizations (read: lies) about food, detoxification helps the food addict begin to see his or her past thinking as distorted…. [They] now start to see the self-destructiveness of their own internal messages.”  (source)

For me, getting sugar completely out of my diet flipped a switch: cravings are rare and when they do hit, they’re much smaller and conquerable. And then there’s a certain category of junk food that I know I just can’t start on because if I do, the switch gets flipped back immediately and in a big way. Those boundaries are setting me free!

If you think you may have a sugar or food addiction — or your everyday emotional eating is feeling out of control — I encourage you to consider multiple kinds of help. There’s no shame in asking for help! I read a comment on a thread this week which said, “Even normal people need help lifting heavy objects. Counseling is no different.”

If your eating has become a burden too heavy for you to lift, please ask for help! The first step might be asking a friend or family member to come alongside you: not to be the one who tells you what to do, but to encourage you as you seek solutions. A second step might be finding a good counselor or support group.

Another source of help: books. I’ve read TONS of books on food, nutrition, and emotional eating. (I mean seriously: I have my own library!) I’ve posted only the ones that I’ve found most helpful on my books page.* A few I would especially recommend:

The Sugar Addict’s Complete Recovery Program – a self-paced 7-step process to help wean you off sugar and/or carbs

Freedom from Emotional Eating – uses Bible verses to retrain your thought patterns, with some elements of cognitive behavioral therapy

The 21-Day Sugar Detox – a detailed why and how, including diet plans and recipes; also addresses gluten

Also, I’m working on a book that focuses on finding freedom with food by satisfying our true hungers: emotional and nutritional, as well as spiritual and intellectual. (This post will give you a small preview.) If you’d like to be kept up to date on what’s happening with that project, please join that mailing list!

Need more hand-holding? You might look into the 21-Day Sugar Detox program – a 21-day program to help wean you off of sugar and refined carbs. The program gets you 21 daily emails with motivation and recipes, daily 15-20 minute audio recordings to walk you through what to expect that day, a quick-start guide, and access to a community forum. I’m an affiliate, but only because I’m in total agreement with their approach: it’s all real food, they don’t try to sell you shakes or supplements, and — I really respect this — they have customized plans for athletes, pregnant or breastfeeding moms, someone with an autoimmune condition, or pescetarians. Learn more about it here.


*Buying through my Amazon links earns me a wee li’l percentage of the cost, without raising yours at all.




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