What To Do When You Want to Stop Emotional Eating
At some point in your life as an emotional eater, you have definitely wondered "Why do I do this?!"
You tell yourself tomorrow will be different and that you won't keep chocolate in the house anymore.
And you swear you'll never eat Krispy Kream again because it gives you a headache.
You promise that you've learned your lesson this time - feeling this full is no fun and you'll be moderating your portion sizes from now on.
I told myself these things for years.
So. Many. Years.
I'd get crazy frustrated at myself for causing my body and mind so much pain with my food choices. Turns out they weren't "choices" so much as "rationalizations" (and self-sabotage) I called 'choice' to make it feel more empowering.
But I wasn't empowered at all.
- I'd eat doughnuts (even though they made me feel sick) because I was doing it 'mindfully'.
- I would overeat to the point of illness at buffets because it was 'special' and I was 'treating myself'.
- I'd eat the entire pizza because 'I'm going to eat it anyway - might as well be now, right?'.
If you're asking yourself "Why do I do this... why did I eat that... why didn't I stop...?", you're not empowered.
But you can be.
I'm certainly not perfect, and I still have the occasional "why" food moments, but these days I have answers. I know why and I can answer my own questions.
And with those answers, comes solutions.
My food choices went from being one of the most confusing and powerless areas of my life, to something I don't really have to pay much attention to (most days).
And from working with women for the past 3 years, I know that one of the things you want most to feel free from the worry, obsession, and struggle of waiting to see where you're going to lose control next and eat in a way that makes you feel so much less than you could be.
So, let's look at why you're using food for comfort and how you can stop.
How to stop emotional eating
There is always a reason you turn to food.
A real reason - not that you're weak, have no willpower, or are somehow just a broken human. You're a very functional human doing a very normal, sensible thing.
Yes, your emotional eating makes total sense. You can stop calling yourself crazy right now.
Again: there is always a very good reason you turn to food. It might be because of a chemical addiction to food, or your unwanted eating may have an entirely emotional, physical, mental, or social basis.
The bottom line is, your emotional eating is filling needs you have that are not being met. That need is not hunger.
Guaranteed: If you're eating in a way you don't want to and can't stop - you're eating is filling at least one very strong need for you.
These needs can range from being simple and really obvious, to really complex, layered, and hidden. The key is being able to listen to what your eating is telling you.
When you look at it this way, emotional eating is really an attempt at self-care. It's not some major personal failing or source of shame. Your subconscious is just trying to get you what you need.
So, how do you stop emotional eating?
You start filling your needs.
Case study: Fiona's emotional eating
This is a real-life story of one of my clients, Fiona (not her real name).
Fiona is a super high-achieving lady. She works in finance, has a job she's really dedicated to, and tons of ambition. She came to me because she couldn't control her eating and was at a total loss as to why she could be so successful at work and then fail so completely with something as simple as what she ate.
She's a perfectionist, so I'm not exaggerating when I say that it was really sucking at her confidence and making her question herself at every turn. She saw herself as weak and believed that her eating made her (mostly male) colleagues also see her as powerless.
After a couple of sessions together, she shared that she had these really embarrassing fantasies.
So embarrassing that she blocked them out and wouldn't let herself daydream. Sounds juicy, right?
Well, turns out these forbidden fantasies were about her success.
She imagined herself solving complex problems at work or giving great talks and presentations that wowed her coworkers. She was so ashamed and so scared that her daydreams wouldn't come true, that she totally walled off that part of her mind.
All it took was me (so really: her) giving permission to experience these dreams.
We talked about ways that she could trust herself and stay emotionally safe while feeling all the feels from these dreams of future awesomeness.
She came to our next session totally elated. She'd allowed herself to dream! At first, the fantasies came in a big rush and she was scared of them, but after a few days it slowed down and things normalized... and so did her eating.
When she gave herself permission to really feel, she met the needs she was filling with food, and some major pieces shifted for her.
She wasn't afraid to dream of success anymore. Instead, her daydreams gave her relaxation, pleasure, and release. Things she'd been having to get from chocolate.
It was a lot to bottle up. With this release, the multiple chocolate bars she was eating each day just fell away.
Fiona doesn't need to use food anymore and now has as much success with her eating as she does in the rest of her life. She accepted that her eating was happening for a reason, uncovered that reason, and filled it in a different way.
I understand that the case study above sounds too good to be true. But, I absolutely promise you, it is.
What are your needs?
You may have been taught that having needs is ‘needy’ or selfish.
So, like Fiona, you turned them off and soldiered on. Or maybe you learned that you don’t deserve to have needs, or that you’ll fill them when you lose 15lbs, get a promotion, or are finally in a relationship.
Or maybe you just don’t know what you need.
If you’ve watched the free mini-workshop What everyone gets wrong about emotional eating (and how you can get it right), you'll know that the most common needs I see women filling with food are:
- Not feeling pleasure
It could be feeling too much, feeling too little, not knowing how to express these emotions, or not allowing yourself to have them.
For example, if you have a need for social connection that’s not being met you will feel lonely. This feeling of ‘lonely’ is telling you that you’re missing something in life, that you have a need: connection with another living thing.
You try to get that feeling of connection (meet you need) by eating – which makes total sense! But, it’s not actually helping you make real connections, fill your need, or meet your goals.
You might strongly identify with one (or more) of the listed need, or you might have other reasons. What’s important to know is that no matter what feeling leads to your eating, it's trying to move you into a different, more desirable, emotional state.
To help you identify your needs for yourself, use this worksheet to journal and brainstorm your needs.
What comes next?
If this all made sense to you and you've done the worksheets, you now have some ideas on what needs you're filling with food. Your next step is to work out how you want to do that.
Check out this post on making changes.
What if I can't stop eating, but none of this sounds like me?
What if your eating just isn't emotional. It's not when you're angry, or sad, or celebrating.
It's all the time.
And you never feel properly full or satisfied?
You might have a food addiction - read all about it (and what to do) here.