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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Emotional eating

by Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist

It is natural to eat for emotional reasons. Eating can raise your spirits when you are low, soothe you when you are tense, and distract you when you are upset. We cook special meals to celebrate and we use food to help us connect with other people. But you abuse emotional eating when your feelings go straight to eating: when you feel upset and automatically reach for food to settle yourself down. 

Emotional eating doesn’t cause weight gain

Perusing the tables of contents of journals that address eating disorders, food intake, and obesity reveals a number of articles addressing emotional eating. As with earlier articles on the topic, the underlying assumption of authors was that emotional eating is to blame for overeating and weight gain and that getting rid of emotional eating is key to weight loss. The assumption that emotional eating causes weight gain and that stopping emotional eating produces weight loss is oversimplified and physiologically naive. Let’s assume that emotional eating leads you to eat a lot at any one time. That eating-a-lot only makes you gain weight if your body ”forgets” those calories, which it doesn’t. In reality, your body remembers: You are less hungry the next meal, the next day or even the next week. The body corrects long-term for short-term errors in food regulation. To overwhelm your body’s natural regulatory abilities, you would have to overeat day after day without stopping. Few do.1

Abusing emotional eating is not good for you

Emotional eating is only a problem when you abuse it: feelings go straight to eating, with no interpretation.

On the other hand, emotional eating is a problem when you abuse it: You have no idea what you feel, other than generally upset or stressed. You eat to feel better or to push down or to blot out your feelings. You eat fast, don’t pay attention, and end up feeling guilty, unsatisfied, and out of control. Learning to abuse emotional eating starts during the toddler period or even younger. The toddler is particularly vulnerable, because s/he is learning to recognize her bodily sensations – hunger, restlessness – and to differentiate sensations from emotions – anger, boredom. Feeding to address general upset teaches the toddler to eat for emotional reasons: feelings go straight to eating, with no interpretation. And therein lies the problem. To make good choices in life, you have to know how you feel. Knowing how you feel helps you cope. Eating to take care of yourself is one of several solutions; others could be talking about your feelings and dealing with the problem.

Restrained eating increases abuse of emotional eating

In my clinical experience corroborated by the research, restrained eating exacerbates the tendency to abuse emotional eating.2 People who are not restrained eaters consume less, not more, under stressful conditions.3 Restrained eaters try to eat less and less-appealing food than they need and want and are chronically hungry. Trying not to eat when you are hungry and food-preoccupied takes a lot of energy. Stress undermines the energy to sustain food deprivation, and you overeat. Thus, rather than overeating in response to stress, if you are a restrained eater, you disinhibits: you throw away control. You eat a lot, but the root cause is under eating rather than emotional arousal. The cycle continues: You feel guilty and remorseful, you redouble your efforts to restrict, the restriction compounds your stress, and you disinhibit still again.  

How to stop abusing emotional eating:

  • Feed yourself regularly and reliably. Have meals and snacks at predictable times, and include the food you enjoy.
  • Set aside restrained eating. Trust yourself to go to the table hungry and eat until you feel satisfied. Then stop, knowing another meal or snack is coming soon and you can do it again.
  • Know what you feel. Use that knowing in choosing how to be and do. Include eating as one of your options.

Be clear about what eating can do for you

Eating in a focused fashion is likely to soothe or calm you and even raise your spirits a bit. It won’t resolve the problem – unless the problem is being hungry! When you feel like eating because you are bored, depressed, happy, or celebrating, say to yourself, ”It is all right to eat. But first I will find out what I am feeling.”

References

  1. Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook. 2008 , Kelcy Press: Madison, WI. p. 243-246.
  2. Van Strien, T. and M.A. Ouwens, Counterregulation in female obese emotional eaters: Schachter, Goldman, and Gordon’s (1968) test of psychosomatic theory revisited. Eat Behav, 2003. 3(4): p. 329-340.
  3. Herman, C.P., J. Polivy, and V.M. Esses, The illusion of counter-regulation. Appetite, 1987. 9: p. 161-169.

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