Emotional eating: try this strategy instead

This article looks at emotional eating differently. Common advice never worked for me, so I developed my own strategy.

Audio above recorded at my favorite coffee shop in Chiang Mai

I have struggled with emotional eating and overeating since childhood. Last year, I had a binge eating disorder that lasted for about 6 months and went through a self-recovery process that took a similar amount of time.

I normally refer to emotional eating interchangeably with ‘stress eating’, as stress is the most common emotional state I find myself in during an episode. I have experienced emotional eating with other types of emotional states (ex. cathartic, celebratory, bittersweet, excited), but those happen much less frequently.

I used to emotionally eat ~3x/week on a regular basis. I’ve had 2 episodes in the last month, during which I have been intensely emotionally. Context on the emotional roller coaster I’ve been on over the last month: I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand, becoming a first-time solopreneur digital nomad, after exiting a nearly 8 year relationship with my first.

Disclaimer: These are my personal experiences only. I am not a doctor or medical/health professional or practitioner. This is not medical advice. This serves informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read here.

Trigger Warning: Do not proceed if you do not wish to read about emotional eating, eating disorders, or eating-related emotional/mental issues or experiences

My previous assumptions

Frustration and shame used to consume me. In the past, I mistakenly assumed the following:

  1. A person’s lack of discipline (or willpower, or perhaps self-control, if you will) is entirely to blame for his/her tendencies  
  2. The urgency for food is merely a mental perception
  3. The solution is to simply not be – or somehow be entirely unaffected by being – triggered or tempted to have an episode 

Programming: Why things happen and why they happen repeatedly

1. The build up that leads to an episode

High levels of stress changes eating patterns and augments consumption of highly palatable(HP) foods, which in turn increases incentive salience of HP foods[…]. With enhanced incentive salience of HP foods and overconsumption of these foods, there are adaptations in stress and reward circuits that promote stress-related and HP food-related motivation[…]. These metabolic changes in turn might also affect dopaminergic activity to influence food motivation and intake of HP foods. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23541000

Biol Psychiatry. 2013 May 1;73(9):827-35. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.01.032. Epub 2013 Mar 26.:

Emotional eating involves a physical bodily response. The mind body connection is, if you will, real as fck. Stress affects the way brain perceives food: there is a heightened expectation in reward, comfort-seeking, and the food actually does create comfort, thereby lowering stress.
Managing one’s stress in regards to productivity and sustainable eating is a topic I will cover in a separate post.

2. The episodes
In my experience, emotional eating is the experience of a heightened emotional state along with the compulsive urge and activity of consuming food for immediate comfort(or relief or pleasure).

3. The cycle that repeats the episodes 
Addressing the cycle and taking a long-term and self-accepting approach has been the most powerful solution for me.  

The basics: common & valid advice + my take

Identify your triggers
This is about being vigilant about your triggers so that you are more self-aware with what could potentially lead to an emotional eating episode. 
My take: Personally, this is a preventative measure that doesn’t tell the whole story, yet seems like a full solution. For me, merely knowing of one of my triggers does not reduce the likelihood occurrence or the intensity.

Use an alternative to eating that provides the comfort your mind & body is seeking
My take: This alternative might be a hobby, such as drawing. However, this doesn’t work for me given that my body is having a physical response and involving an intense focus and urge in regards to food.  

Use an alternative to eating that has nothing to do with the comfort you seek, but addresses the emotion that is currently heightened
Journaling is a self-practice that I find incredibly rewarding, cathartic, and useful in processing emotions.
My take: It doesn’t help me leading up to or during an episode. For me, journaling is an effective proactive & preventative measure, but not an effective reactionary measure. It addresses the mental and emotional, but it isn’t something that has a profound enough of a physical effect.

Snack on healthy treats
My take: As long as the treats are paleo or whole foods, this is my go-to short-term coping mechanism — not a long-term complete solution. It addresses my desire for comfort on a physical level. My favourite snacks are my DIY paleo vegan fudge brownies or cucumbers + salsa. 

What happens if the basics are not enough?

Address the cycle itself. Again, this has been the ultimate driver of success through my self-recovery. 

I no longer self-shame or make a big deal out of having triggers and being triggered. I have removed connotations and judgement from triggers and episodes. I do not label them as good/bad, positive/negative, weak/strong, etc. With time and investing in my mental health, I’ve embraced that I will be triggered. I will be okay if I have an episode.

Emotional eating feels intense due to the nature of having a physical urge and acting on it with urgency. This feeling of need and urgency is a compulsive thought. 

Therefore, emotional eating is so hard to stop because the compulsive nature is what makes me feel like I literally cannot stop.

I used to believe that progress and self-recovery meant cold turkey. That’s admirable, but too abrupt and rigid for me.

Instead, my strategy is de-escalation.

Let’s say that my average episode lasts for 5 minutes. De-escalating my episode would be that I stop eating half way through. 

This is going to sound counterintuitive and a bit scary to some, especially if you, like me, are extremely results-oriented.

The game-changer I discovered in my self-recovery was in making my goal de-escalation, not nonoccurrence. That’s because de-escalation is a process that takes place over time, and nonoccurrence is merely a desired result.

How phased de-escalation works

Phased de-escalation would be: I stop eating at the 4 minute mark; then, the next time I experience an episode, I stop at the 3 minute mark; then the 2 minute mark, and so on.

Whenever I have stopped myself from continuing, it feels so weird. It feels wrong. That’s because my mind is giving me every justification to take that next bite and completely finish the whole bag. It feels weird to put the food down in the middle of me biting down, to throw the bag away or leave it in the cupboard partially opened. 

I get shook. It feels like an out of body experience because while my mind is racing with thoughts about how I cannot stop and that I must take the next bite, the physical act of putting the food down is me acting in a way that disproves that entirely.

Over time, through repeated practice, I am proving to myself that I can stop, it’s just a question of when. 
 

“It is easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking, than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting.”

Millard Fuller

De-escalating will not happen linearly. You will be able to stop sooner in some episodes than in others. Stopping will feel easier in some episodes than in others. You will face fluctuations, setbacks, relapses, and plateaus. 

As you can imagine, deprogramming a lifelong habit takes a long time. Through working with clinical counsellor & life coach Julia Olsen, I have learned my own positive self-talk: “Stay true to yourself. Be patient”.

Overtime, I’ve strengthened my de-escalating “muscle”. This reduces the negative thought pattern that I cannot stop during an episode. Over time, this has slowly deprogrammed me from relating a heightened emotional state with the act of compulsively eating. As such, this has deprogramed me from relating a heightened emotional state to seeking comfort in food.