Emotions and Eating

Written by: Megan McCarty, M.A., LPC-S

Are you a person who during the down times of discouragement and disappointment finds comfort in food? Or what about the times when you feel lonely, do you plop down on the couch and binge on DVR and junk? If you answered yes to either of these questions,consider yourself human. Consider as well the two consistent factors in such episodes…emotions and eating. Whether you are a person who while juggling the stresses of life regularly gorges on bags of cookies and chips, or you are someone who absentmindedly eats an entire family size bag of candy while engrossed in your favorite movie marathon, the root cause of your over indulgences is most likely emotional. Issues such as unresolved stress, anxiety, loneliness, or misguided attempts at pleasure seeking can trigger emotional eating events. And while this coping skill may seem innocuous, if engaged in frequently enough, it can certainly ravage your health. Food, after all, is to be used as a fuel source for our bodies… not as a way to manage feelings.

As you experience life, you experience emotions. Feelings such as happiness, sadness, excitement, sorrow, anger, frustration, and lonesomeness appear frequently throughout daily functioning. In order to maintain your health and well-being, you must recognize and cope with emotions as they arise. At times this is an easy process, however at other times it can be an overwhelming endeavor. For times when feelings are positive and you are feeling good you may want to celebrate. And for times when feelings leave you despondent, you may want an escape. In both instances though, using food to respond to the emotions you are feeling is an unhealthy option. Not only can the habits of excessive overeating and making unhealthy food choices lead to health problems, they also block you from successfully coping with what you are feeling. So how can we better manage the emotional ups and downs of life without compromising our health?

For starters, on those occasions when you normally celebrate with food, an easy switch is to simply institute other types of feel good traditions to take the place of feasting. Think of other ways, not associated with eating, to make merry and you eliminate the potential negative effects of overindulgence.

However, for those situations when you are dealing with more negative emotions of life and using food as an unhealthy substance for relief, choosing another way to cope can be difficult. While you are indulging you experience a false sense of okayness. You erroneously believe that your troublesome feelings have subsided and things will return to normal. There is science behind this feel good occurrence in fact, bolstering this false liberation. Foods can actually alter chemicals in our brains leading to temporary feel good sensations thus allowing the cycle of binge eating to naturally become a way of coping with emotional uneasiness.

The problem with emotional eating in these instances though is that like with all unhealthy coping skills, the perceived reprieve is only temporary. Once you complete a cycle of overindulging, you find the negative emotions are all still present, unmanaged, and just as bothersome. They are also typically compounded with further turmoil due to the guilt and shame associated with the binge. Overindulging on food fosters denial and an unrealistic sense of managing life and can also result in severe health consequences such as weight gain, raised cholesterol, risk for diabetes, and the like. That is why, in order to unequivocally feel better, you must cope with uncomfortable emotions healthfully.

In emotionally distressing situations engaging in activities such as exercising, spending time with loved ones, praying, reading, gardening, taking your dog for a walk, listening to music, journaling, painting, or any other type of positive outlet aside from eating are great options for handling your emotions and prioritizing your health. And for cases where you find yourself unable to deal with life-altering negative emotions on your own, consulting with a mental health professional is by far the healthiest thing you can do. The key is to begin acknowledging your feelings, accepting them as they come and using acquired healthy coping skills,unrelated to eating,to manage them.

As author Marilyn Van Derbur states, “All emotions, even those that are suppressed and unexpressed, have physical effects. Unexpressed emotions tend to stay in the body like small ticking time bombs-they are illnesses in incubation.” Vow to prioritize your health and honor your well-being by keeping eating as a method for fueling your body and by coping constructively with your emotions. When you replace overindulgence and avoidance with emotional regulation, you will be well on your way to a healthier you.

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