One of the two most common health questions I get is: “why do I eat when I’m (usually some variant of sad, angry or stressed) emotional?”
It’s a common question because it’s a common behaviour US data shows 38 percent of people eat when they are stressed or sad (50% of millennials, and the tendency to use food as an emotional crutch drops as we age).
When I’m providing coaching around this topic, I usually engage in a conversation about how eating IS emotional: we culturally eat together with others. We eat at weddings when we celebrate. We eat at funerals when we mourn. And we eat for comfort: the most common response to comforting a crying baby is milk.
So, first and foremost, release the idea that this is an uncommon and/or unique or shameful behaviour. Food is emotional, and to try to make it anything but is impossible.
Once the feelings of shame are acknowledged, the next step is to recognize both the behaviour (call it what it is: emotional eating) as well as the emotion. It’s impossible to change behaviour when you are either lack awareness or are in denial.
For example: Everyone who knows me knows that I occasionally use potato chips as a drug. And I will literally say: “I’m emotionally eating a massive bag of potato chips right now because I’m angry”. And then I eat the chips. That keeps me from sneaking them or being unaware of what I’m doing or from binge eating them endlessly.
This trick changed my life. However, I also initially started doing it at the time when I was in nutrition school and had loads of self awareness, and emotional support and new tools for managing my emotions on my side.
Emerging research from the University College of London by PhD researcher Moritz Herle, and published in Paediatric Obesity journal demonstrated that emotional eating is not inherited, and rather is learned behaviour.
And turns out coping with emotions is the key to why we overeat when we feel feelings in the first place. We literally learn emotional coping techniques from our families. An earlier paper from the same author on a similar topic elicited that the maternal influence in the home sets the standard for utilizing food as an emotional coping technique, be it overeating or undereating.
So if you really want to stop emotional eating, you need to get tools to deal with the emotions that you may not have received during your childhood, especially from your mother.
That’s outside of my scope of practice, but I suggest seeing a therapist such as Dr Angela Grace, who I highly recommend.
You can start today by acknowledging that you are using food as a coping technique. And if you need to get further help, Dr Grace can provide clinical therapeutic support on your underlying emotional tools and skills.
And if all else fails, just grab some chips and blame your mother.