Proud2Bme | Dear KJ: How Can I Overcome Emotional Eating?

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Dear KJ: How Can I Overcome Emotional Eating?

"Dear KJ" is a weekly advice column by Dr. Kjerstin "KJ" Gruys, sociologist, author and body image activist.  She holds a Ph.D. in sociology with a focus on the politics of appearance and is the author of Mirror Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body By Not Looking at It for a Year (Avery Press, 2012). Her work and writing have been featured by Good Morning America, 20/20The Colbert Report, USA Today, People, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, NPR's "Tell Me More," and "On Air with Ryan Seacrest," among others. Find her at

Debbie asks: What’s the best way to overcome emotional eating?

Sometimes, after a rough day, scarfing down some deep-dish pizza until I’m in a “food coma” seems like the only way to quiet my mind. If I haven’t gotten enough sleep, cookies (or maybe a cold slice of that leftover pizza!) might seem like the breakfast of champions. The truth is that almost everyone occasionally eats/overeats in response to feelings of stress, anxiety or anger (or even joy and excitement), rather than out of hunger. Doing this occasionally is probably not worth beating yourself up about, but if you find yourself feeling “out of control” or miserable around food then it’s time to seek help.

Here are a few things you may find helpful:

1) Remind yourself that emotional eating doesn’t make you a bad person, it only makes you human. After all, humans evolved to crave high-calorie foods as a way to guarantee survival during stressful times when food was scarce. To make sure we don’t ignore or waste food, our bodies release “feel-good” chemicals, like dopamine, so that we feel pleasure in response to eating. These days our stress is not usually caused by food scarcity (unless, of course, you’re under-eating), but our bodies don’t necessarily know the difference. In other words, some aspects of emotional eating are built into our biology. Of course we have some control over how we manage stress, and how we respond when we do experience cravings, but feeling excessive guilt over something that your body is programmed to do just adds to the stress. When emotional eating happens, do pay attention to the circumstances leading up to it, but you should also try to forgive yourself and move forward, self-esteem intact!

2) Try to distinguish between hunger and emotional cravings. Our cultural environment can muddle up our hunger signals even more than the biology of stress. Nonstop food and restaurant advertisements send us thousands of mixed messages about what to eat and how, while a billion-dollar diet industry keeps us thinking that our perfect life is just X pounds away. This culture tells us there are “good foods” and “bad foods,” which makes every meal a high-stakes test of self-control. Screw that! That kind of black-and-white thinking is exactly what can turn a small serving of yummy ice cream into a “now that I’ve eaten this ‘bad food’ I may as well eat it all” binge session. But food isn’t the enemy, it’s our relationship with it that causes trouble.

If your stomach is growling and you haven’t eaten for hours it’s fair to assume that you’re experiencing biological hunger. However, sometimes neither of these things are true, but we still really feel like eating. What should we do then? I try to ask myself “what, exactly, am I hungry for?” If I could feel satisfied eating a variety of foods, I’m probably in need of a snack. However, if my answer is something along the lines of “PIZZA PIZZA PIZZA!!!! AND NOTHING ELSE WILL DO!” I try to take a step back and check in with how I’m feeling, emotionally. Simply recognizing that I’m craving food because of my emotional state is often enough for me to redirect myself. Instead of ordering that pizza I might call a friend to talk about my day, goof around with my dogs, go for a walk or jog or write in my journal. Or, I might decide to…just eat the pizza and get on with my life.

Yes, you read that correctly: sometimes I make an intentional decision to eat “emotionally.”  But, here’s how I do it in a way that works for me: I make sure to eat slowly and enjoy every single delicious bite.

3) Go ahead and eat that food you’ve been craving…but slow down, be mindful and ENJOY it!

Trying new dishes and savoring my favorite “comfort” foods is one of the greatest pleasures I enjoy in my life. But, for a long time, this enjoyment of food made me miserable. I spent almost a decade, in my teens and early 20s, fighting my appetite with rigid rules about “good foods” and “bad foods,” afraid that if I let myself enjoy food I’d lose control. After a lot of therapy and time practicing new behaviors and thoughts, I finally accepted that my black-and-white thinking was stealing both my health and my happiness. So I made a deal with myself. I gave myself permission to eat any food I craved, even if I knew that it was an emotional craving, as long as I ate it slowly enough to really savor it. I forced myself to chew each bite completely and swallow it before taking another bite. I deliberately considered my food using each of my senses, one by one. How does it look? What does it sound like to take a bite and chew this food? How does it smell? How does its texture feel in my mouth? And, of course, how does it taste?

Food isn’t the enemy; it’s our relationship with food that causes trouble. Slowing down to savor each bite completely changed my relationship with food and my own appetite. I quickly learned that eating super-rich food at every meal and snack doesn’t feel great to my body (heartburn anyone?!), and I also learned that it IS possible to grow tired of chocolate. I realized that I didn’t even LIKE some of my go-to “comfort” foods (this blew my mind!).  By eating more slowly I gave my body the chance to let me know before I became uncomfortably full.  Lastly, by intentionally savoring my food and eating it mindfully I actually get to experience the “escape” from life’s chaos that I really crave.

This approach helped me tremendously, but I couldn’t have gotten there without the help of several fantastic therapists and the support of my friends and family. If emotional eating is causing distress in your life, it’s important to bring up your concerns with your doctor, and I also encourage you to reach out to an adult you feel comfortable with (a parent, teacher, school counselor, coach, etc.). Ideally, your doctor and/or the other awesome adults in your life can help you connect with a counselor or therapist experienced in treating people with eating disorders/disordered eating. The experience of emotional eating is different for everybody, and a specialist will be most equipped to help you identify patterns in your thinking and behavior and to develop alternative strategies for managing your emotions.

Have questions for Dr. KJ? Post them in the comments below!

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