Emotional eating, stress-induced eating, mindless munching, overeating, whatever-you-call-it, it sucks!

As 2009 survey estimated 48% of Americans overeat or reach for unhealthy foods in response to stress. That’s nearly half the country! And I’d heard the statistic as much higher than that, close to 85% of the American population.

Unfortunately, this is an issue that I have more experience with than I like to admit. And because of how personal the issue is, I haven’t talked about it much, or at all. I am going to here today, though, because I want to share my experience, but more than that, I want to share the only strategies that, after years of battling my demons, have finally worked.

The general triggers are numerous:

  • Stress
  • Boredom
  • ProcrastinationCoping with Overeating
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Inability to deal with emotions
  • Inability to express oneself
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Sleepiness/fatigue
  • Feeling unloved
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Self-confidence/esteem issues
  • Body image issues
  • Financial pressure
  • High-pressure situations
  • Relationship conflicts/breakups
  • Loneliness
  • Social situations

Reasons for Emotional Eating

For me, as I’d guess it is in most cases, emotional eating was a way of numbing-out–keeping the world at arm’s distance, much like TV is a way of blocking out the real world. Food acts as a distraction, we become absorbed in it, running away from what we’re unwilling to face. It is a way to push feelings aside, to ignore them and forget them. In extreme cases, overeating causes physical discomfort which actually (temporarily) trumps any emotional or psychological pain.

But I think the worse part of the emotional eating was the feelings that arose as a result of the (oftentimes secretive) face-stuffing session: guilt, shame, embarrassment, disgust, and the food/sugar hangover.

Then the guilt, shame, and embarrassment just seemed to justify and validate my feelings of inadequacy. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, a downward spiral in which the only end was to feel more alone and more unlovable.

Not only was I not dealing with the underlying cause, I was throwing more crap on top of it (literally and figuratively), and just burying myself deeper.

As mentioned, I’ve struggled with this for years, maybe as many as 15 or more.  I don’t think I’ve told hardly anyone, though some friends or family may certainly have guessed. I think, like me, most emotional eaters hide the problem, perhaps in their car, under the cover of night, or alone in an empty house. It is really the guilt and shame that drags us down even more than the pounds of the food.

Strategies I’ve Tried

In that decade and a half, I’ve certainly tried all the conventional recommendations, short of seeing a psychotherapist. For example, I’ve tried:

  • Journaling – this has been somewhat successful, but usually only to a degree rather than a full blown cure
  • Emailing/calling friends
  • Moving (i.e. exercising or yoga)
  • Eliminating any snack or junk foods from my environment – this works in the immediate moment but just makes me crave snacks more later (if the issue isn’t dealt with)
  • Choosing an alternate form of numbing out – sleeping, watching TV/movies
  • Letting the emotions flow through me (crying) – can be good but doesn’t necessarily address any underlying issues
  • Self-imposed rules and punishments – these just add to the guilt and self-loathing
  • and more…

Some of these may certainly have helped. Some may have been more effective in some situations than others. Some may have tamed the excessiveness of the eating. But most times these strategies really only postponed the inevitable.

Bottomline is they were, on the whole, ineffective. In most my of my bouts with emotional eating I was diving face-first into food so fast that choosing a rational alternative never crossed my mind.

When the driving force is that strong, the rational brain doesn’t have time to stop the hand, drag the body away, and tell it to write in a journal or do child’s pose. It just doesn’t happen!

Now I’ve come to the conclusion that the above strategies are absolutely limited to dealing with the issue(s) in the short-term. They don’t solve the problem. They don’t address the underlying cause. They don’t offer anything for the soul (the emotions), the subconscious (the psyche), nor the biology of the problem (internal chemicals and hormones driving us to eat).

What Worked For Me

The only way to completely resolve an emotional eating problem is by helping the person, not by fixing a situation. To help a person, he or she must find

  1. comfort and solace for the soul – a feeling of being loved and loveable, of being accepted, of feeling truly enough
  2. a safe outlet for emotions or reprogramming of the subconsious to actually believe in #1
  3. correction of the biology that drives us to sugary, starchy, and carb-heavy foods.

You can read all the articles on webmd or any other ‘health care’ site and none of them will give it to you straight.  No one wants to do the tough work, to look beneath the surface and deal with a complex problem in a complex human being.

I’m here laying it all out for you, and telling you, it may not be as hard as you (and they) think it is.  It will take patience, and some introspection (though far less than you expect), and it’ll take some serious diet changes, but it certainly can be done.  And here is how I did it.

  1. Meditation.  The fundamental building block to getting everything else on track, meditation is the path by which the soul feels safe, comforted, and secure. It brings a person back to herself, knowing that she is loved and worthy of love, to know she is enough. Mediation connects the inner and outer layers of ourself and allows us to be who our soul intends us to be. Meditation also sets the basis for the next two. (Watch my video on meditation to find out how to get started meditating.) And a meditative practice must be consistent and on-going.
  2. Hypnotism. Crazy as it may sound, even recorded hypnosis session listened to at home really work. By setting the stage with meditation, the self becomes open to positive reinforcement and suggestions, and that’s how hypnotism works. It also makes all the ‘conventional strategies’ far more accessible and successful in the moment.  It builds on the meditative practice to translate inner peace into effective strategies for dealing with the realities of eating. In addition, hypnotism is itself somewhat meditative, calming, and reassuring. You may see the at-home hypnosis program I used.
  3. Eliminate carb cravings. For many people, dealing with the bio-chemical addiction to sugars, starches, and carbs may be the hardest part. But if you have the foundation of #1 and #2, and make a concerted effort, it is possible. When we’re having an emotional eating event, we don’t crave steak or a pork chop or a even a green salad tossed with vinaigrette. We crave ice cream, chocolate, pizza, and what is the common link? Carbohydrates (sugar and starch). The difference between wanting a steak and wanting ice cream is to some extent a bio-chemical matter. Completely eliminating sugars, starches, and any other high carbohydrate foods from my diet for 2-4 weeks almost entirely killed my carb/sugar cravings. I opted for more veggies, protein, and healthy fats (raw nuts, avocados, and coconut products). For the first 2-4 weeks, it might be a matter of totally demonizing sugars and starches in your mind so that looking at them is akin to the thought of drinking cleaning vinegar. If you can train your brain to think in this way for at least the first few weeks, after that the bio-chemical processes will be reset such that you won’t suffer the cravings for sugars and starches.

In 15 years, this combination of strategies is the only thing that has worked for me.

Now, I’m not saying that their won’t be relapses or back-sliding or even full-on face-stuffing sessions, but I’m more aware of them.  In fact, I’ve realized if I neglect my meditative practice, I can feel the issues try to scratch and claw their way back into my life. But I know that by returning to my meditative seat and following with a hypnotism recording, I’ll be solid again.

I’ll be eating for hunger, satiety and nutrition, and making healthy food choices.  I have no more need to use food to numb out, drown emotions, nor bury feelings.

I am empowered, I am whole, I am enough, and I’m winning the battle.

And I hope you will too.


Leave a comment if something in this post struck a chord with you. Or at least tell me I’m not the only one who’s had this experience.

Photo by Flickr user: bandita