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Emotional Overeating

Emotional Overeating

Overeating. All of us have done it at some time or another. As a matter of fact, one of our most cherished American holidays, Thanksgiving, demands overeating as part of the traditional celebration. Eating more than is physically comfortable or nutritionally necessary for our bodies is an acceptable thing to do every once in awhile. However, more and more people are turning to food for reasons other sustenance and overeating on a regular basis. More than half of Americans are currently considered to be overweight or above a healthy weight, and overeating is probably the most significant contributing factor to this epidemic.

Why do we eat more than our bodies need for fuel or nutrition? In short, it is the American way. Our society values a good deal and getting more for our money. After all, we are the originators of the super-sized meal. Americans are unaware of proper portion sizes because over the last 20 years they have tripled. Eating more than our bodies’ require has become the norm.

Further complicating this picture is that many people use food to cope with stress and their emotions. What is most striking is that this has also been normalized by society and the media. How many television shows or movies can you recall that have someone delving into a pint of ice cream after a break-up? These messages suggest that eating can help you deal with negative emotions. Why has food become associated with stress reduction? Does that pint of ice cream smooth over the argument you had with your spouse? Does a bag of potato chips get you back the job you lost? No. Then how has the connection between food and stress been made, and how can you stop the cycle?

Eating food is naturally a pleasurable and reinforcing experience. This is true at the biological level. As a matter of fact, food has a similar effect on the pleasure center of the brain as drugs do. We also learn from our childhood experiences that food makes us feel better. For example, if a child falls and skins his knee his mother might give him a cookie, or if a little league team wins the game they are rewarded with a pizza. Thus, as we grow older, some of us learn that food can be used to quickly squelch our negative emotions. A consequence of using food as an emotion regulator rather than a hunger satisfier is the disconnection between food and our hunger cues. We become unaware of our bodies’ hunger and fullness signals.

Increase awareness. The first step to breaking the cycle of emotional overeating is to increase your awareness of your emotional as well as your internal experiences. This is best achieved using a journal to track what, how much, and when you are eating, in addition to your level of hunger and emotions at the various times you eat. Be brutally honest—only you have to see this, and do this for a week without changing anything. After a week, look through your journal for patterns of overeating and what emotions are most often occurring at those times. You may find that you most often overeat right after you leave work for the day, at night before bed, while watching television, or after arguments with your spouse.

Think of the acronym “HALT.” Ask yourself: “Am I:
Lonely, or

If you answer “Hungry,” then eating would be the appropriate solution. Otherwise, food is not a solution. If you find that you are feeling stressed and anxiety after work, try taking 15 minutes to practice relaxation techniques. If you find that you are eating when you are tired, evaluate whether you are getting enough quality sleep at night or take a power nap instead of eating. Another option is to incorporate more exercise into your day such as taking a brisk walk after work. If you are lonely, call a friend or family member or look into joining a club.

Become mindful. If you think you want to eat, stop and evaluate how hungry you are on a scale of 0 (totally empty and famished) to 10 (totally full and ready to burst). If you wait until you are at a 2 or 1 before you eat, then your extreme hunger will lead you to make poor choices about what to eat and you will be more likely to overeat. Also, notice if you are often eating until you feel like 9 or 10 on the scale. This suggests that you may be waiting until you are too hungry before eating or eating too fast—slow down while eating and frequently stop and assess your hunger and fullness. Work on getting to a point where you are eating only when you are hungry and stopping when you are comfortably full. Finally, apply the principle of mindfulness to the process of eating. First and foremost—turn off the television and sit down at the dinner table. Try eating extremely slowly while really tasting your food. Savor each bite, holding the food on your tongue, noticing the unique texture, aroma and flavors. This can make your eating experience more pleasurable and you will be less likely to overeat.