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Emotional Eating: Why It Happens and How to Overcome It

By: Alison Moodie
October 12, 2018

Emotional Eating: Why It Happens and How to Overcome It

  • Emotional eating is when you eat to make yourself feel better and to avoid feeling difficult emotions.
  • Emotional eating stops you from working through painful feelings and it can get in the way of your weight loss goals.
  • Food attachment is not your fault — it’s the result of childhood trauma, the biochemical effect of certain comfort foods, and the way your biology is designed to protect against starvation.
  • Ways to overcome emotional eating: Follow a high-fat, low-carb diet, identify your emotional triggers, get comfortable with your emotions, improve the quality of your sleep, and up your ketone levels.

You may know the feeling — you’re dealing with a stressful situation at work, so you automatically reach for a cookie (or five) to calm yourself down. Or you go for a third helping at dinner when you’re already full. This behavior is known as emotional eating — when you eat to make yourself feel better and avoid feeling difficult emotions. 

Eating this way is problematic for a number of reasons. For one, it stops you from working through and processing painful feelings and past traumas.You may also feel guilt or shame after an emotional eating episode. Secondly, if you’re trying to lose weight, emotional eating is likely getting in the way of your weight loss goals.

“It’s not as simple as saying eat less and workout,” says Drew Manning, personal trainer and author of “Fit2Fat2Fit: The Unexpected Lessons from Gaining and Losing 75 lbs on Purpose”, in a recent Bulletproof Radio [iTunes] podcast. “It’s the mental and emotional battles that people have to deal with day in and day out, that stem from things that sometimes aren’t easy to overcome, like childhood trauma — whatever it is that causes an emotional attachment to food.”

So what can you do to overcome emotional eating? Read on to learn why you may be attached to food, and ways to cut that emotional connection to your meals.

Reasons for emotional eating

It’s primal: The first thing to remember is that emotional eating is not your fault. Your biology drives your behavior in three key ways:

  • Fear — run away from predators and other dangers
  • Food — eat everything in case food becomes scarce
  • Reproduce — have sex so the human species survives

You emotionally eat because your body fears starvation. It will tell you, “If you don’t eat that you’re going to die.” Hence why you keep piling food on your plate even when you’re not that hungry. 

Childhood trauma: People may engage in unhealthy behaviors like emotional eating to push away painful emotions and stress caused by trauma. A traumatic experience can actually rewire your brain. Studies show that trauma can shrink the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex — the parts of the brain that regulate emotion.[1] Trauma also triggers an overproduction of stress hormones, namely cortisol, keeping you in a state of high alert.[2] When you’re feeling stressed and anxious, you’re more likely to overindulge or eat without thinking. 

RELATED: 4 Ways to Heal From Childhood Trauma

Drug-like foods: Certain foods behave like drugs, so when you’re emotional, you turn to them to feel better and for comfort, says Ellen Vora, MD, a holistic psychiatrist.

“We want to go back to that feeling of being cradled in our mother’s arms, feeling loved, safe, and secure,” says Vora. “So we reach for foods that mimic that early biochemical experience of bonding with mom and drinking breastmilk.”

The worst culprits are sugar, gluten, dairy, and food additives (like MSG), says Vora.

“Sugar hits the reward circuitry of the brain, while gluten and dairy break down into opiate-like substances called gluteomorphin and casomorphine, which act on opiate receptors,” says Vora. “If you suspect you are ‘addicted to food,’ this might be the explanation.

Ways to overcome emotional eating

Eat a high fat, low-carb diet: Fat keeps you full for longer and helps maintain steady blood sugar, so you’ll be less likely to reach for sugary foods to give you energy. Fat also feeds your brain (did you know it’s the fattiest organ in the body?) — too little fat and your brain thinks there’s not enough food, and it signals for you to eat more, or to eat whatever is in sight. 

Eat plenty of good fats like grass-fed beef, wild fish, avocado, and pastured egg yolks.

Know your emotional triggers: Figure out how you’re feeling when you overeat. Is it when you feel unloved, lonely, vulnerable, or abandoned? See a therapist and do the personal development work so you know what emotions are driving you to reach for food. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy helps you identify triggers and change your response to them.[3] It recalibrates the brain and helps you process traumatic events. You can learn more about EMDR here.

Heart rate variability (HRV): Trauma triggers anxiety, which changes your heart rate and puts you into fight-or-flight mode. HRV uses technology to tell you when your heart rate is too high. Armed with this information, you can step back and mentally control your response. So instead of physically and mindlessly reacting to a trigger, you recognize what’s going on, making it easier to exit the anxiety state.

Get comfortable with your emotions: Overeating or reaching for foods that you know won’t nourish you is a way to avoid feeling uncomfortable emotions. Don’t be afraid to welcome the emotions and allow yourself to truly sit with them. It’s OK to feel angry, sad, lonely, and worried. You can tell yourself, “I’m feeling scared. Why? What behavior will best serve me right now?” That way, you can build more helpful strategies to deal with difficult and painful emotions.

Better sleep: Make sure you’re getting enough good quality sleep.  “Sleep regulates the hormones involved in appetite, satiety, and metabolism,” says Vora. “Adequate sleep is a significant factor in establishing healthy hunger and satiety signals, and it is so often overlooked.” Discover proven ways to improve your sleep here

Up your ketones: Restricting carbs puts you into ketosis — a metabolic state where your body switches from burning glucose to burning fat for fuel. Your liver converts fatty acids into molecules called ketones for your body to use as energy. Ketones keep hunger at bay — they suppress ghrelin (your hunger hormone) and increase cholecystokinin (CCK), which makes you feel full.[4] You’re less likely to emotionally eat if you’re not hungry. To boost your levels of ketones, follow a high-fat, low-carb diet like the Bulletproof Diet, add a high-quality MCT oil like Brain Octane to your meals (Brain Octane causes your body to immediately create ketones), and practice intermittent fasting.

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