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According to the Mayo Clinic, “Emotional eating is eating as a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness.” (2022)
The reason I want to address stress eating and emotional eating today, is that when new clients come to see me, emotional eating is one of the main obstacles keeping them from reaching their health and weight loss goals for many years, despite their best efforts at eating healthily and being more active.
Emotional Eating: the #1 obstacle to healthy weight and healthy bodies
It is difficult when someone is advised to eat less sugar and carbs in order to bring down their weight and blood sugar levels, or to eat less fatty and salty foods in order to lower their cholesterol and blood pressure, because often, the most reliable way to cope with the high demands of life is to eat comfort foods - which of course, are often loaded with refined carbs, sodium, and fat.
What if bingeing on ice cream and cookies helps them feel less on edge? What if crackers and cheese, together with a few glasses of wine, is what helps them unwind after a rough day? What if eating without being hungry - and often without satiety - is the only self care they can fit in their tight schedule?
One of the first things I do when working with someone who comes to me struggling with emotional eating or even food addiction, is to explain to them that beating emotional eating doesn’t have much to do with will-power or discipline. More often than not, it also doesn’t require delving into past trauma or mental health issues either.
Beating emotional eating doesn’t require the will-power or discipline of a Navy SEAL.
Here’s the thing: a lot of people would actually use other coping mechanisms than bingeing to combat negative emotions and uncomfortable feelings if there weren't strong physiological mechanisms triggering them to eat without perceived hunger.
To be able to tackle the issue of emotional eating, it is important to understand the physical processes that make us eat compulsively and excessively.
I want to tell you why that is and how it works.
The physiological roots of emotional eating
There are many instances when your body will make you want to eat more than is normally sufficient to satisfy your hunger and caloric needs.
Let's review the 3 most common physical reasons for emotional eating and stress eating.
1/ Your blood sugar is unstable.
Rather than staying in a comfortable range that will provide you with constant energy, it continuously oscillates from too high to too low, giving you a rush of energy quickly followed by a crash that can create brain fog and sleepiness, but also anxiety, agitation, and feeling on edge.
This is when you will usually crave sugar and other refined carbs. You might notice the cravings more when you are bored or stressed already, and chances are, you will eat in response to those cravings. A lot of people think that this is boredom eating or stress eating, but it’s actually not emotional eating at all. It’s actually your body trying to make you stabilize your blood sugar.
2/ Your body feels deprived and starved.
Maybe you are on a diet right now, feeling deprived and not eating quite enough, or maybe your body has experienced deprivation and even mild starvation in the past and is "worried" that it will happen again. This often occurs in people who have been yo-yo dieting for many years, who are counting calories, have an unhealthy relationship with food that creates guilt when they eat certain foods, and also in people who are not fueling their body in a regular and predictable manner.
For instance, if you skip lunch on a regular basis and go from breakfast to dinner with only a few nutrient-poor snacks in between, your body will feel starved for most of the day and feel threatened. Even if you eat a large dinner and eat normally the next day, chances are, your body will still be under stress and will do its best to make you eat more to prevent another episode of undernourishment. You might experience a lot of "emotional eating" over the following days. But again, it's not really emotional eating. It's just your body making sure you survive.
3/ Your gut flora is not well balanced.
If your guts are not healthy, you will most likely experience very strong sugar cravings or the need to binge on foods such as fast food, pasta, bread, baked goods, snack foods, etc.
Let me explain…
By gut flora, I mean the 100 trillion bacteria that live in our guts. You might have heard of gut microbiota? It’s the same thing. Some talk about “good” and “bad” bacteria in our guts. I like to define them as the healthy bacteria - the ones that help you eat healthy wholesome foods - and sabotaging bacteria - the ones that make you eat highly processed and fast foods, because that's what they thrive on.
Think of each type of bacteria as a colony. When the colony of sabotaging bacteria is strong, it will grow and multiply. As a result, your gut will need more "sabotaging foods" to sustain the highly populated colony of sabotaging bacteria. So in fact, your gut will make you eat more highly processed and fast foods, so that the larger colony of sabotaging bacteria can keep thriving.
Now, while you are overfeeding the saboteurs in your gut, chances are you are not feeding your healthy bacteria. As a result, the colony of saboteurs will take over while the healthy bacteria will slowly starve and struggle to survive. This will make your desire for healthy foods go down very quickly and then stay low.
No amount of self-control or discipline can make you win the battle against unhealthy guts.
The urge for consuming highly-processed and fast foods will become stronger and stronger, and sometimes lead to bingeing and even sugar addiction.
Why you need to address the roots of Emotional Eating
There are a number of reasons why you should tackle the physiological roots of emotional eating first, rather than start by working on your emotions and thought processes.
Here are some of the main reasons:
- The process to tackle physiological roots of stress eating and emotional eating is simple. It is straightforward and science tells us exactly what to do. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that it's easy, but it's clear-cut and if you follow certain rules, you can see changes happen quickly in your body.
- Not fixing the physiological issues that make you eat without hunger makes it almost impossible to tackle the emotional aspect of your overeating. I am not saying that fixing your gut health will always eliminate emotional eating, but if you don’t do that first, it will be difficult to create a long-lasting impact on emotional eating. It’s a little bit like brushing your teeth. Brushing properly doesn’t mean that you will never have any dental issues, but if you don’t brush, it will be pretty much impossible to keep your teeth and gums healthy.
- When you address your physiological needs, you do a lot of good for your general health. You boost your immune system, you improve your energy, and more often than not, weight loss will happen as a side effect. Even most importantly, cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels, inflammation, and blood pressure will likely go down!
- BONUS: many people think that they emotionally eat, but once they stabilize their blood sugar, improve their gut health, and start nourishing their body properly, their emotional eating disappears. It has happened so often in my practice: a client comes to me convinced that they are eating emotionally and using food as a coping mechanism, but once we retrain their body and rebalance their gut microbiota, the emotional eating goes away and the cravings disappear.
So, now, how do you turn this information into actionable steps in your daily life?
3 Steps to Beat Emotional Eating
- Stabilize your blood sugar levels with meals that provide the right ratio of macronutrients. Please note that this will vary depending on each person and their level of physical activity.
- Provide quality nutrients to your body and stop partaking in fad diets as these are almost always depriving you of a certain food group or are too restrictive calorie-wise, which leads to your body rebelling.
- Rebalance your gut microbiota with balanced meals that are nutritious and feed the healthy bacteria rather than the saboteurs.
Easier said than done? Yes, I know, it’s a big endeavor and it can sometimes be a long journey! This is what I work on with my clients who struggle with emotional eating or food addiction and I know that even if changes happen very quickly, they are also quick to be reversed.
It takes time to create lasting change. For some of my clients, it takes a couple months. For most, it takes longer than that. It all depends on everyone’s circumstances, their goals, their constraints, and their history too. It also depends on the time and energy they can dedicate to making these changes.
What is certain though, is that all the people I have worked with so far experience tangible benefits even before they have permanently established new healthier habits.
A majority of my clients are stunned by how quickly their cravings go down, their bingeing episodes become less frequent, and their emotional eating takes the back seat in their life rather than dictating their daily routine.
If you are a little overwhelmed and not sure where to start, reach out! I am happy to have a quick chat with you and figure out what the best first step could be.
Please, don’t hop onto the next diet!
Though at first it will “work” and you will lose weight or maybe even improve some of your blood test results, chances are, you will go back to your old habits after some time. Your old patterns will often be even more prominent than before, emotional eating more frequent and the need to bingeing even stronger, because every single time you deprive yourself, you make the problem worse.
I am here for you if you need me. Request a Discovery Call at no charge to you. I won’t sell you anything, I promise. I will just try to understand your goals and your struggles, and will answer your questions as best I can. That’s it, talk soon!