Based on our research, close to 7 out of 10 men and women are struggling with some sort of dysfunction in their relationship with food. This leads to a multitude of challenges that we collectively refer to as “emotional eating.” It’s critical to understand and overcome your emotional eating challenges if you want to finally get and keep a body and life you love.
In everyday life, you’ll usually hear terms such as “binge eating,” “stress eating,” or “overeating,” to describe emotional eating. Many men and women don’t want to admit that they eat emotionally.
For those pursuing health and fitness goals, emotional eating creates an impressive obstacle. It creates inconsistency, suffocates motivation, and eventually derails your efforts altogether.
The takeaway is this: if you want to get and keep a body and life you love, that’s unlikely to happen until your emotional eating challenges are addressed and solved.
What is Emotional Eating?
It’s important to define emotional eating so we’re clear on what we’re talking about.
Emotional Eating is the use of food for the three Cs: comfort, control, or coping.
It includes common challenges such as binge eating, stress eating, under-eating, overeating, excessively clean eating, and an otherwise dysfunctional relationship with food.
It’s not uncommon for people with an unhealthy relationship with food to also have an unhealthy relationship with movement, with body, and with Self.
For healing to be significant and long-lasting, all of these areas must be addressed.
Let’s start by talking about the three Cs…
Using Food for Comfort
You may not make a distinction between using food for “comfort” and using food for “coping” at first. Coping, of course, is a form of comfort.
I think the distinction is important, though.
I typically refer to eating as comfort eating when food is used to deal with lower-level stressors and/or the eating occurs in nostalgic circumstances (there’s some specific, historical link to comfort).
When someone eats late at night while watching Netflix because they’re in a pattern of general decompression that’s been a part of their life for a very long time, this would be a good example of comfort eating.
Using Food for Control
Food is a wonderful mechanism of control because the eater gets to choose everything about it: what, when, where, how, how much, etc.
Very few things in life offer this level of control. Turning to food helps you feel in charge if you’re feeling overwhelmed by out-of-control circumstances.
This pattern of behavior is often learned in childhood, when an individual has far less autonomy and is more likely to suffer varying levels of mistreatment or neglect.
It can also happen to adults later in life who go through a specific event or series of events that leaves them with a feeling of chaos or disorder.
I often refer to this situation as “food as glue.” The individual is using food to fill the gaps and glue things together in their life to help themselves feel a greater sense of completeness and order.
Ironically, people who use food for control are engaged in a pattern of behavior that is out of control. They often want to stop, but can’t.
Using Food for Coping
If comfort is on the minimal end of the spectrum, coping is on the major end. When emotional pain becomes significant, food is often used to turn off, tone down, or tune out painful feelings.
The act of eating, especially eating processed hyper-palatable foods, releases endorphins and changes your brain’s biochemistry. Food is a drug and it behaves like one. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t work for the purposes people are using it for.
Coping behavior can be triggered by micro-stress or macro-stress.
Micro-stress might be a nasty fight with a co-worker or spouse.
Macro-stress is the sum of your current life circumstances relative to the state of your emotional metabolism.
Note: Just because food can be used as a drug doesn’t mean food in general, or any specific food, is addictive. As I’ve argued before, addictive foods don’t exist.
What is Binge Eating Disorder?
Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is a clinically-recognized eating disorder detailed in the DSM-V.
BED typically involves:
- Recurrent and persistent episodes of binge eating.
- Binge eating episodes are associated with three (or more) of the following:
- Eating much more rapidly than normal.
- Eating until feeling uncomfortably full.
- Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry.
- Eating alone because of being embarrassed by how much one is eating.
- Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty after overeating.
- Marked distress regarding binge eating.
- Absence of regular compensatory behaviors (such as purging).
According to the stats, BED affects up to 3.5% of women and 2% of men. You might concur that this feels extremely low compared to the amount of people who are self-proclaimed binge eaters.
There are a lot of issues with some of the DSM classifications that I’m not going to go into in this article. Let’s just say that certain classifications and diagnoses aren’t very helpful to a lot of people.
This article is not going to address people diagnosed with Binge Eating Disorder. If you believe you have an eating disorder, seek professional help. This article is for the vast majority of people who struggle with emotional eating, including what they would describe as binge eating, who are not experiencing the issue to a degree of clinical diagnosis.
What is the difference between disordered eating and an eating disorder?
It’s possible to have disordered eating habits without having an eating disorder.
All people with eating disorders have a dysfunctional relationship with food, but not all people who have a dysfunctional relationship with food have an eating disorder.
Typically, in order to reach the level of “diagnosis,” your disordered eating habits would need to reach a level of significant consequence.
It’s my opinion that almost all dysfunction in the relationship with food, body, and Self is trauma-based and stress-based.
It could be caused a single event experienced at any point from pre-birth (epigenetic) to a person’s current age. Or, more commonly, it be caused by a collection of events or a repeated pattern of the same event over time.
It’s important to note that both trauma and human resiliency exist on a scale. Not all trauma is the same and the people affected by trauma all have a varied emotional response dictated by the state of their emotional metabolism.
Thus, coping behavior manifests on a scale as well. A mild to moderate level of coping might be referred to simply as a “disordered” response while a major level of coping is typically referred to as a diagnosable “disorder.”
This is especially true when the coping behavior manifests very specifically, such as in anorexia or severe alcoholism, rather than with a collection of more “minor” coping mechanisms.
If Jack has two beers every night, gambles every weekend, and runs 50 miles a week, all three of which are probable coping mechanisms, that’s typically treated much differently than Jane who stays intoxicated 18 hours a day.
Jack and Jane are both coping. Jane has “a disorder” or “a disease” and Jack gets a raise at work. That’s modern society.
But Jack is in pain, too. Jack is experiencing negative consequences from his coping behavior. Jack also needs help.
Most circumstances are multi-factorial.
It’s highly unlikely (read: practically never) that your eating challenges have a single cause. It’s also very unlikely that they fit neatly inside a narrow set of circumstances.
The common mistake that people make when trying to address these challenges is that they seek out that single factor. They want a “light switch solution.”
The belief is that there exists a light switch, and if that light switch can be found it can be flipped and all will be okay.
Let me be very clear for those of you who are of this mindset…
Light switches don’t exist in this game.
There are no quick fixes or magic pills. The process of restoring function where there is currently dysfunction is a long-term process. Rather than driving a bulldozer through a brick wall, it’s more akin to dismantling the wall brick-by-brick with a chisel.
Emotional Eating Is Not Your Problem.
When you’re caught up in the day-to-day struggle, it’s very easy to feel like emotional eating is the problem you’re suffering from.
Emotional eating is not a problem, though. Emotional eating is a symptom of having a problem. Or, more accurately, a set of problems.
It’s not just a symptom, though. It’s also a solution. This is very important to understand…
The reason you eat emotionally and use food for comfort, control, and coping is because it works.
Not only does it work, it works repeatedly.
It’s important for you to recognize this so you avoid painting yourself as irrational or “wrong” on some level.
Emotional eating is not wrong and is completely rational behavior.
The problem is that while it works for one thing (coping), it doesn’t work for other things (health, relationships, etc.).
The reason for this is:
- You can’t selectively numb emotions.
- Emotional eating has biopsychosocial consequences.
Let’s look at these two things more closely.
You can’t selectively numb emotions.
It doesn’t matter what your “medication” of choice is. You can’t get rid of shame, fear, guilt, or whatever other pain you’re experiencing while letting the happiness, joy, and satisfaction shine through unscathed.
When you numb the fear, you numb the joy. When you numb the shame, you numb the happiness. When you numb the guilt, you numb the satisfaction.
When you’re in pain, astute people can sense that. When you’re medicating, astute people can sense that, too. In both cases, you show up differently in the world.
I often talk about internal personas to help people understand how their personality changes from circumstance to circumstance in order to deal with different threats or stressors.
In our Decode Your Cravings program, we teach on dozens of internal personas and help clients identify the five to ten personas that tend to show up routinely in their day-to-day life.
These internal personas are driving your coping behavior. This is commonly referred to as “being triggered.”
When you are triggered, an internal persona is determining your behavioral response. This is not the case when your “Authentic Self” is at the wheel.
Your Authetic Self is like the cool, calm, collected, CEO-version of you. Ideally, your Authentic Self stays in the driver’s seat at all times. It takes input from the various Internal Personas but it never lets them drive.
It’s also important to note that when you are triggered, the people around you are interacting with an Internal Persona rather than your Authentic Self.
This is commonly described as being “walled off” or “manic” or some other “abnormal” state. The bottom line is that your behavior does not show up authentically for others.
Emotional eating has biopsychosocial consequences.
The biological consequence of being an alcoholic is liver disease and otherwise poor health.
The psychological consequence is shame, guilt, fear, and other destructive emotions.
The social consequence is losing family, friends, jobs, and property.
Using food as a coping mechanism has biopsychosocial consequences just the same.
While the use of food for comfort, control, and coping works to distract-from and numb pain, it also creates large degrees of sabotage in other important areas.
Diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and obesity are all major consequences linked to emotional eating and a dysfunctional relationship with food.
Less major consequences exist as well: digestive disorders, skin issues, and energy woes are all examples of more minor consequences.
For most people, these destructive consequences are not enough to curb the behavior. Why? A few reasons…
- The pain from the biopsychosocial consequences is not as great as the underlying pain you’re already trying to cope with.
- You may harbor a deep-seated sense of hopelessness or lack of self-worth. In other words, you feel like you aren’t worthy of a better outcome.
- The act of coping creates a feedback loop. When you engage in coping behavior it triggers shame, fear, guilt, etc. This adds to the pain and drives more coping behavior.
- The process of healing is uncomfortable. It involves dealing with the underlying pain head on and avoiding that which has served as an effective medication in the past.
- A state of health can be interpreted as an unknown that causes additional fears and discomfort. This is common for people who have been in a cycle of pain and coping for a very long time. The devil you know is safer than the one you don’t.
Once again, people who engage in behaviors with known destructive outcomes are often seen as irrational and believe themselves to be irrational.
From a logical standpoint, a computer that was able to make an unemotional, binary decision would always choose to end the destructive behavior pattern.
We’re not robots, though. Our calculations are clouded by complex emotions, fears, and beliefs. When these factors are understood, it’s easy to see why the choice to continue engaging in destructive behaviors is often made.
Your Emotional Metabolism determines your susceptibility to being triggered.
Most people understand the concept of a physical metabolism.
Your body processes the food inputs you give it. If you have a functional metabolism, an increase in calories results in an increase in motivation to move and proper signaling to decrease caloric intake at subsequent meals to achieve more balance.
If you give your body too little food it responds by increasing hunger and decreasing the motivation to move.
All along the way it’s releasing the proper hormones and enzymes to process the inputs.
A dysfunctional metabolism, on the other hand, does not respond adequately or in balance.
That’s an oversimplification of what’s going on. The point is, your body handles what it’s given in a very dynamic and balanced way when you have a functional metabolism.
This understanding makes the term “emotional metabolism” very useful.
As you encounter different biopsychosocial inputs throughout the day, or throughout life, those inputs must be processed. To stay in balance and control, those inputs require a balanced emotional response.
If you have a dysfunctional emotional metabolism you often don’t respond adequately or in balance. Overall, you’re less mentally and emotionally resilient and that in turn makes you more susceptible to being triggered.
As I mentioned earlier, resiliency exists on a scale. So does trauma. Certain inputs, or a certain quantity of inputs, can acutely overload even the healthiest emotional metabolism.
From a chronic standpoint, just as is true with physical metabolism, emotional metabolism can be worn down and made dysfunctional.
Your intentions, sense, and effort aren’t in question. This is a heart problem, not a head problem.
Every man and woman that comes to me for help has wonderful intentions, plenty of knowledge and common sense, and has displayed high levels of effort for many years.
Often, trainers and coaches will question their client’s heart, intentions, and effort. This is extremely short-sighted.
Even a clear lack of effort is usually a symptom of psychological obstacles. After all, there’s a reason the client showed up in the first place expressing a desire for change.
It’s also common for trainers and coaches to put clients on a plan that works against their client’s biological and psychological programming.
Legacy fitness and dieting advice commonly trigger’s people’s Inner Rebel, one of many Internal Personas that I mentioned earlier.
Every human being has an Inner Rebel to protect them from oppressive circumstances. Because conventional dieting advice is so oppressive, the Inner Rebel steps up to rescue the individual through bold acts of rebellion.
In terms of eating, that looks like eating all the things.
This pattern is often written off as “self-sabotage.” In reality, it’s productive rebellion. The client has no business implementing oppressive advice.
So behavior referred to as “laziness,” “defiance,” or “lack of heart” is actually a rational response to oppressive advice. Unfortunately, the client doesn’t realize this and shoulders the blame.
This is very similar to children in school who are punished for not focusing or for acting out. The circumstances they’re subjected to are never in question, only their response or reaction to the circumstances.
The road to recovery.
The biggest obstacle to recovery that most people face is the constant attempt to point to factors external to them. This distracts from the real issue and prevents the necessary work from ever being done.
It’s often claimed that certain foods or substances are “addictive” or “triggering.” The underlying assertion is that these foods have “hooks” in the individual, removing their agency and making behavior modification impossible. The proposed solution is abstinence – the restriction of supply.
It’s also a common belief that certain behaviors just need to be “controlled,” usually through willpower or discipline. When it comes to health and fitness, the focus turns to calories and macronutrient ratios (things easily controlled) and personal trainers (external motivation).
It’s very popular for people to direct blame for their misfortune at institutions such as corporations. It’s the “evil profiteers” that have created foods that render us powerless for the sole purpose of generating profits.
This externalization of the problem makes ongoing struggle inevitable. It’s like trying to put out a fire by blaming the firefighters. Sure, firefighters are associated with the problem of a fire, but they’re not the cause of the fire.
Foods that are great at feeding addiction are not the cause of addiction, nor are the corporations that produce said foods.
The struggle you have is completely internal. Shifting your focus and resources toward external factors makes recovery impossible.
Moderation and abstinence are two sides of the same valueless coin.
The “abstinence” and “moderation” camps are both right and both wrong.
The moderation camp is right in the fact that “eating in moderation” is the default state of having a healthy relationship with food.
There are two approaches to moderation, though. One is legitimate and the other is destructive.
- Eat mostly to nourish your body and for simple enjoyment, but without perfectionism (legitimate).
- Eat whatever you want, just less of it (destructive).
The abstinence camp is right in the fact that for some people, there are certain foods or substances that should be avoided outright. For example, those who are celiac would be well advised to cut out gluten completely (and perhaps non-celiac gluten sensitive and anyone who feels like shit when they eat it).
Anyway…let’s talk about how they’re both destructive because that’s probably the most important point. They’re both destructive in that they both tend to see “moderation” and “abstinence” as “tools.”
If you set out to “abstain” or to “moderate” as if these things are great tools, you become highly dependent on willpower, discipline, and motivation, all of which are limited resources.
Recovery does not come through abstinence. And it does not come through willed moderation.
The only thing earned from abstinence and willed moderation is unhappiness. Of the small percentage of people who are successful at the abstinence and willpower models, almost all of them hate the process and hate what their life has become.
They’ve done nothing to health their relationship with food, body, and Self. All they’ve done is managed to withhold their coping mechanism. And in all likelihood they’ve simply shifted to a more socially acceptable coping mechanism (like shopping, over-exercising, etc.).
For those who have a healthy relationship with food, body, and self, abstinence and/or moderation are classified as “abilities” rather than “tools.”
You can possess the ability to moderate or to abstain as necessary in order to reach your goals. You will experience very little friction with being consistent because your behavior is authentic and unmolested.
The only way to truly heal your dysfunctional relationship with food, body and Self is to address the root of the issues, end the manipulation, and gain the ability to moderate (to nourish your body with real food the vast majority of the time while not confining yourself to the perfectionist model) and to abstain (from any foods that absolutely wreck your body/energy levels).
So, it’s not “moderate” OR “abstain” (as tools), it’s “do both” (as an ability that comes from doing the work to develop a healthy relationship with food, body, and self, and to discontinue the use of food as a drug).
If you identify with this article and you’re ready to take some next steps, here’s what I would recommend:
- Take our emotional eating evaluation. Find out the exact context and scope of your challenges.
- Consider enrolling in our Decode Your Cravings program, the most powerful online program for ending emotional eating, healing your relationship with food, and achieving rock-solid consistency with your healthy habits.
You *can* achieve freedom from emotional eating. You just have to address the root causes and achieve control rather than trying to force control through moderation, willpower, and abstinence.
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Kevin Geary is the founder of RebootedBody.com and a respected expert on cravings, eating psychology, and long-term habit change. He’s worked with thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world through his online academy and programs like Shut Down Your Sugar Cravings.