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Over 45 Years of Eating Disorder Specialty Practice
 

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Emotional Eating
By Abigail Natenshon, MA, LCSW, GCFP

Author of When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder and 
Doing What Works: an Integrative System for the Treatment of Eating Disorders from Diagnosis to Recovery

Are you concerned that you may be eating too much or too little? Do you feel out of control ofwhat you eat, when you eat, how you eat, and how much you eat? Do you wonder how to go about establishing a healthier eating lifestyle?

First, it would be helpful for you to become aware of the following:

  • The quality of your relationship with food.

  • What prompts you to eat or not to eat.

  • Whether your emotions rule your eating.

  • Whether your eating rules your emotions.

  • Whether there is a compulsive, impulsive or choice-less quality about your eating, or a sense of being powerless to make sought-after changes.

Food and feelings are frequently bound together. When people use food and eating to produce or cover up certain feelings, they may be engaging in "emotional eating." Emotional eating often creates a "food fog" that distracts or anesthetizes feelings, disguising genuine needs, and in so doing, preventing effective problem resolving. 

No one is emotionally neutral about eating all the time. On a blustery cold winter morning, it is normal to crave a warm and filling comfort food such as oatmeal; on Halloween, it is fun to get into the spirit of the holiday by overindulging on the treats in your sack. If overly nervous about a first day at work or taking an exam, it is not uncommon to lose one's appetite. Become aware, however, of whether you might be a person whose eating is primarily and consistentlystimulated by your emotional states and needs. When eating or restricting food is primarily motivated by feelings other than by hunger or satiety, it can become disordered eating which can lead to conditions such as obesity or clinical eating disorders in those with such genetic propensities.

Emotional states that might make a person vulnerable to the emotional use of food include depression, anxiety, boredom and loneliness, anger and jealousy. If you have difficultyrecognizing your emotional state at times, ask yourself, "What might be happening right now? Am I feeling Mad, Sad, Glad or Scared?" 

Are you an Emotional Eater?

  • I always eat when I am happy.

  • I always eat when I feel sad.

  • I always eat when I feel anxious or nervous.

  • I always eat when I feel angry.

  • I always eat when I feel frustrated.

  • I always eat when I am bored.

  • I always eat when I don't want to do other things that I have been putting off, like homework.

  • I always eat when I feel frightened.

  • I don't eat when I feel frightened about becoming fat.

  • I am afraid that I will not be popular if I gain any weight.

  • I believe that I will be more popular if I weigh less.

  • Dieting gives me a sense of purpose and of being in control.

  • I feel good about skipping meals.

  • I feel out of control in many areas of my life, beyond eating.

  • I am not good at recognizing my feelings.

  • When I am feeling badly, sometimes I "feel fat" even though I know that "fat" is not a feeling.

Fat has become a commonly used code word to camouflage real feelings. When a person adds "fat" to his or her list of feelings, emotional eating may cross the line into disordered eating. If "fat" becomes a feeling, it is wise to look for deeper significance; you may be suffering from body image distortions or disturbances. Such disturbances can exacerbate emotional eating or food restriction (or both, intermittently), magnifying negative feelings, and leading to more serious forms of disordered eating or eating disorders. 


What to do if you have a problem

Once you learn to identify the emotions and circumstances that stimulate emotional eating, you will become better able to separate unwanted eating episodes from their triggers, and respond more appropriately to your feelings without having to turn to food. This provides greater options for solving problems at their source. Remember that there is no exact science to eating "right," and it is not unusual for us to harbor some idiosyncrasies or quirkiness about what and how we eat. What differentiates a benign quirk from a disordered eating pattern? The disordered pattern is invariably marked by rigidity and inflexibility, by an all-or-nothing, extreme and compulsive quality. 

It is important to find better ways to respond to feelings than to develop habits that are self-defeating. Here are ten things you might do. 

  • Recognize your real feelings. 
  • Keep a "feeling" journal. In this journal, make note of
    • What triggers your eating behaviors
    • What kinds of things you would you like to change about your eating
    • How easily you are able to make changes in your eating
    • What helps you the most in attaining your eating goals 
  • Name your feelings. This gives you power. You can't resolve a problem without first defining it. 
  • Discover which feelings and/or thoughts act as eating triggers for you. 
  • By identifying your feelings, you can more precisely know and accomplish what you need and want.
  • Find a friend whom you can confide in or go to parents to talk out what might be concerning you. 
  • Take a bike ride, shoot baskets, or take your dog for a walk instead of eating. 
  • Keep in mind what healthy eating is really about. Healthy eating is regular, nutritious, varied, balanced and fearless eating.
  • Never skip a meal.
  • If you find that it is not possible to resolve these issues on your own, don't hesitate to ask for assistance from people you trust, from your doctor, a nutritionist or psychotherapist.

By eating enough of the right kinds of foods at least three times a day at every meal, you will regulate your hunger and will not be so prone to turn to food mindlessly. By eating healthfully and exercising regularly, you will also insure your physical fitness, learn to trust your body, and feel more in control of food as well as other aspects of your life, your self, and your happiness.

It is important to note that emotional eating does not indicate the presence of a clinical eating disorder, though the condition may become a forerunner to the onset of a clinical eating disorder in an individual with a genetic proclivity to develop one.

 
       
 
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