Emotional Eating
By Abigail Natenshon
Author of When Your Child Has An Eating Disorder

Are you aware of

  • 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, choiceless quality about your eating, a sense of being powerless to make changes?

Food and feelings are frequently bound together. When people use food and eating to produce certain feelings or to cover up certain feelings, they may be engaging in emotional eating. Eating is tied to emotions. Emotional eating can create a “food fog” that anesthetizes feelings.

No one is emotionally neutral about eating all the time. It is important to become aware, however, of whether you might be a person whose eating is primarily and consistently stimulated by your emotional state and needs. When eating, not eating, or restricting food is primarily triggered by how we feel or wish to feel, it can become unhealthy eating and lead to obesity or eating disorders.

Once you learn to identify your patterns of emotional eating and become aware of the feelings of circumstances that trigger it, you will become able to separate unwanted eating episodes from their triggers and learn to experience your feelings without having to turn to food. This provides greater options for solving problems at their source.

Vulnerable emotional states include depression, anxiety, boredom and loneliness, anger and jealousy. Emotions may be categorized into four main groups: Mad, Sad, Glad, and Scared.

“Fat” has become the new feeling of the decade. “Fat” has become a code word to camouflage real feelings. When a person adds “fat “ to the list of feelings, (“I feel fat.”) emotional eating may cross the line into dysfunctional eating. If “fat” becomes a feeling, look deeper. This form of emotional eating can create further negative feelings, leading to more deeply disordered eating.

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

There is no exact science about eating “right,” and we are all a bit idiosyncratic or quirky about what and how we eat. That is natural. What is significant to note in the above exercise is the all-or-nothing, compulsive quality that you may discover about what or how you may be eating.

What to do if you have a problem
There are better ways to respond to feelings without racking up calories, without doing damage to oneself.

  1. Recognize your real feelings. Match up what you need with more appropriate responses.
  2. Keep a "feeling" journal. In this journal, make note of:
    a. What triggers your eating behaviors?
    b. What kinds of things you would you like to change about your eating?
    c. How easily you are able to make changes in your eating?
    d. What helps you the most in attaining your eating goals?
  3. Name your feelings. This gives you power. You can’t solve a problem without first defining it.
  4. Discover the feelings that act as eating triggers for you.
  5. Find a friend who you can confide in or go to parents to talk out what is bothering you.
  6. Take a bike ride or shoot baskets instead of eating. Take your dog for a walk.
  7. Keep in mind what healthy eating is really about.
  8. Never skip a meal.

By eating enough of the right kinds of foods at each meal, you will regulate your hunger. By eating healthfully and exercising regularly, you will insure your fitness. By doing both, you will learn to trust your body, will feel more content with your life and in control of food, eating, yourself and your own happiness.

Psychotherapist Abigail H. Natenshon has specialized in the treatment of eating disorders with individuals, families, and groups for the past 28 years. She is the author of When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder: A Step-by-Step Workbook for Parents and Other Caregivers, Jossey Bass Publishers, San Francisco, CA. October 1999. Based on hundreds of successful outcomes, this book shepherds concerned parents step-by-step through the processes of eating disorder recognition, confronting the child, finding the most effective treatment for patient and family, and evaluating and insuring a timely recovery. A guide to eating disorder prevention, this book is useful to parents, health professionals and school personnel alike in countering the pervasive epidemic of unhealthy eating and body image concerns, and destructive media and peer influences. Her work can be reviewed further at her web site at www.empoweredparents.com. To order visit amazon.com.

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