People who struggle with weight often eat emotions. If regulating our eating were simply a matter of will power and some basic knowledge about good nutrition, we’d all be there now! Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work like that.
There are all sorts of emotional reasons why people eat, besides eating to stay alive and healthy. Step one in understanding your struggle with food is to see what emotions are driving you and which you are suppressing with food. Then there are techniques you can use with a practitioner/on your own that help in releasing these emotions and in substituting a healthier and more productive response.
Here are some of the main reason why people eat emotions.
Habits From Childhood Due to ACE Scores
ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. These are traumatic experiences (often repeated many times, or a one-time event that is very intense). They include situations like parents arguing, getting divorced, abuse (sexual, physical, emotional, verbal) by parents or other family members, parental neglect, parental drug or alcohol use. Or it might be involvement in a catastrophic event like earthquake, serial killer, fire or flood.
Children are in a situation that they can’t control, using whatever they can come up with to cope with the situation, protect themselves, and feel like they have some measure of power. Food often becomes the go-to. In the moment, they have comfort from the food, and eating it is a decision they made (often unconsciously) to be in control. Over time, they gain weight and the extra layer of fat buffers them from the world, leaving them with a feeling of safety. While not a healthy method from the adult point of view, it is a creative solution when viewed in the context of the child’s life situation.
This coping technique of eating emotions then becomes a habit, often still used decades after childhood. But now, the adult may find some immediate comfort from the food, but then feels guilty, ashamed, frustrated, and defeated. Plus, as we get older the body can no longer take the abuse it could withstand in childhood, and there are health repercussions.
Family Patterns of Emotional Eating
Children learn what’s modeled by parents and other family members. Perhaps one or both parents would eat emotions when troubled. Or perhaps mom gave the child a cookie whenever s/he was distressed. Often family celebrations became a time to eat out of control, and were remembered as warm, cozy times where the child felt love. Food then became equated with love.
Coping With Troubled Relationships
Sometimes people gain weight when in a problematic relationship. A spouse may cope with an unhappy marriage using food, or turn to food during a nasty and stressful divorce. Rather than dealing with feelings of anger, sadness, resentment, distrust, or a spectrum of other emotions, food is used to just get through it and stay numb to what the person is really feeling.
Many people have jobs where more is expected of them than what they can possibly accomplish in a day, week, month, or even year. Others expect too much from themselves and push way too hard. Often there is a fear of losing one’s job or getting a poor job evaluation. The pressure becomes unbearable, and food is used as a buffer. People then eat a lot on the job (often sweets abound in an office setting) or come home and snack through the night. This is often the only pleasure that people experience in the day. A non-food reward would work a lot better, but when the person is totally spent and has no energy left, food becomes a convenient go-to. The choice to eat emotions becomes an easier solution than processing them when running on empty.
Stuff happens in life, like the death of a loved one. Even in ‘regular’ times, the day can be packed with too many things — work, kids, home cleaning, shopping, laundry, etc. One thing piles up on top of another. There always seems to be a time crunch and no breathing space. Time does not get taken to process emotions, or even to eat a decent meal. Expressions like ‘grabbing something to eat’ indicate how little time and thought goes into food preparation, let alone time to sit down quietly and process what is happening. It’s no wonder that the choice to eat emotions becomes the norm.
As we live longer, caregiving often becomes another difficult life challenge. Caring for a parent or spouse with deteriorating health or a terminal illness requires much time, patience, and energy. Many people gain weight being a long-term caregiver. They put the needs of their loved one first, and their own needs on the back burner.
People turn to food when bored, lonely, procrastinating, anxious, and more. In these situations, people eat emotions rather than just experiencing them. For example, someone lives alone and gets lonely at night. A chocolate bar or bowl of ice cream or chips becomes their companion. If they were in the habit of sitting with their emotions, they might call a friend or join a group so they have some much needed social contact. Our culture does not promote experiencing negative emotions. They are considered bad, and are often repressed consciously or unconsciously. It’s easier to eat the food than face the feelings.
Once you have a handle on your reasons for eating your emotions, then it’s time to release the old habit and mindset and cultivate a new one. Some very effective techniques for doing this include hypnosis, NLP, EFT tapping, and yoga therapy. Learn more about these methods and see which ones work best for you.