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Emotional Eating 101 – A Spark Wellness Teleclass Recap

I had the pleasure of participating in a free teleclass last night presented by the lovely Hadley Seward of Spark! Wellness. Hadley just did a guest post on my good friend, Melissa’s, blog and I appreciated the in-depth discussion of an issue that is often avoided – emotional eating. Of course, I know there has been much discussion about pre-holiday preparatory tactics in the blog world, but Hadley’s approach delved much deeper than the next 6 weeks. I’ll start by saying that there’s no way I’ve captured all of her wonderful points in this post, so you should check out Spark! Wellness and the services these talented practitioners provide. As someone who has worked with nutritionists, psychologists and massage therapists, I can say with confidence that Spark! Wellness is a very important resource.

Emotional Eating Psychology

Most women, unfortunately, are dissatisfied with their bodies, as well as with their relationship with food. Often, women (and men) feel they must have strong willpower to battle sugar and indulgence demons and that, if they act on a craving, their willpower has failed. And consequently, they, too, are failures. In fact, willpower can trigger emotional eating. Our bodies respond positively to ‘yes’ and negatively to ‘no’ – hence why you crave the one thing you can’t have if you’re on a diet.

Emotional eating is defined as the use of food or the act of eating to fill a void, and often involves eating in secret. It is also commonly followed by intense feelings of regret, or the sense of being controlled by a food. However, emotional eating is not the result of weak willpower. Rather, emotional eating is a very complex expression of the body’s needs, whether they are physical or emotional. Hadley’s example was, if you crave sweet foods, is it because you are lacking sweetness in your life? Are you craving a companion, or affection from a significant other or family member? Often, when we eat emotionally, we are looking for tangible nourishment. If we can’t satisfy the emotional craving we have, we turned to food as it is more accessible. It’s also much easier to eat than it is to face a challenge in your life or something about yourself that you hope to change.

One of the comments that hit hardest for me was the concept that a person may be inclined to overeat sometimes because it is easier to be mad at herself for overeating than to admit that she’s done something else wrong. Maybe she was selfish and didn’t hold a door for someone, or could have been nicer on a phone call. Or she ate the last cookie, rather than saving it for a friend, boyfriend or roommate. Whatever the trigger, she would rather regret overeating the regret her other poor decisions. Hadley also explained that emotional eating happens sometimes when a person feels she doesn’t deserve happiness or something good that has come her way. Perhaps she received a compliment from someone or attention for an accomplishment at work and she doesn’t feel she really deserves the praise or that she can’t measure up to the expectation. Rather than dealing with those feelings, she punishes herself, or buries those feelings, by emotionally eating.

Hadley’s suggestions for reassessing emotional eating involve:

1. Be aware of emotional eating instances. Be a detective. Note time, place, frequency, and circumstance of emotional eating. Keep a journal and look for trends.

2. SUSPEND JUDGEMENT. Investigate the notes in your journal a bit further but do not judge. Judgement causes stress on the body which, in addition to being unproductive, can also cause weight gain due to poor digestion. You didn’t have a lapse in willpower and eat an entire sheet cake. There was another reason behind it and that is the real key to the issue. Have you been holding back your emotions? Have you wanted to speak up to your boss? Or are you frustrated with a friend? Or are you excited about something wonderful in your life but afraid to share that with someone else? Your body needs outlets for expression. It’s very possible that eating has become your outlet of choice.

3. Name the emotion you feel as soon as the emotional eating episode begins. Express it. Say it out loud! If you’re sad or lonely or excited, say so! Often, by giving a name to that anxious feeling in your body, the compulsion to eat will lessen. Even if the emotion doesn’t dissipate, sit with it but DO NOT JUDGE. You are allowed to have feelings!

Ways to Decrease Emotional Eating

After discussing the reasons behind emotional eating, Hadley provided some wonderful tips to decrease these actions.

1. Do you have an imbalance in your diet? If you eat salty meals all day, you might crave sweets at night. Did you eat hot oatmeal for breakfast, soup for lunch and a casserole for dinner? That’s probably why you’re craving frozen yogurt or a smoothie at night! Keeping a journal of your meals (not amounts or calorie counts) can help you notice trends in your cravings. Hadley also encouraged the incorporation of adequate protein and healthy fat into your diet. A vegetarian herself, she did not tell her listeners to eat steak every night. As you already know from many wonderful blog resources, red meat is not our only source of protein and, in fact, many sources are much better for you!

2. If your diet is in balance, is it possible your life is a little out of sorts? Do you take enough time for self care? Often, emotional eating becomes one of the only times we can be alone and the solitude is what we crave, rather than the food we are eating. If you want to make a change in your life, tell people whom you trust and hold yourself accountable. Make a plan to strengthen those places where you see a weak link.

3. If you know you will emotionally eat, create a ritual around it. Rather than fighting it, make it an event. If you know you want pizza, or cookies, make the best version of that food you can. If you crave a burger, don’t buy a Big Mac. Go all out! Eat your “indulgent” meal on your best plates with your finest flatware. Light some candles, play some music. Not only do these actions put you in the moment, but they also remove the “forbidden” aspect of the food, thus making it less exciting. If you say you can eat all the pizza you want, you’re less likely to eat the whole pie!

Holiday-Specific Tips

After covering all of this wonderful information, Hadley continued by offering several suggestions specifically targeted to the challenges we face during the holiday season. However, since she did such a wonderful job in her article on Melissa’s blog, I’ll direct you there to read more 😉

Thank you so much to Hadley for a wonderful teleclass and please be sure to check out Spark! Wellness’ monthly newsletter and teleclass series!


How do you manage emotional eating?


13 Responses

  1. Great recap of Hadley’s class! I find that many clients do express the need to eat so that they don’t need to deal with deeper, perhaps more frightening kinds of guilt or self-examination. Great and often under-discussed point!

  2. Great recap! I had no idea they did online classes. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks!

  3. This was great! I could really relate to the Ways to Decrease Emotional Eating. Once I learned to figure out what I was really craving and then just gave into whatever it happened to be, my emotional eating went way down.

    I’m proud to say I can’t remember the last time I did any major damage by eating based on my emotions.

  4. This was really helpful info! Thanks so much for this. I used to emotionally eat alot…mainly when Im tired..for some reason the less sleep I get, the more I want to eat. So since Ive figured this out, Ive managed to keep it in check. This post really helps out that and has some great pointers.

    Thanks again!!

  5. Great topic! If I find that I’m having one of those days where I just feel like eating and eating I will take 5 minutes, drink some water, if I still want the whatever it is just as bad, I’ll let myself have it. Most of the time I find it was just a random craving/emotional craving! Hope you have an incredible thanksgiving

  6. Great post!!! I found that allowing myself to eat whatever I want works best, and I truly eat what I want. and because I don’t have any limits on it. I actually crave healthy things because forbidden food no longer has the allure from not being able to have it:)

  7. I WISH I had no idea what you are talking about, but unfortunately I am all-too-familiar with emotional eating 😦 I like the tip about suspending jugment. Very powerful.
    Thank you for sharing this.

  8. Great tips!

    I found this very interesting and it hit quite close to home. Feeling as if you don’t deserve something and eating to numb feelings is something that is all too familiar to me 😦

    I think confidence is something that really helps people be good to themselves. Once you have enough self-esteem, you will be strong enough to stop putting “crap” into your body and you will (only) do thing’s you can be proud of – because your worth it! (so l’oreal :P)


  9. Thanks for this insightful and important post. I’m very much an emotional eater, and I can say without hesitation that behavior derived from highs and lows in my moods throughout my later teenage years up until now. I have a rare condition called “Cyclothymia,” which is a mild variation of bi-polar disorder. In the past, my diet has correlated with the highs and lows in my mood frequencies. When I was “high” I would eat like a bird and drop weight, when I was “Low” I would consume anything in sight just to taste something and escape numbness. Combined with the omnipresent pressures from society to look perfect, it was a pretty gnarly psychological clusterbang.

    I attribute my now successful management of Cyclothymia to a healthy diet, self-acceptance, and a complete disregard for ridiculous societal beauty standards. Learning to eat more intuitively has significantly improved my health and well-being.

  10. Great article on emotional eating! I think most, if not all, women deal with this and the more pressure we put on ourselves to be “perfect” the worse it gets.

    After a long work day, time at the gym, blogging, writing, and social committments – sometimes all I want to do sit in bed at night and eat cookies! There’s nothin’ wrong with cookies, but I want to be able to eat them because they taste good and NOT because I’m feeling stressed or sad. I will definitely keep the tips you posted in mind. Thank you!!!

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