Why is a chocolate chip cookie so irresistible?  Does it have some magic spell that glazes over your eyes and has you forget that eating too many of them can make your pants tighter? Well, actually, yes it does.  

For most of us having trouble resisting a cookie at certain times, we’re using the cookie – substitute your own food here -- for another purpose. We are trying re-gain some sort of emotional balance. Just as your body will heal a cut, so will your body seek mental balance to preserve a steady emotional state.  The pleasure from tasting something delicious works as a temporary balm from emotional stress.  Neuroscientists have shown that the pleasure centers of your brain light up from a chocolate chip cookie in a similar pattern to how your brain would light up on drugs. 

I want to get into the origins of how the bad habit of heading to the fridge when you’re emotionally stressed was created.  My hope is that you’ll learn to recognize when this might be happening in your life so you can figure out another way to cope with your emotions, one that might not involve food (look to Guide to Processing Emotions for ideas).

The unconscious

Sigmund Freud discovered that we have a large amount of brain operation happening out of our awareness. This is the unconscious part of our mind, which is a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, and automatic programming running on autopilot. Freud describes the unconscious as a pool of emotion and experience waiting to bring what’s necessary for you to live into your awareness.  So, for example, if you need to be aware that the lion charging at you needs to be quickly avoided or you’ll get eaten, the emotional signal brought into awareness when seeing the lion is fear. The fear makes you run, serving you well to get you out of danger.  

For many people who diet, emotional signals that were meant to serve you -- like that signal to run from a lion -- got hijacked long ago. If your mom or dad didn’t ask you what you were feeling when you came home from school looking sad after a bad day, chances are that you didn’t learn to notice what you were feeling or how to read your own internal signals. You may have been lucky and developed a certain language for expressing your feelings for being aware of your emotions as a child. But most of us –- especially those who would soothe our emotions with food  --  have not.  

You may have soothed yourself with a cookie after a bad day at 8 years old or 12 years old, and that made you feel better. Good taste gives pleasure, and it can balance an unsettled feeling. Then you did it again and again and it worked!  If this pattern of relieving minor upset with that cookie happens enough, you have an automatic relief system for soothing yourself. Unfortunately, you never received the signal that was meant for you. So, the problem that gave you the unsettled feeling remains unaddressed.   

Using Food as a Cover for your emotions

Most women that go on diets soothe their emotions with food at times. The amount of emotional eating that is going on in a woman’s life varies from person to person.  It depends on what is happening in her life for her and at what point she needs help from that cookie to stay sane. 

If you don’t know whether or not you eat emotionally, zoning out while eating is your first clue that you are emotionally eating. Are you in some kind of daze and not really registering that you’ve eaten and not really tasting your food? All women who diet have moments where they are hazy about what they’ve eaten -- they couldn’t accurately account for the amount of food, or even sometimes, what they have  put in their mouths. 'Mindless" or "zoned out" eating is an indication that your emotional side has  logical eating intentions in the back seat, and your emotions are 'driving the bus!'  The antidote to zoning out is mindful eating.

Let’s focus on three common reasons WHY people eat to soothe their emotions with food.  It’s important to know where to look for potential issues so you can address them. You will need to use your newly cultivated awareness of reaching for a cookie when you are not hungry (discussed in the first example in Mindful Eating) as a signal to start looking inside yourself to see what’s up with you.

Missing pleasure in your day-to-day?

One of the most common reasons people emotionally eat is to balance an imbalance of pleasure in their lives.  This is pretty direct. Some women literally forget to have enough fun and fill a pleasure-void in their lives with food. We do a great job pleasure seeking when we’re young. But as life goes on, tastes change, responsibilities grow, and life starts to get pretty predictable. Often we replace enjoyable experiences with adult responsibilities and forget to build fun into our day-to-day lives. Could there be an imbalance of pleasure in your day?

Women who don't spend a large chunk of their mindshare on food think of food as pleasure, but not a primary source of joy. If eating for pleasure is taking up more of your 'good-time allotment' than you would like, it would serve you well to start scheduling other non-food activities that make you happy into your calendar.  We discuss what fun could look like for you in MyRecipeforChange.

Current emotional problems?

Another common reason people head to the fridge for comfort is a current problem in their lives. Research identifies the BIG 7 common emotional reasons women head to the fridge when they are not hungry: anger, stress, loneliness, unhappiness, disappointment, boredom, or exhaustion. What signals is your emotional side trying to send you about your current life? Potential places to look are: your marriage, your job, your family, and your friends. How could you address these problems? 

Instead of covering over that problem with food, becoming aware of the signal your emotions are giving you is the first step to addressing it. The Guide to Processing Emotions gives you suggestions on how to cope: 1) naming the emotion, 2) sitting with the emotion without judgment, 3) figuring out a solution and 4) solving the problem. This is the "courage to change the things I can," in the famous Serenity Prayer:

Grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change; 
courage to change the things I can; 
and wisdom to know the difference.

Some problems you may be experiencing are actually intractable -- there is no solution available -- like taking care of a chronically ill parent. This is the situation where you need the "serenity to accept the things I cannot change." Once you do the detective work and figure out what’s bothering you, there might be more coping mechanisms that you could use as an exercise in self-care if you thought about it.  This could be talking to someone, pampering yourself, getting rest, or relaxing . We are cultivating the "wisdom to know the difference" as we locate the emotions behind the eating behavior.  We are cultivating Emotional Eating Intelligence.

Deep childhood wounds?

Lots of people eat to soothe deeply felt PAST hurt. Is there some emotional baggage that needs to be unpacked from your childhood? Past emotional baggage that is being soothed on a daily basis can be very difficult to treat. Some people live in so much emotional pain that they are soothing themselves with food for a good part of the day. This pain can be located very deep inside a person. This type of emotional eating calls for experienced professional help. I have resource websites for eating disorder and disordered eating professionals where you can get treatment in "I didn't know you had this problem" in the Sources section.

Emotional eating can be deeply rooted. But, once you can raise this behavior into your awareness, the closer you’ll be to reading the signals intended for you. Simply put, the many people who don't diet do a good job separating their eating from life’s ups and downs. There is always progress to be made on becoming one of those people.

 

  • Jonathan Lear, Freud, Chapter One: Interpreting the Unconscious, 2015 (2nd edition).
  • Karen Koenig, The Food and Feelings Workbook, Chapter 4: The Seven Most Difficult Feelings for Disordered Eaters, 2007.
  • Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue, 2006 (2nd edition).

"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."  --Hamlet