Stuffing + Starving - Behind Emotional Eating

Whether we're aware of it or not, most of us have eaten emotionally at some point in our lives. 

Using food to get through life's ups + downs,  instead of eating for nutrition. Emotional eaters turn to (or from) food in an attempt to control, compensate or deal with emotions or aspects of life that feel unmanageable. 

Emotional eating occurs on a spectrum, and the level to which it affects a particular person varies greatly and may even change or occur in cycles. 

For some of us, emotional eating occurs rarely or on occasion, not presenting much cause for concern. Others of us may notice that our emotional eating is a frequent -- even daily or growing occurrence that feels like it is, or soon may be, a problem. 

We may be stuff-ers, starve-rs or both.


Common Types of Emotional Eating

Emotional eating often presents in a form like this:

  • Emotional Binge Eating -- episodes of eating large amounts of food that are well-beyond reasonable portion size + physical nutrient needs as a direct response to an event, feeling/emotion, desire, or to elicit an emotional change. often occurs in addition to or outside of regular meals. often occurs in the evenings. often occurs in secret. often accompanied by feelings of guilt, shame, remorse and/or complete lack of control.
  • Emotional Compulsive Eating -- episodes of grazing, munching, eating, overeating, undereating, skipping meals, or intentionally starving as a direct response to an event, feeling/emotion, desire, or to elicit an emotional change. 


The Feelings Behind Our Emotional Eating

While episodes of over/undereating can be random or infrequent, those of us who find we have chronic patterns of stuffing and/or starving might feel like it's "just something we do / always have done." But often, there's way more going on under the surface that drives our unhelpful + abnormal behaviors with food.

If we use food to mask, control, suppress, replace or deal with emotion, we may find ourselves over/undereating in any of the following states:

Anxiety, Panic, Paranoia - we may stuff/starve when we feel highly self-conscious, inadequate, fearful or afraid.  Especially around social situations, events or people that make us uncomfortable.  Some of us may even have food-specific anxiety or paranoia-- e.g., irrational fears that makes us avoid certain foods we think will make us immediately fat or sick, despite little or contrary evidence.

Stress Relief, Tension Release, Reward - we may stuff/starve in response to overwhelm. often as a release mechanism used to decompress, wind down, or soothe ourselves. We may stuff because we feel we've "earned" or "deserve" a (food) reward or break from a difficulty we've endured. Or we may starve because we don't feel we've "earned" or "deserve" food.

Depression, Sorrow, Grief, Comfort - we may stuff/starve to try to reduce, eliminate or ignore feelings of intense, permeating sadness or pain. We may feel or be unable to properly care for ourselves in hard times and that food/starvation gives us a sense of control or means of "getting through."

Loneliness, Emptiness, Desire, Longing - we may stuff/starve as a way to address, mask or distract ourselves from an unsettling internal hole or void.

Joy, Celebration, Nostalgia - we may stuff as a means of feeling, relating to, expressing or remembering intense happiness. We may starve as a means of blocking out or not permitting ourselves to feel, related to, express or remember intense happiness.

Bliss, Pleasure, Numbing - we may stuff/starve because we enjoy the physical sensation and experience of food/starvation. we may stuff/starve to get or stay numb in avoidance of the discomfort associated with feeling.

Adventure, Excitement, Entertainment - we may stuff/starve because we get a rush, kick, or "high" off of food/starvation. We may find that stuffing/starving gives us something to focus on or distract us from the less-desirable feelings, issues or situations in our life. 

Anger, Resentment, Desire to Harm - we may stuff/starve as a way of expressing bitterness. It may be a violent reaction to others (though ironically self-harming).

Guilt, Shame, Regret, Punishment, Self-Sabotage - we may stuff/starve as an extremely self-deprecating response to feelings of intense self-disgust, self-loathing, guilt, shame, remorse. we may believe we "deserve" the punishment or pain of stuffing/starving.

Protection, Security - we may stuff/starve in an effort to keep others at bay, away from our vulnerabilities. We may stuff/starve because it gives us an illusion of control, safety or stability.

Any of these resonate with you?


So We Do Some Emotional Eating... What's the Big Deal, ANYWAY?

This is a great question to ask ourself.

For many, emotional eating becomes more of a problem then a solution.

Unfortunately, emotional eating can only suppress and delay feelings -- not dissolve them. They're still there, piling up, waiting to be dealt with. We may even unintentionally change our brain chemistry, rewire our reward centers and create neuropathways reliant on our habitual emotional eating as a means of triggering certain biochemical brain + body responses.

Each of us must take an honest look at how emotional eating is affecting our life. 

We might consider how much time, money, effort, energy, health, sanity, mental space, and energy it is sucking from us (and others). Do we feel the way we are with food is normal and generally healthy? Does our emotional eating seem to be getting better or worse, over time? Are we turning to/from food rarely, frequently, most days, everyday? 

First Step in Overcoming Our Emotional Eating

Overcoming emotional eating is more of a process than a task item on a check-list.

The level of challenge we might face in overcoming our emotional eating will depend on the length of time and extent to which we've been using stuffing/starving to cope with or control our feelings. 

Regardless of where we're at, the first step we can take toward our healing is to make an honest assessment of where we're at today.

This opens us up to look at where we'd like to be with our eating, and what steps and help we may need to seek to get there.