Your Emotional Eating Has Nothing to do With Food

by Sheryln Smith

If you’re like me, at one point or another you’ve tried to think your way out of emotional eating by manipulating your diet or eating habits, or by making a tight fist of willpower around food. You may have even been successful for a short time in each of these approaches before falling back into the familiar realm of emotional eating.

I tried relying on willpower to curb my destructive food behaviors, but time after time this approach failed me because I couldn’t figure out how to break the cycle I was in. I was left feeling defeated, frustrated, and confused. No matter what intellectual technique I applied to fix my emotional eating, changing the food part of the equation didn’t fix anything.

What I learned is this:

If food was the root cause of emotional eating, then we would absolutely be able to solve this problem by changing our interaction with food. But food isn’t the root cause of emotional eating. Food is just a symptom and a way of expressing a much deeper issue.

There is a reason emotional eating isn’t called intellectual eating, and it’s because our intellect isn’t the issue. We know that stopping the behavior would benefit us. We know that food doesn’t solve our problems. But knowing isn’t enough to stop this pattern of food-related self-soothing.

If it was, we could simply change the food we eat to solve our problem. So what do we do?

Emotional Rescue

Emotional eating has nothing to do with our relationship with food. It’s about our relationship with our emotions, and this is where our focus must lie to resolve this issue.

Our emotional eating is a way of self-medicating and numbing so we don’t have to feel emotional pain. The unintended consequence of this behavior, though, is that we numb ourselves from experiencing any part of life, and that causes more pain than we numb with emotional eating.

Another Way to Approach Emotional Eating

If you understand that food is a messenger and a symptom, it will be easier to move your focus off food as the root cause of your suffering.

From this understanding, the path becomes clearer. If emotional eating is a way of self-medicating and numbing so we don’t have to feel painful emotion, the solution is to allow ourselves to feel all the emotions in the human experience. This spectrum of emotion ranges from joy to despair, love to grief, ecstasy to boredom, and everything in between.

When you’ve lived with a behavior that protects you from intense emotions, the prospect of experiencing them can be scary and unwelcome. And while our fear is that these intense emotions will last forever, we experience them much longer and more intensely when we resist them through behaviors such as emotional eating.

The most effective and powerful way to get in touch with emotion is by creating awareness of the thoughts that give rise to them. Humans can think about their thoughts and choose the ones to keep. This ability to observe our mind is what makes us different from other animals. By creating awareness of our thoughts, we can choose to change them on a daily basis. Changing our thoughts allows us to change our emotions—and that is how we can permanently alter our behaviors without constant struggle.

When I first learned about thought work, I was amazed and excited. The idea that I could change my emotional state by creating awareness of my thoughts was a game changer for me and led me to finally break free of my own emotional eating.

Here is what it means for you: Through doing thought work you can choose to feel happy instead of sad (even when nothing in your external life changes), love instead of hate,  acceptance instead of shame. Throughout life you will always face negative emotions, and  we need to come to peace with feeling them. It’s part of being human. But if we are aware of our emotional state, we can work our way out of negativity.

Wherever we create awareness, we create the opportunity to change how we think, feel, and behave. This means that emotional eating becomes a choice rather than a default, and our emotional life becomes something that empowers us rather than defeats us. Being able to fully engage in life, without the tether that emotional eating has on us, is a freedom we deserve to feel and can achieve.

Creating Awareness to Heal Emotional Eating

Use the questions below to start creating awareness around your emotional eating:

  1. Before or during an emotional eating episode, ask yourself, “What emotion am I avoiding right now?” (Don’t let yourself answer “I don’t know.”)
  2. Before, during, or after an emotional eating event, ask yourself, “Why am I choosing to emotionally eat?” (Don’t let yourself answer “I don’t know.”)
  3. Consider your answer to question number two, and ask yourself, “Is this a good reason to keep emotionally eating?” (Don’t let yourself answer “I don’t know.”)

These questions will begin to open your mind to self-awareness. They will empower you to start considering that you do have the choice, power, and ability to change because change comes from within.

There is no magic pill or smoking gun to fix emotional eating. It takes time and work. But it is possible, and if nothing else, I am a testament to that. After binge eating for more than a decade, I am at peace with food and free from emotional eating. I embrace my emotions and process them in a way that serves me rather than hurts me. This freedom comes after years of struggling with food and believing I was inherently broken. Now I can tell you I’m not broken, and I never was. Neither are you.

Sherlyn Smith

Sherlyn Smith

Certified Life Coach

Sheryln is a certified Psychology of Eating Coach. Her coaching practice is dedicated to women who are ready to take charge, make permanent change, and break free of the hold binge eating and emotional eating has on their life, especially those who are highly sensitive.