Is ‘emotional eating’ always due to emotions?

Some individuals have themselves down as ‘emotional eaters’. The idea here is that they sometimes feel driven to eat foods as a result of their emotional state. Usually, this is in response to ‘negative’ states such as stress, anxiety or sadness. In a moment, I’m going to suggest two approaches that, in my experience, can be highly effective for dissolving emotional eating effectively and quickly. Before that though, I wanted to explore for a moment whether emotional eating is always as emotional as we think it is…

Imagine someone suffers from a tendency to unstable blood sugar levels. When blood sugar levels drop, biochemical and physiological changes occur in the body including the secretion of ‘stress’ hormones like adrenaline. The brain will also tend to increase its production of a substance called glutamate which has the capacity to increase anxiety.

Allied to any change in mood, low blood sugar levels can also provoke a craving for foods that replenish sugar quickly into the bloodstream such as chocolate, biscuits or bread. But here’s the question: what caused the food cravings – the person’s emotions, or the fact that they dropped their blood sugar level in the first place?

In my experience, many individuals who believe they have an ‘emotional eating’ problem appear to have nothing of the sort. How do I know this? Because, I’ve seen time and again that when an ‘emotional’ eater eats properly, and in particular stabilise their blood sugar level, their ‘emotional ‘eating’ just disappears. In many individuals, what appears to be a psychological issue is, in reality, physiological in nature.

This is not to say that emotional eating cannot happen – it most certainly can. For example, after repeated offering of sweet foods as a treat or pacifier in childhood it is undoubtedly possible for individuals to associate such foods with certain emotions. If that is genuinely the case for you, then taking a more mind-oriented approach may indeed help.

To understand how best to approach this sort of issue, it helps to understand a bit more about the mind. The brain can be thought of as having two major components: the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. The conscious mind is what, among other things, allows you to think about things and rationalise and work things out. While you’ve been reading this book, it’s likely that your conscious mind will have been quite active.

The unconscious mind, as its name suggests, controls unconscious thoughts and behaviours. Many emotional responses are seated here. An example is my spider phobia. I am afraid of spiders, even though I know that here in the UK they can’t hurt me in any meaningful way. In my unconscious mind I have associated spiders with some form of threat. And no amount of talking it through with a therapist or attempting to rationalise this in my own mind is unlikely to make much difference. Basically, taking a conscious approach to a problem that is unconscious is nature is of questionable value. It’s a bit like attempting to work on a problem with the engine of a car without first flipping the bonnet.

What this means is that for a genuine emotional eating issue we need to ‘flip the bonnet’ and get access to the unconscious mind. In my experience, two approaches that have considerable merit here are hypnotherapy and ‘emotional freedom technique’ (EFT). The latter can be learned and self-applied relatively easily, and plenty of resources regarding it are available on-line.

18 Responses to Is ‘emotional eating’ always due to emotions?

  1. Tim 3 May 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    I have found something called ‘WHEE’ useful for emotional difficulties. It’s a hybrid of EFT and Eye Movement Desensitisation & Reprocessing (EMDR) and was created by a Canadian MD (Psychiatrist) which gives it some credibility too :)

    http://www.wholistichealingresearch.com/wheearticles.html

  2. Karen Lewis 3 May 2011 at 1:59 pm #

    I always enjoy reading your posts. This is another interesting topic. The way many people eat today does ensure that blood sugar levels can be way out of balance and correcting this at a
    physiological level does stop the roller-coaster effect of eating and sending levels sky high, only for them to plummet and then eating again to get them back up.

    Because of my diabetic husband we are both following the low-carb approach, since July 2002, and it helps to keep the blood-sugar levels more controlled than our previous “healthy” diet. We rarely feel hungry, or inclined to over-indulge, no matter how we feel.

    But I have seen cases of genuine “emotional eating” and as soon as I read the post title I was thinking of EFT. You can actually use EFT to help you stay motivated as you try to eat properly, and indeed generally improve your lifestyle when it all feels like too much hard work.

    With regard to “emotional eating”, founder of EFT Gary Craig states “the true cause of all addictions is anxiety… an uneasy feeling that is temporarily masked, or tranquillized, by some substance or behaviour.” (EFT Manual)

    “Flipping the bonnet” as you say, this means that you can consider addictive substances, cravings or behaviour (emotional eating in this case), are in fact a means of ‘tranquillizing anxiety’. The current cravings for food, alcohol or whatever are themselves separate from the addiction.

    The addiction is driven by the underlying emotional anxiety; the cravings are the result of the addiction. By having the packet of biscuits, or the box of chocolates, etc., the individual finds a way, in the short term, to relax, calm their nerves and take their mind off things, to relieve or distract themselves from the emotional driver.

    To me it suggests the eating, etc., is a displacement activity to cover the feelings,
    often subconscious, of anxiety. If asked why do you eat those biscuits, etc., the most usual replies are among the lines of ‘It helps me to relax’ or ‘It makes me feel better.’

    Unfortunately, the effects tend to be temporary and when they wear off, the individual reaches once more for their “tranquillizer”. This leads to dependency and an association of anxiety with their tranquillizer, which leads to a vicious
    circle.

    So, in energy terms, the craving for food is considered to be a symptom of an emotional driver. If you deal with that, then dealing with the physical aspect of the craving is very much easier. Especially as you can deal with all of those with EFT.

    Just to show a little how EFT can be used there are plenty of articles at http://www.eftuniverse.com

    By the way, have you ever tried EFT on you spider phobia?

    http://www.eftuniverse.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1228:full-blown-fibromyalgia-migraine-and-fear-of-spiders-cleared-in-60-minutes&catid=30:
    phobias-fears&Itemid=1174

    http://www.eftuniverse.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1278:qi-have-a-fear-of-spiders-you-cant-begin-to-touchq&catid=30:phobias-fears&Itemid=1224

    http://www.eftuniverse.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1291:spider-phobia-relief-as-a-side-benefit&catid=30:phobias-fears&Itemid=1238

  3. Shelley 3 May 2011 at 4:19 pm #

    Speaking from personal experience I have to agree with you. After a very stressful period in my life, I had dropped about 10lbs not eating much and not sleeping much, and going about my normal daily exercise routine. Suddenly, about a year later, I became a binger, something I had never been my entire life. It was confusing, because I was being labelled an ‘emotional eater’, but something was off. In the end, I figured out what my body was ‘jonesing’ for by eating dried fruit, chocolate, almond butter etc, and started taking magnesium. It literally stopped the urge overnight. I figured out finally I had ‘used’ myself up and my body was trying to get it back. I remember having ‘mindless’ eating, where I felt I had no control. Now I know why. I dont even know how I could have packed away that much food, I would be ill now if I tried to eat that much.

  4. Beth@WeightMaven 3 May 2011 at 4:26 pm #

    I can’t wait to post this to my blog; you’ve saved me a lot of work ;). One point I would quibble with is the concept of “genuine ‘emotional eating’” — I think *all* “emotional” eating is essentially physiological, the question is whether the trigger is physiological or emotional.

    See Gabor Mate’s video on brain development and addiction — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpHiFqXCYKc — and you can see how many of the same physiological pathways are very likely involved in “emotional” eating.

    Me, I’m a poster child for binge eating and/or emotional eating. I’ve found that the right nutrient-dense diet gets me about 90% of the way, but that I could still be triggered by fairly high stress events. EFT wasn’t such a great help to me, but I’ve just finished my 50th session of neurofeedback (including the alpha-theta protocol that has been researched for alcoholism) and it has been a life-changer!

  5. J. Stanton 3 May 2011 at 5:29 pm #

    I think a significant component of “emotional eating”, especially for women, is because simple carbohydrates eaten in isolation boost brain serotonin levels. There is also the dopamine response to palatable foods. I talk about these as part of my series on carbohydrate addiction, starting here.

    But you’re absolutely correct that the blood sugar rollercoaster is very significant, and probably the primary driver. I used to get extremely snappish if I didn’t eat every few hours. Now that I eat a healthy diet high in healthy animal fats and low in empty calories and anti-nutrients, I can fast all day without issue.

    JS

  6. Shelby 4 May 2011 at 5:08 am #

    I have recently found a combination of EMDR psychotherapy with take-home techniques… a self-EMDR that’s similar to EFT (though different) is helping immensely with my cravings. Laurel Parnell’s book called “Tapping In: A step-by-step guide to activating your healing resources through bilateral stimulation (an EMDR related technique” is simple, easy to use and quick to read. Check it out.

  7. MrWeetabix 4 May 2011 at 6:29 pm #

    Greed simply as…You can always just drink a glass of water or go for a walk.

    All this tapping business is just for peoples BUSINESS ( buy my help book, it will make me rich, while making desperate people think I care about them)

    We are not merely machines that just eat due to emotions, we know exactly what we’re doing, we are mind and body

  8. Chris 6 May 2011 at 8:43 am #

    Sam, I think Michael Foleys, ‘Age Of Absurdity’ would make for interesting reading. Your observations and take on matters would sit well with his. He is quick witted and entertaining in the script – and persuasive too, but so far I cannot say it makes for any epiphany for me.

    I have an in-law, female, forty-ish, time served size 18 and diabetic type 2 on medication for this and meds also for high BP. The poor woman has suffered terribly in the last 12 months. Husband cheated, marriage and matrimonial relations in a mess, receiving counselling, and dropped to size 12 or even size 10.

    She may have been comfort eating before, or she may have endured raised insulin and hormone imbalance fro existing on discount brands from discount led supermarkets supplying her with foods, carbohydrate based and high in vegetable oils but low in real quality food essentials such as good meat and good veg. Now it seems to be that due to the emotional stress she’s now under she just isn’t eating. It is piteous to see her decline. I wonder, (but would never ask!) how her blood sugar control is now and whether she still requires meds for T2db.

    I am not so certain people (always) do know what they’re doing. Emotions, the complex interplay of biochemical balances determine how we deal with, and perform in relation to, our environment. If bad diet unbalances the autocrine system then your off to a bad start. Its a funny old world in which people behave and perform in relation to selective influences and pressures while not noticing the presence of (many) of them.

  9. Melanie Thomassian R.D. 6 May 2011 at 5:34 pm #

    Very interesting topic. I looked into EFT a little in the past, but it’s been a while. Will have to re-examine. Thanks for the reminder :-)

  10. Justine 6 May 2011 at 6:08 pm #

    @Karen–

    Anxiety itself is created physiologically, not out of thin emotional air. It is mediated by the adrenals, and when you care for and feed the adrenals anxiety lessens or vanishes. To say it is all caused by our emotional life is to ignore the underlying physical pathology that can be addressed.

    This makes anxiety-driven eating a search to fill the (physical) needs. Often we find the wrong foods out of ignorance, but the right foods can and will meet our needs. Shelley’s comment addresses this issue. I have found, in addition, that salt-loading helps the anxiety enormously.

    I have also found that addressing the gut-flora imbalances (a la GAPS) does an enormous amount of healing and balancing the drive to eat “emotionally”. One has to stick, with it though, because the pathogenic bacteria do beg loudly for their sweets! That will pass….

  11. Radiant Lux 6 May 2011 at 6:55 pm #

    awesome post! My experience agrees with what you have said. It is very difficult for me at times when, in the midst of a craving, to remember to tap or to fix the biochemical imbalance. I have used L-glutamine in between meals to prevent sugar cravings and stop them once started.

    BTW, you can get rid of spider phobia with EFT. I saw a Gary Craig video where he helped a woman with a snake phobia. Then he got a snake from a pet store and she was handling it with fascination.

  12. Steph 6 May 2011 at 7:51 pm #

    A fascinating issue, which I’ve been pondering for some time. I’d be interested to know how people would answer a friend of mine who doesn’t agree with a purely physiological explanation for “emotional” eating, because she seems to be able to eat all sorts of carbs, things which would make me crave and binge, without any problem. She therefore says it must be emotional. Or can the physiologies of individuals differ so much that what causes cravings in one can go unnoticed in another?

  13. Kate 7 May 2011 at 5:03 pm #

    This is a very timely issue for me. I’ve spent the past week in a very emotional crisis, dealing with an ailing person who eventually went to the hospital.

    At one point, I very definitely overate. I could simply not think or feel my way out of the need. However, there is a solution (that I use); I remove myself as much as possible from the thick of things, get some help if I can, and get a respite, during which time I eat less than I normally would. It averages out to lessen the damage. I don’t think I would use this solution as easily without keeping a faithful food log of my daily calories. Also, seeing the effect of overeating (so many calories) reminds me to do the extra physical activity that I can manage, even if that is just walking more around the hospital.

  14. Tom McAnea 18 May 2011 at 9:54 am #

    Anxiety and the physiological change, in endocrine terms, cannot be seen in isolation. Changes in our endocrine state, say raised adrenaline levels, are absolutely mediated by emotional and psychological triggers – think ‘fight or flight’. Why people eat the way they do is a complex interaction of the psychological, emotional and physiological. To see each as separate, or to take the reductive view that ‘we are in control’ is both naive and unhelpful. (Medical doctor)

  15. John Briffa 18 May 2011 at 11:24 am #

    Tom

    If your claim is that I’m seeing the psychological and physiological influencers on eating behaviour in isolation, then you’ve missed the point. I agree that that both can be involved, what I’m saying is the common perception is that ‘emotional eating’ is driven by one’s emotions (by definition), and I’m saying those emotions can be driven by disordered physiology (not widely recognised).

    As regards the ‘we are in control’ comment, I fundamentally disagree with you. Another point this blog post seeks to make is that emotional eating is much more controllable than some would recognise or have us believe. In order to address it, it helps to understand the underlying factors, of which blood sugar balance is (in my experience) an important factor.

    As a medical practitioner, do you see emotional eating? If so, how do you attempt to help your patients with this issue? Do you ever consider physiological factors that might be at play?

  16. Ida J. Brownell 14 March 2012 at 10:16 am #

    “In my experience, two approaches that have considerable merit here are hypnotherapy and ‘emotional freedom technique’ (EFT). The latter can be learned and self-applied relatively easily, and plenty of resources regarding it are available on-line.”

    - I’m really interested with Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) co’z my friends are doing it too. I’m looking over the internet to look for resources and found this site http://eft.mercola.com/ , i just want to ask if you tried this before?

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