Why Emotional Eaters Struggle With Diets
Diets are particularly hard for emotional eaters. Not only do we have to change eating habits that are a deep source of comfort, but we also need to change the way your mind operates. We have to stop responding to hardwired gut reactions and learn to use logic and thinking. This requires a lot of mental and physical effort.
All behaviour change starts with identifying bad habits and triggers, then we look for actions to fix them. When it comes to dieting, if you are disorganized you might need to look at cookbooks and plan meals for the week. If you skip breakfast and overeat at lunch, you may need to start eating a little protein in the morning to stabilize your blood sugar. If you work so hard all day that you forget to check in with your body’s hunger, then gobble a whole pack of peanuts while drinking wine and cooking dinner, you may need to keep some crudités and miniature bottles of wine in your fridge. Once you have an action plan, you need to practice it until it's hard-wired, otherwise, you can end up where you started, like a bad game of snakes and ladders.
If the thought of all that makes you want to sit down with a cup of tea and biscuits, you are probably an emotional eater like me. Most diets only address physical habits – what you eat. Some also give you advice on how to eat – slowly, sitting down, after lighting a candle, etc. to get you to eat calmly. But most forget to address how to change your emotional habits, which is a giant piece of the jigsaw puzzle.
To quickly cover the topics of what? and how? I advise most clients to eat what they love in as relaxed a manner as possible. I teach The Plate Method as it’s a walk in the park. Just eat what you normally eat, but fill half your plate with fruits or vegetables at each meal and try not to snack in between meals. There’s no need to learn complex systems involving grams, calories, or points - see my article on The Plate Method for more information.
For emotional eaters like me, the Plate Method is easy to follow and leaves plenty of headspace to focus on the more important matter of mastering my habitual emotions and thoughts.
What are emotions?
Emotions arise from thoughts. They are subtle energy that flows through the body’s nervous system causing physical sensations and feelings. The word emotions comes from the latin word emovere, meaning to move out, dislodge, dispel so you can think of e-motions as energy-in-motion. Some people say they are messages from the soul.
Some feelings are easy to decipher, like nervousness that triggers butterflies, joy that causes your facial muscles to smile, irritation which causes back tension, anger which makes you clench your facial muscles, and sadness which makes your eyes tear. Other emotions are more difficult to decode, so you have to try and figure them out or work out what you were thinking as emotions are triggered by thoughts.
Where do thoughts originate?
Thoughts arise in the mind and are triggered by experiences, beliefs, environmental cues, and sensory input. So if I walk past a bakers and smell fresh doughnuts I might want to eat one. They can be in the past, present or future. If I see a couple holding hands, I may be reminded of my anniversary and think that I must order a cake. They can be based on fact or fantasy, but are usually a bit of both as most thoughts come from our limited perspective and are therefore only half-truths.
It’s been estimated that we think 3,000 thoughts an hour and they are as uncontrollable as a monkey let loose in the banana aisle. While thoughts may not be optional, the decision to act on them is always a choice.
Emotional eaters tend to react more readily to thoughts and emotions surrounding food because that reaction is hardwired over years, like an elite athlete who train themselves to hit a ball accurately, emotional eaters have trained themselves to expertly use food as a pick-me-up or distraction. The choice to eat is made on auto-pilot in a fraction of a second. Many emotional eaters don’t even realize they are eating until they see the empty wrappers and cartons. I call this eating amnesia because it is so fast and unconscious.
Here it is in slow motion: The uncomfortable thought arises, an uncomfortable emotion is triggered, an uncomfortable feeling is felt in the body, then another thought says, "seek pleasure". Your brain’s endocannabinoid system kicks in to remind you of the hedonic pleasure of cake. You get up, retrieve the cake and eat it before you even had time to question the thought and do something else instead.
Non-emotional eaters tend to respond less hedonically (pleasurably) to food cues. Their thoughts around food are more logical and rational. Although they enjoy it and indulge in comfort eating occasionally, they don’t use it to self-soothe. Instead, when an uncomfortable thought arises, they might roll their shoulders, take a deep breath and pick up the phone to discuss the matter. Or they may be dysfunctional in another way. they may shop excessively, drink too much, gamble, or misuse and other pleasure to alter brain chemistry, but they don't use food.
Sometimes the emotions that you are trying to avoid feeling is not even ‘real’, it’s just remembered. It may be one that you felt years ago when you were too young to handle it. I always my clients to think back to childhood and describe a situation when they first felt that ‘powerful’ emotion. It was only powerful because it overwhelmed them when they were vulnerable, powerless or too naïve to know better. But that’s an old memory and that same emotion cannot overwhelm them as an adult. Emotions are never more powerful than the adult-you, because you can act any way you like now.
Sometimes people reveal an archetype that influences their personality and thinking. For example, comedians don’t usually like to sit with their sadness – they’d rather make a joke of it instead. Peacekeepers hate conflict. Rejection-sensitive people don’t like criticism and would rather behave inauthentically to please others rather than being authentic and getting trolled and shamed. This energy is harder to address and involves looking at your archetypes shadow side and digging into your vulnerability and shame to release this pattern of behaviour. But it can be changed. I write about archetypes in other articles.
Other times we don’t have to go as far back as childhood. Instead, we can look at the moments just before we felt the urge to eat. Sometimes you can see clearly what you were feeling just before your endocannabinoid system lit up and sent you running to the kitchen for something sweet, salty, crunchy or fatty. By the way, nobody ever craves cucumber slices - the endocannabinoid system looks for fat and sugar to help flood their brain with natural painkillers.
So why do I over-eat when I am happy?
Emotional eaters don't just eat when they are unhappy and in pain. Many over-eat when they are happy and celebrating either because they believe that a celebration cannot happen without food. Or if they are highly sensitive, they may feel over-stimulated which feels a bit like anxiety, so they eat to calm themselves down. Eating makes them feel calm, heavy, grounded and back in control.
How to work with thoughts and feelings
The psychologist Carl Jung classified personalities according to the way they make decisions. He said we can either be predominantly Thinkers or Feelers. Thinkers make decisions based on rational, explainable logic. When they decide to diet they use logic to stick to the plan, which stops them from generating more thoughts and emotions. If they say they will eat a salad for lunch, then they usually eat a salad.
Feelers tend to evaluate how decisions will affect their whole world and other people in it. So although they might decide to have a salad for lunch, once they get to the restaurant the start to consider other people and their feelings. They feel awkward ordering a salad when everyone else is having a starter and a main. Besides, ordering a salad and glass of water would mean the waiter would only get a small tip. So they order a starter and main and eat with everyone else, but decide not to eat dinner. Then at dinner, they feel deprived so eat a tub of ice-cream to feel better.
Feelers are often highly sensitive, caring and nurturing. They are in tune with their own feelings and other people's. They love to feel like they belong and fit in. When it comes to dieting, what others think or feel, is more important than their future goal of being a dress size smaller. To be successful they must take this into consideration when setting goals and expect the journey to be more of a meander than a motorway. Life just gets in the way for Feelers.
They should also think carefully attempting dieting strategies designed for Thinkers. For example, visualization is successfully used by athletes to increase willpower. A player imagines hitting difficult shots before a match, which raises adrenalin, focus, and confidence and helps them perform better during the match. Popular diet books suggest we visualize our goals. We might imagine ourselves walking on a beach in a size 8 bikini while everyone admires us, create a mood board with skinny dresses, or write a few words like, “Skinny. Sexy. Bikini. Beach,” on a Post-It and stick it on our shower door to remind us to make healthy choices. Personally I find such mental detours are a waste of energy.
Some Thinkers may enjoy these prompts as they encourage more thoughts. It will activate their stress response (sympathetic nervous system) give them a little adrenalin boost, and help their focus, resolve and determination. But for most Feelers and emotional eaters, these thoughts raise adrenalin and feel uncomfortable – like a jittery caffeine overload – which triggers a desire for comfort. Anyone want a soft, sweet muffin for breakfast with their cappuccino?
I once had a Thinker who told me she would rather die of shame than walk around with a jiggly bottom. Whenever she gained five pounds, she immediately set to work imagining her worst fears to motivate herself - like her husband running off with his pretty young colleague. Whenever she popped to Starbucks and fancied anything other than black coffee with Splenda, she called to mind an image of her husband walking down the aisle with said co-worker. Her fear tactics served her well and she lost the same five pounds over and over again, for a decade, before she got divorced and her mind-games no longer worked.
I asked her if she felt that a more positive visualization would have helped. Perhaps if she had imagined wearing a killer dress while sharing a romantic meal with her loving husband, as she notices his twenty-stone colleague sit down and order a large steak and fries? She realized that her attempt to make jealousy her ally to fight fear was like putting out a fire with gasoline. You see Thinkers also feel, just as Feelers are intelligent people who can think. She realized that smothering an uncomfortable emotion - like fear - with an uncomfortable thought - like jealousy was just filling her brain with more thoughts and generating more emotions when her mind was already flooded with them. No one in their right mind would think, the monkeys in the banana aisle are getting anxious so let’s send in more monkeys!
In my humble opinion, positive visualizations are delusional. You can’t resist thoughts and feelings by smothering them with happier or unhappier ones. You can only meet your thoughts and feelings with honesty, curiosity, compassion, and common sense. Remember e-motions are the whisperings of your soul and when you listen they fizzle like bubbles until all you are left with is clear water. That’s the idea behind mindfulness, which encourages you to hold distressing thoughts and emotions, just as you would cuddle a crying child. Thich-Nhat-Hahn, the famous Buddhist monk, advises us to talk to the emotion and find out what it is trying to say: “Oh hello sadness my friend, what have you come to tell me?” Sit with all thoughts, emotions, and feelings that arise.
When thoughts are met with genuine curiosity, they can point us in the direction of more healthy solutions.
My former client who worried that her husband would leave her if she got fat, eventually realized that her fears and jealousy were caused by her lack of intimacy with her husband. She told me he always wanted her to stay at home with the kids, but she refused to sacrifice her career and the juggling act left her feeling depleted and too tired to give their marriage any real attention.
Six months after her separation, she told me, “My real fear was that I couldn’t make my husband happy. I wish I’d realized sooner that it’s not my job to make him happy, it was his. But I could have supported him more and when he felt uncomfortable because I earned more than him, I could have taken the time to reassure him that I loved him regardless of his salary. The arguments about me staying home was never the real issue.”
Unfortunately, when an emotional eater is with an emotionally unstable partner it’s a double whammy of monkeys in the banana aisle.
What diet should an emotional eater follow?
Find a simple diet plan that restricts your intake in some way. Go shopping, buy enough food, prepare it and eat using The Plate Method. Then focus on your thoughts, emotions and feelings. Try sitting with them. Welcome them. Feel them in your body. What are they trying to tell you?
Behind every feeling is an unexpressed need. Do you need comfort, a hug, reassurance, connection, certainty? What action can you do for yourself that doesn’t involve eating? Can you satisfy the need or will you just have to accept it cannot be met? If it cannot be met, sit with that feeling of disappointment. How does it feel? How long does it last?
Remember that as an adult, no emotion can over-power you. If you are afraid of a certain emotion try remembering when you first felt it and stay with that memory of you as a child. Hold her hand and reassure her that you can handle it now.
Try to be mindful when you eat. Check-in with your body's hunger and ask - Do I really need to eat now? Try to only eat until your stomach first signals fullness. Try to clear your mind of thoughts and really listen to your body.