New This Month

Emotional Eating

Body+Soul

We raise our glasses in toasts, feast in celebration, and share casseroles in times of loss. And most people have, on occasion, turned to food as a crutch, nervously munching through the cheese plate at a cocktail party or rhythmically crunching popcorn to focus the mind while working on a deadline. It's natural to eat for both physical sustenance and emotional comfort. But there's a difference, experts say, between finding emotional nourishment in food and using food to protect yourself from emotions.

Emotional eating -- eating when you're not hungry and not stopping when you're full -- occurs when you use food as a substitute for participating in your life, says Geneen Roth, author of "When Food Is Love." "It becomes the way you disengage," explains Roth. "It becomes the way you numb yourself, the way you withdraw, the way you protect yourself, the way you hide."

Finding your way back to a healthy relationship with food starts when you reconnect with both your body and your emotions," says Roth. That entails the deep work of learning to recognize and experience your feelings, and the practical work of finding strategies to replace the habit of turning to food for comfort. It also means recognizing and undoing the lessons of a culture that teaches women to mistrust their bodies.

In the following two pages, you'll figure out which particular emotions cause you to eat and find four suggested ways to heal.

Who Does It -- and Why?
Not all emotional eaters are overweight, nor are all overweight people emotional eaters. "It's anybody who uses food as a substitute for their feelings," says Roth.

Stress, anxiety, loneliness, and fatigue are common triggers, and many women turn to food to quell anger. " Many emotional eaters share a tendency toward perfectionism, says Nadine Taylor, author of "Runaway Eating." "They believe their lovability depends on how they look and what their performance is." For perfectionists, there's often a big difference between the ideal of how they think life should be -- the flawless house, job, garden, marriage, dress size -- and how they see their daily existence, says Jennifer Best, Ph.D., a clinical health psychologist at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina. Dwelling on imperfections (whether they are real or perceived) and devoting one's primary energy to "measuring up" can lead to depression and anxiety, two of the main triggers of emotional eating.

Emotional eating, however, can have a druglike effect, says Best. Studies show that foods rich in sugar and fat are associated with the release of the body's natural opioids, neurotransmitters that affect the perception of pleasure and pain. These effects, says Best, are most likely a "complex interplay" of chemistry and psychology. On the latter side, the brain associates certain foods with positive feelings and starts craving more. If one of your happiest memories is riding bikes to the soft-serve stand with your sister, for instance, you may crave ice cream whenever you're feeling low.

Here are the six triggers of emotional eating. Which tempts you the most?:

+ social triggers: public speaking, first dates, cocktail parties
+ food triggers: french fries, pasta, whatever your greatest weakness is
+ body triggers: fatigue, pain, or PMS
+ thought triggers: dwelling on an old argument, worrying about the holidays
+ feeling triggers: melancholy, anxiety, loneliness, boredom
+ environmental triggers: dressing rooms, all-you-can-eat buffets

How to Heal

Trust Your Hunger
Among the biggest problems with a diet-mentality, experts say, is that it causes women to disconnect from their bodies. As women learn to ignore hunger, they also learn to ignore the physiological signals that they're full. For women who've spent their lives dieting, this pattern can be especially pronounced. "For every diet there's an equal but opposite binge," says Roth. "It's the fourth law of the universe."

For Roth, who has led workshops for emotional eaters for more than 30 years, relearning how to listen to and trust your body is the first step to recovery. The main principle? Eat when you're hungry, and stop when you're full. This may sound simple, but just recognizing hunger is hard for some women. "When presented with food, ask yourself, 'Am I hungry?'" advises Roth. "Check your mouth, throat, and abdomen. How do you feel?" If you feel hungry, give yourself permission to eat. When you're hungry, sit down, put your food on a plate, eat in full view of people, and take pleasure in the food. And then "listen." The moment your body says it has had enough, stop eating. Reassure yourself that the next time you're hungry, you'll be able to eat. There are no rules to rebel against; there's no deprivation. You're choosing to stop because you're no longer hungry. Then put the food away.

This practice often takes time to master, says Roth, because for many women, responding to hunger is a terrifying idea."Women are afraid that if they let themselves eat when they're hungry, they would never stop." In fact, though, "it's exactly the opposite." Feeding real hunger leads to feeling full, says Roth.

Keep a Journal
To connect the dots between your food and feelings, both Taylor and Roth stress the importance of keeping a food journal. Whenever you have an emotional-eating episode or find yourself thinking about food, note your emotional state, the time of day, and the surrounding events.

At the deepest level, healing starts with awareness. As Roth explains it, emotional eating is "automatic," unthinking behavior. When you increase your awareness, you stop tuning out and start being there for yourself -- in body and spirit. You become, says Roth, "a companion in your own life." 

Create a Food Family Tree
Some of our most stubborn emotional eating habits can benefit from a long backward glance, says clinical health psychologist Jennifer Best, Ph.D. She recommends creating a "food geneology" -- a family tree that covers all the lessons, spoken or unspoken, that you absorbed about food. Perhaps your perpetually dieting aunt told cautionary tales of women who indulged in dessert and ended up old maids in baggy house dresses, or maybe comfort still means the scent of the tangy cheddar cheese your mother grated on top of buttered macaroni whenever you were sick. By going over your family history, you can help make your commitment to new eating habits deeper and more permanent, says Best. "It helps to have a larger story to put the behavior in."

Transforming Your Mood (Without Food)
Replacing emotional eating with healthier habits is an individual process, says Taylor, since both triggers and "fixes" vary from person to person. Start by making a list of non-food-related activities that make you feel good. Then identify your personal triggers -- situations, emotions, sensations, and people who tend to set off your emotional eating episodes. Finally, pair each trigger with a positive activity. Be as specific as you can, and give yourself backups. Here's a sample list; keep in mind that yours will look entirely different.

Sample Trigger: Dinner with in-laws
Non-Food Fix: Use relaxation techniques before and after dinner; take bath after getting home; watch Ben Stiller movie if still annoyed after bath.

Sample Trigger: Drive-through windows
Non-Food Fix: Don't approach them. If must go to fast-food restaurant, go inside; don't hide in the car.

Sample Trigger: Back pain acting up
Non-Food Fix: If possible, have a massage; if not, listen to Beatles' "White Album."

Sample Trigger: Angry after argument with mother
Non-Food Fix: Write in journal for 20 minutes and then dance to loud music.

Sample Trigger: Friends canceling plans at the last minute
Non-Food Fix: Call West Coast pal I never get to see. If she's not home, do activities I never have time for, e.g., journal writing or knitting.

Sample Trigger: Cameron Diaz movies
Non-Food Fix: Watch movies starring Queen Latifah.

Sample Trigger: Called out by boss for mistake in a report
Non-Food Fix: Take a walk outside (don't pass vending machines); check favorite humor website.

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