Do you need to overcome emotional eating that is stalling or stopping your weight loss? Do you feel out of control because you find yourself reaching for chips, chocolate, or cookies when you are overwhelmed with life’s demands?
You aren’t alone. Here’s how to stop eating for emotional reasons so that you can find peace with food. For much of my life I was emotional eater who binged on ice cream and fast food when I needed comfort.
Today, I no longer eat for stress or other emotional reasons. Here’s how I found food freedom.
- What is Emotional Eating?
- Examples of Comfort Eating (How to Recognize When You Are Eating Emotionally)
- How I Overcame Emotional Eating and Lost 100 Pounds
- How to End Emotional Eating with One Simple Solution
- What the Bible Says about Emotional Eating
- Learn to Feel Your Feelings
What is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is using food as a way to soothe and distract yourself from feeling emotions. Emotional eating involves engaging in snacking and eating for reasons other than physical hunger.
If you are eating your emotions, you aren’t alone. Many people stress eat from time to time but it’s not a significant problem. But for some of us, we emotionally eat on a regular basis (for me it was daily) and it leads to painful long-term consequences.
Emotional eating makes sense. Food tastes good in the mouth, and it makes your body feel good. When you’ve done it as a pattern of behavior over time, your brain gets used to the way food makes you feel. Just seeing your favorite junk foods can calm you down.
Emotional eating can feel relatively harmless. After it, it’s not like drugs or alcohol where you are not safe to drive a care or take care of loved ones. Still, over time, emotional eaters typically gain weight that leads to health consequences. Plus the feeling of being out of control is scary and embarrassing, which can lead to mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
Examples of Comfort Eating (How to Recognize When You Are Eating Emotionally)
Here are some ways that emotional eating might show up in your life.
Can you relate to any of these scenarios?
- You get an upsetting phone call. Suddenly you find yourself standing at the kitchen counter munching on potato chips.
- You are dealing with ongoing work stress that has you worn down. As much as you try to resist, you find yourself drawn to the chocolate chips you keep in the freezer for recipes. Within days, an entire bag is gone and you barely remember eating them.
- You are a busy mom to little ones. You love being home with them, but the constant demands wear you out and leave you exhausted. Without thinking, you find yourself reaching for snacks like Goldfish and eating your kids leftover french fries.
All of these are examples of eating for comfort or as a way to “zone out” and escape the stress of life.
Sometimes people email me and say, “I’m not an emotional eater. I just really love food.”
This could be true, but honestly I’m doubtful. Some people have a very high hunger drive and inclination to food. A few people have medical conditions that lead to weight gain. But for most of us with food problems and addictions, there are emotional issues at the heart of what drives us to overeat.
Besides stress and comfort eating, all of these are could be emotional eating too:
- Boredom eating
- Food cravings for specific foods like sugar or chocolate
- Food compulsions, like feeling that a specific food is calling to you
- Overeating on the weekends
- Overeating to celebrate
- Overeating at family gatherings
- Binge eating
- Giving in to food pushers
- Overeating for social reasons
- Overeating around your period or during PMS
- Overeating while out to dinner
- Overeating at holidays
- Overeating on vacation and at restaurants
- Overeating while traveling
- Overeating at work
- Overeating at night
- Eating past full at meals
Some of these situations might not seem like they are emotional eating, but anytime you are eating as a means of dealing with a feeling (whether good or bad), that is engaging in eating emotionally.
If you are reading this and starting to feel a bit overwhelmed and hopeless, I promise that you can overcome emotional eating.
AND, you don’t have to fix every emotional problem you have or heal every childhood trauma. (I sure haven’t.)
How I Overcame Emotional Eating and Lost 100 Pounds
For most of my life, I was an emotional eater. I came home from high school (which I hated) and binged on my brother’s lunch chips, crackers and cheese, and Little Debbie swiss rolls.
As a young mom, I ate while my kids’ napped. Later, I ate in front of them but quickly hid the cartons and wrappers when they came running into the room.
Evenings and nights were the worst – I waited for my husband to be gone for a church meeting and my kids to go to bed. Then I ate leftover casserole in front of the fridge with my fingers and whole cartons of ice cream.
I told myself I would stop. I tried and tried to stop, but I couldn’t seem to get a handle on it.
I broke the hold emotional eating had on my life through therapy and God’s grace and healing.
Below is one specific mental strategy that is incredibly helpful for finding food freedom. Many of my readers have said this technique has been life-changing in overcoming their food battles.
How to End Emotional Eating with One Simple Solution
Note: I am not a doctor or therapist and this is not medical advice. I share this as a technique that has helped me and I believe will benefit you, too.
In order to end your emotional eating habit, tune in to your toddler brain and your adult brain with metacognition.
Metacognition is thinking about your thinking. When you step back and recognize your thinking patterns, you can change them. You do not have to give in to cravings and desires, and in fact each time you do not give in, the cravings become weaker.
Toddler Brain vs Adult Brain
Allowing for a simplistic explanation, you have different parts of your brain. One part of your brain, located near the brain stem, is the lower brain and its functions are primitive. You might hear this called the lower brain, lizard brain, or reptilian brain. I call it the toddler brain.
Your toddler brain has 3 main desires:
Your toddler brain doesn’t care about your higher goals, dreams, or values. Your toddler brain wants what it wants, when it wants it. This sounds selfish, but instead think of it as basic.
Your toddler brain wants food, and this is not a bad thing. If you didn’t desire food, you would die. Your toddler brain will continually seek out food, and in fact it will always look for the highest calorie food in your environment. (This is why keeping high calorie-density, trigger foods out of sight, and even better out of the house, is a good idea.)
Another part of your brain, the frontal lobe, is your logical brain. You might hear this called your thinking brain or higher brain. I call this your adult brain. Your adult brain has the ability for rational thought, to think of the future, to weigh pros and cons, and to consider both positive and negative consequences.
Toddler Brain Temper Tantrums
Do you think there is something morally wrong with you (or that you somehow lack self-control or willpower) because you have strong food cravings? This is not true. There’s nothing wrong with you because you crave food. You are human. Your toddler brain is generating cravings because that’s what toddler brains do. That’s their job.
The trouble comes when your adult brain gives in to the toddler brain’s endless demands for food.
Think about when a toddler has a tantrum at the grocery story for candy. What can the mom do? She can ignore the behavior, leave the store, or loving talk to the child. Any of these will work, but one thing that we all know is NOT a good idea is to give the child candy. That just reinforces the behavior, right? The next time the child will only cry for candy even louder.
Many of us do this with our food choices on a regular basis. Our toddler brain cries for food and our adult brain gives in time and again. That’s why our food cravings are so strong. We have reinforced them over years of giving in to tantrums for junk food, sweets, or emotional eating.
Curiously enough, your toddler brain has no control over the movement of your body. The adult brain makes your body move. So if you are reaching for food, preparing food, buying food, opening your mouth, and chewing food, all of that activity comes from the adult part of your brain. Your adult brain gave in to the temper tantrum.
How to Stop Giving in to Toddler Brain Temper Tantrums
Here’s more excellent news. Your brain has neuroplasticity, which means you can rewire it. Your toddler brain won’t ever totally give up the tantrums (because remember, that’s its job), but the cravings become weaker each time you choose not to give in.
Be prepared that when you first start this, things are going to get uncomfortable. Your toddler brain will throw a huge hissy fit the first time you don’t give in and give it the food it wants. This is where willpower comes in, but you only need willpower for a short time.
I promise that the worst of the toddler brain temper tantrums will only last for a couple days, and the cravings will continue to diminish over a few weeks. By the end of the first 30 days, you’ll be completely shocked at how much easier it is to resist food cravings and how much less you have them.
Make a decision that no matter how uncomfortable it gets, you will not give in to your toddler temper tantrums.
Create a Food Plan
During this time, it’s very helpful to have some type of food plan. I recommend keeping a food log for weight loss. I personally use the WW points system, but other programs work just fine, such as apps like My Fitness Pal.
Some people argue that intuitive eating is the way to break free from emotional eating, but I find that having some sort of boundaries is more helpful, especially at first. Many of us with food problems are all over the map with our eating, so guided structure is helpful.
Decide what you are going to eat in advance, because you’ll be using the adult part of your brain to make those decisions.
When you are tempted to veer off your food plan – boom! – you know instantly that’s your toddler brain, because your adult brain already decided what you would eat.
Anytime my mind starts negotiating about my food plan, I know that’s my toddler brain talking, and it’s time for my adult brain to step up and be in charge.
Think of your toddler brain as a little girl (or boy) chattering away in the back seat of the car. The chatter is fine, but you want to make sure your adult brain is the one doing the driving.
What the Bible Says about Emotional Eating
As a Christian, you have an enemy who would love to use your food desires against you to pull you away from God. I don’t see the toddler brain as Satan, because I think it’s normal and healthy to need and desire food.
But, I absolutely believe that Satan will step in and and use these desires in a twisted, evil way. He will tempt you to overeat, eat for emotional reasons, and engage in any type of sinful behavior that he can get you to do.
Remember that 1 Corinthians 10:13 says you have the power of God to resist every temptation. Check out this post about using the 3 Ps (Pause, Pray, Plan) to resist food cravings by the Holy Spirit’s power. (For more in-depth teaching about Christian weight loss, be sure to check out the program I run called Faithful Finish Lines.)
Learn to Feel Your Feelings
When you stop giving in to toddler brain temper tantrums, besides the discomfort of resisting cravings, you may have waves of emotion that surface.
Those of us who are emotional eaters have been feeling our emotions (like sadness, grief, worry, or anxiety) but we’ve eaten over them to the point that we only felt a part of it.
Now that you aren’t eating emotionally, your emotions will come in full force and this might seem overwhelming at first.
Allow the feelings to come and don’t be afraid of them. While it can seem a bit scary, tell yourself, “There is no thought or feeling I cannot handle.”
No one every died from feeling any emotion.
When I stopped eating over my emotions, one of realizations I had was that I was covering up my good feelings, too. Yes, the sadness was more sad, but the excitement, joy, and happiness where so much brighter and more crisp, and isn’t that totally worth it?
If you are an emotional eater, learn to recognizing the times you comfort eat. Use the strategy of your toddler and adult brain to rewire your thoughts and reduce food cravings. This takes practice, but over time you’ll see tremendous changes that lead to food freedom.
Do you struggle with emotional eating? Tell us about it in the comments below.
Paula Lance says
This reminds me of my Weightloss group, TOPS, which stands for Take Off Pounds Sensibly. I’ve lost 39 pounds last year due to several reasons, one , my husband died on Christmas 2021, two, my TOPS group, and three, my left hip and right knee are needing replacements
due to Arthritis and Bursitis and the surgeon wouldn’t discuss surgery until I lost 30 pounds. Our TOPS PLEDGE we repeat every week says this: I AM AN INTELLIGENT PERSON. I WILL CONTROL MY EMOTIONS AND NOT LET MY EMOTIONS CONTROL ME. EVERYTIME I AM TEMPTED TO USE FOOD TO SATISFY MY FRUSTRATED DESIRES, OR BUILD UP MY INJURED EGO, I WILL REMEMBER I WILL TAKE OFF POUNDS SENSIBLY. I’m trying to lose the other 61 pounds this year.I have been following you for a little while and you have inspired me to eat better. Thank you for your help.
Sara, my friend!
Just reading emails I’ve saved to read later. It’s a new month so….my own thoughts resonate with everything you said. This not only helped me in the area of food. I’ve known for years I was emotionally immature. I had an “aha moment” when you shared your personal thoughts and knowledge regarding the adult/toddler brain. You’ve been such an incredible support in my own journey with healing from my ill food behaviors. I continue to move forward.
I’m so glad this was helpful. Thanks for being here. We are here to support one another with our food and weight issues. xoxo
Dawn Baggett says
Love this perspective on the toddler brain/adult brain! It makes so much sense and is so easy to recognize and put into perspective. Thank you!!
I’m so glad it was a help!
Yes I am definitely an emotional eater. Sometimes I don’t even know why I am craving salt, sugar, and carbs. Not bad choices within themselves, the portions–like a greasy cheeseburger, eating ice cream right out of the container, eating a whole bag of ‘lightly salted’ chips. I’m strongly considering meal planning and having healthier snacks in front and ready. Also going to bed earlier. Pause/Pray/Plan will work (if I allow it to work). Thanks for posting this.
I’m glad it was helpful. Meal planning is an excellent idea. The more I plan ahead, the better success I have. I like to say, “organization matters more than willpower” when it comes to weight loss. You’ve got this. Oh and the cravings – you have them because you are human. 🙂 It’s learning to overcome then and not allowing them to control your choices.