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How You’re Making Emotional Eating Worse — And What You Can Do Instead

Written by: Lisa Schlosberg, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 
Executive Contributor Lisa Schlosberg

As a Trauma-Informed Holistic Health Coach, I’ve seen tons of guidance on the Internet designed to support emotional eaters. While many of these tips are valid and helpful, I find that they often focus too much on the physical dimension (food and eating) and not enough on what’s going on mentally (thoughts) and emotionally (feelings) for the individual. As somebody who spent the majority of my life using food to cope, gained weight, and lived in a “morbidly obese” body as a result, then lost 150 pounds by reconnecting and healing my mind-body-soul system, I’ve learned the importance of addressing each person holistically (mentally and emotionally as well as physically) for sustainable change and lifelong health.

Photo of lady eating pizza.

Mentally


When it comes to our relationship with food (as is true for most things in life), a great deal of our experience is determined by our thoughts. If you’re feeling disempowered around your eating habits or unstable in your relationship with food, it can be helpful to begin with an audit of your current mindset and an upgrade to a more supportive way of thinking.


What’s not helping


Restricting & Under-eating


If you’re struggling with emotional eating, you might find yourself attempting to follow a diet to manage your weight gain. Been there. However, when you’re focusing on restriction (when you’re thinking primarily about what you “can’t” eat, what you “shouldn’t” have, what’s “off limits” and what’s “not allowed,”) you’re sending messages of food scarcity to your brain. That’s not inherently a bad thing… except for the fact that your “animal brain” is designed to keep you alive, and food is the substance on which you survive. For your relationship with food to feel safe and stable, your brain needs to know that food is regularly available and that you are safe (allowed) to eat it. Think about an animal in the wild: if access to food is or is perceived to be threatened, a signal that you’re in life-threatening danger is sent to the brain. It’s a hardwired survival mechanism and unfortunately, despite what diet culture implies, we simply cannot vanquish it with more willpower. Even though it might sound dramatic to the part of you that’s reading this, when you’re consciously focusing your efforts on eating less and avoiding foods, the brain interprets this as a famine and eventually tries to restore your system once the “famine” is over. Ever wonder why 95-98% of people who use extreme dieting to lose weight end up gaining it back plus some? It’s because the brain is attempting to support the body by adding even more weight and more fat for the next famine that might occur (which would be great if you were starving in a jungle but is the exact opposite of your desired outcome). This often leads to chronic yoyo-dieting and even more distress around food in the long run, making emotional eating that much more difficult to manage.


What to do instead


Full permission


First thing’s first: your brain needs to know that you have full permission to eat – however much you want, of anything you want, any time you want. If you’re telling yourself that you’re “not allowed” to overeat or that you’re not “supposed to” binge, the brain-body system will feel more pulled to doing exactly that because it’s wired to protect you from starvation. If food is not actually scarce for you, you don’t want to create a story for your brain that suggests otherwise. You may not want to eat everything all the time because eating beyond fullness leaves you feeling uncomfortable or in pain, but your brain needs to know you can. To prevent messages of scarcity from sinking in (and the inevitable retaliation that follows), you can gently remind yourself that you are a fully grown adult, have all the freedom to make your own choices, the permission to do what you want, and that you don’t have to follow anyone else’s rules. You have the power to choose how much you’d like to feed yourself, and that lets your brain know that you’re safe; moving from “I can’t have that” to “I choose not to have that” is a powerful technique to remind your mind-body system that you are safe. When you do overeat or binge, be mindful to remember that you haven’t done anything wrong, you didn’t “break a rule,” you’re not “bad,” and it’s not your fault that food can be a very effective coping mechanism. Practicing self-compassion and treating yourself with love is especially important in these moments. It might take some practice to rewire your conscious input around food and the fear of overdoing it is valid, and this is the first step toward aligning your brain and body for long-term health.


Neutralize food


Say goodbye to the days of categorizing “good foods” and “bad foods.” While for many of us, this habit began as a well-intentioned way to prioritize healthy choices, it’s often more harmful than helpful in the long run. If you think of a certain food as “good,” you may feel pride or superiority for choosing to eat it; if you eat a “bad” food, you may feel a sense of shame, guilt, or judgment. The problem with this is that you’re creating an emotional rollercoaster by assigning meaning about your value as a person or how worthy of love you are based on what you eat. On a deeper level, the brain interprets this dichotomy as some (labeled “good”) foods are safe and others (labeled “bad” foods) are dangerous, and you can’t get very far if you’re constantly running from a predator. To bring more peace and stability into your mind-body system, practice neutralizing foods: consciously remind yourself that while certain options may be more nutrient-dense than others, all foods have equal moral value and that your choices don’t hold any meaning about you, your character, or how worthy of love you are. You are safe to feed yourself however you desire without judgment.


Eat enough


Many of us who struggle with emotional eating often attempt to control our weight by under-eating (and then feel completely out of control around food due to the brain’s survival response). To prevent this restrict-binge cycle from taking over, it is of primary importance that you’re adequately fueling yourself throughout the day. We can’t really know if your nighttime bingeing is because of overwhelming stress or emotion if you’re not first eating enough to support your physical body. (Of course you’re coming home after work and cleaning out the kitchen if you haven’t eaten anything since 8 am! This isn’t because you’re “weak,” it’s because you have an animal brain doing its job of keeping you alive). Rather than trying to eat less, have tiny portions, and stay away from food, (and eventually face the consequences of this approach), support yourself by not skipping meals and offering yourself snacktimes in between if you feel hungry. You can also consult a calorie calculator to explore how many calories your body needs to function to ensure you’re eating enough.


Add in


Because safety is the necessary foundation for any long-term behavior change, it’s important to shift out of the mindset of scarcity and lack around food and into the energy of abundance. Rather than prioritizing what you want to have less of (foods you’re restricting or eliminating), focus your attention on what you want to have more of (what you can add in or supplement with). Instead of throwing out everything in your kitchen and “starting over” (which can feel overwhelming to the brain and ultimately be unsustainable for you), the best way to do this is to meet yourself exactly where you are. If you’re eating a box of mac and cheese for dinner, can you add a side of broccoli? If you’re eating a bag of microwave popcorn for lunch, how would you feel about supplementing with an apple? Without any judgment, do an honest inventory of what you’re eating right now and begin to focus your intention on adding more fruits, vegetables, and whole foods. Concentrate on bringing more nutrients, nutrition, and nourishment into your body, and watch how you effortlessly begin to stabilize around food.


Emotionally


If you’re struggling with emotional eating, it’s important that you don’t get too distracted from healing the root issue (the emotions) because you’re too busy trying to manage the tip of the iceberg (the eating). When you’re too concerned with managing your eating habits to explore what lies beneath them, it’s similar to putting a band-aid on a bullet wound and expecting the bleeding to stop. Let’s support you with addressing the deeper need: safety in your mind-body system to feel your feelings rather than eat them.


What’s not helping


Resisting & Judging


When it comes to living an honest life (which can sometimes be messy and complicated with so many factors out of our control), you will inevitably feel emotions and encounter stressors. Feeling is part of being human. Life gets “lifey,” and the worst thing we can do is try to avoid, prevent, manage, or control the natural order of things. As Byron Katie says, “When you argue with reality, you lose, but only 100% of the time.” Practice noticing when you tell yourself you “shouldn’t feel” angry or “aren’t supposed to” be upset. Your inner critic (which internalized shaming messages from the culture and/or your family of origin) might be telling you that your feelings are too much, that you’re being dramatic, that you’re overly sensitive, or that you have no right to feel the way you’re feeling. All of these function to keep you protected from experiencing pain and/or discomfort (and are very valid attempts by your brain to keep you feeling safe), but actually contribute to the problem you’d like to solve. After all, if you’re in the habit of denying, rejecting, minimizing, suppressing, or otherwise avoiding your true feelings because it doesn’t feel safe for you to even acknowledge them, it exacerbates the schism between your mind and body which can eventually be soothed or numbed with food. These avoidant tendencies are often underlying the drive to eat for comfort, which is why focusing on portions and calories won’t help in the long run.


What to do instead


Parts


Instead of over-identifying with your emotions (“I am sad”), remember that each of us contains multitudes. There are “no bad parts,” as the founder of Internal Family Systems Therapy, Dr. Richard Schwartz says. Experiment with framing your emotional experience as a part of you (“part of me is feeling sadness”). This can create some distance between your emotion (harmless energy moving through your body) and your conscious, thinking self (the one who identified the feeling in the first place). This can bring down the intensity of the experience and allow you to connect with it. From this place, you also create space to practice dialectical thinking (“part of me is feeling grief, and another part of me is feeling gratitude”). Although it might feel contradictory for two “opposing” feelings to co-exist, you can acknowledge multiple emotions at the same time and simply allow them to be present together.


Acceptance


As Danielle LaPorte says, “Transformation begins with the radical acceptance of what is.” Rather than thinking about how we can stop ourselves from being feeling creatures or prevent our lives from being inherently emotional, we can practice acceptance that the rollercoaster of vulnerability is a natural and normal, part of life. If you’re feeling sad, you’re not “supposed to be” happy. If you’re feeling angry, it’s valid and okay for your anger to exist. If you’re feeling anxious, it’s safe for you to experience that. Rather than resisting the truth of what is and trying to control or change your authentic experience, practice identifying the emotion, reminding yourself that feelings may be uncomfortable but ultimately cannot kill you, and breathing into the sensations that arise so they can move through you to be released. You might find that putting pen to paper and journaling the raw, unfiltered truth of your experience (and then destroying it when you’re finished to ensure confidentiality) can support you when you’re unsure “how to” feel your feelings. As you make space for yourself to exist exactly as you are right now, you’re teaching the brain that you are safe to experience your thoughts, feelings, and sensations and therefore don’t need to use food to deal with them. This mind-body connection and safety lays the groundwork for long-term transformation to your emotional eating habits.


Self-compassion


I refer to self-compassion as the “secret sauce” because it is so often the game-changing practice we need most. According to researcher Dr. Kristin Neff, “Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate.” Although it’s become habitual for many of us to respond to our own thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and desires with judgment or shame, this inclination to turn against our true selves can create a sense of fear or danger and contribute to the need to use food to access a sense of safety. Instead of telling yourself that you “can’t” be thinking your thoughts or that you “shouldn’t be” feeling your feelings, remember especially in moments of discomfort that you are on your own team and don’t need to beat yourself up for being human. Instead, practice validating yourself (“it makes sense that you’re thinking that” and “of course you feel this way!”). When you are unconditionally kind to yourself regardless of what’s going through your head, how you’re feeling, or the way you behave, it creates more safety internally and allows emotion to be processed without compulsively turning to food.


If you are struggling with emotional eating, please know that you are not alone and there is hope for a brighter future. If you’re seeking more support with this kind of healing, please click here to learn more about working with me directly


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Lisa Schlosberg Brainz Magazine
 

Lisa Schlosberg, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Lisa Schlosberg embodies the new paradigm of health and healing from a heart-centered lens. She empowers her clients and global community to use their struggles with food and body image as a path to rebuilding the mind-body connection so that they can access deeper authenticity, exercise personal power, and embody a life of freedom. Having lost and maintained 150 pounds for more than a decade by healing her relationship with food (through emotional healing, somatic experiencing, mindset shifts, and more), Lisa founded Out of the Cave, LLC., where she combines her comprehensive expertise as a Social Worker (LMSW), Certified Personal Trainer, Integrative Nutrition Holistic Health Coach, Yoga Teacher.

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