When you’re happy, your food of choice could be steak or pizza, when you’re sad it could be ice cream or cookies, and when you’re bored it could be potato chips. Food does more than fill our stomachs — it also satisfies feelings, and when you quench those feelings with comfort food when your stomach isn’t growling, that’s emotional eating.
“Emotional eating is eating for reasons other than hunger,” says Jane Jakubczak, a registered dietitian at the University of Maryland. “Instead of the physical symptom of hunger initiating the eating, an emotion triggers the eating.”
What are the telltale signs of emotional eating, what foods are the most likely culprits when it comes to emotional eating, and how it can be overcome? Experts help WebMD find the answers.
Everything in moderation – the good:
You can listen to what’s really going on.
When you’re open to eating everything, and nothing is ‘off limits’, you can explore eating the foods you crave with mindfulness. This is an amazing approach that many recovered emotional eaters swear by. By not having to shut your cravings down totally, you can both enjoy the foods you love so much, but concurrently explore what’s going on underneath them and learn new non-food coping strategies in a way the gentle and low-pressure.
No hard lines, so rebellion is less likely.
I don’t know about you, but I react to being told what to do really badly. If you give yourself genuine choices, like you can when you’re choosing not to ban foods and eat with moderation, you’re actually much more likely to make good choices because you’re not also dealing with your inner rebel. It’s empowering.
Moderation allows for treats, pleasure eating, and is flexible.
All this makes eating in moderation way easier from a social point of view. You don’t have to refuse anyone’s birthday cake, or skip dessert on anniversaries, or explain why you’re not drinking wine to yet another acquaintance who wants to know if you’re pregnant. Travel, work events, and special occasions are all easier to handle because nothing is strictly off limits.
Everything in moderation – pain points:
Willpower can be an ongoing issue
Because nothing is off-limits, you have to rely on willpower if you haven’t healed your emotional relationship with food yet. Eating in moderation is definitely a practice, and until you’ve addressed and healed the reasons behind your overeating and also learned what healthy moderation looks and feels like for you, then having no willpower will be an issue.
When does ‘moderation’ become an excuse to eat more?
When you struggle with self-trust, this is a big one. You worry that moderation only sounds like a good idea so you can abuse it. It’s like you can still eat emotionally, but without the guilt, because it’s all in the name of ‘moderation’. The answer here is to start healing your self-trust.
It can stop addiction recovery
If you’re chemically addicted to certain foods (most likely sugar and flour), then continuing to eat them – and even attempting moderation – can backfire. We don’t tell alcoholics to drink in moderation, so if you’ve been diagnosed with food addiction do not let anyone shame you into eating something you know will set you back.
Total abstinence – the good:
It gets easier
Unlike moderation, which is very fluid and often “creeps” until you find yourself gaining weight or needing to cut back, abstinence actually gets easier over time. This is especially true for foods like sugar, flour, and dairy that really hyper-stimulate your brain’s pleasure centers. The longer you go without these foods, the fewer cravings you have and the more pleasure you get from other food and non-food sources.
Very clear guidelines
The concept of ‘moderation’ is extremely personalized and can be crazy hard to learn and navigate. Abstinence, on the other hand, is super simple: you just don’t. Your guidelines are clear, there’s nothing lost in interpretation, and you can get on with your life without thinking about of navigating amounts and exceptions.
Is the only way to deal with chemical food addiction
If you are diagnosably addicted to sugar, flour, or dairy, then quitting it is the only way to recover. You need to give your body and brain time to recover and rebalance, and it simply can not do that if you’re still dosing yourself with (even small amounts) of your addictive substance.
Total abstinence – pain points:
All or nothing mindset
You know this one – going ALL IN for a few days or weeks only to find yourself totally falling off-plan and getting stuck eating worse than ever before. As Jen Comas writes for Girl’s Gone Strong, “Many people think that in order to benefit from something, they have to go all-in. The problem with this is that, for most people, the opposite of going all-in is going, well, all-out.” If you know you struggle with this, then abstinence may not be for you right now.
Cravings can be way worse
Although abstinence gets easier over time, completely banning foods from your life can be an incredibly difficult mental and physical thing to do. Especially at the start, your cravings can be off the charts because you’ve also got the (extremely scary) idea that this is “forever!!!”. Which is a horrible feeling, makes you feel deprived, and can ramp those cravings up to unbearable levels.
The first (and second, third, and fourth) thing you want to do when you quit a food is eat as much of that food as humanly possible. Your inner rebel rises up and you realize how much you hate being told what to do – even when it’s you doing the telling.
Try it and see what works for you. Experiment with moderation. See abstinencenace works for you.
No matter what you do, your food must be enjoyable. If you decide to try cutting something from your diet, what’s left behind absolutely must be pleasurable for you.
I guarantee that if you try abstinence all week and then do ‘cheat days’ over the weekend, you’ll not only get nowhere with healing your eating, you’ll make everything so much worse for yourself. Practice and consistency are key – and while there might be hard moments, it should not feel like a constant battle.
What’s more, making your food consistently enjoyable helps with moderation, too. You’re not eating nothing but boring salads, supplementing them with cupcakes and calling that ‘moderation’. Add a little decadence and enjoyment to every meal, and you’ll find you don’t need so many cupcakes to make your day feel ok
Treat it as an experiment and see how you respond. Alternatively, if you’re stuck or want faster changes, work with me and I’ll help you figure it out.