Understanding Your Emotional Eating Cycle – Part One
I’m breaking this topic into a two part series. This first post is just about understanding the different emotions and situations that emotional eating takes place. Truly, the only way to change something is to understand it. The second part will be ways to address and change each part of the cycle.
This is a hard post to write because it’s personal. I know this topic all too well. And honestly I don’t really want to write it. I’m sitting staring at the screen in tears, not really knowing how to proceed because this is a topic that brings up hard memories.
As a therapist I’m good at sitting in other people’s emotion. I’m able to be the person’s calm and steady and help them feel safe in their vulnerability.
I’m not nearly as comfortable when it’s my own vulnerability on display. But God uses our weakness and eventual growth to glorify Him and help others.
I know this is a topic that haunts far too many people and leads to secrecy, shame, and broken self-esteem. If that’s you, I know the pain. I know the embarrassment and self-loathing.
I have always enjoyed food. Particularly desserts, chips, bread and pasta. It honestly doesn’t really matter what kind. If it had tons of sugar or carbs I loved it. (I’m writing in the past tense not because I don’t still love these items but because I have worked hard to change my relationship with them).
These foods became my cheerleaders, supports, comforters, and friends. But they often were my tempters and my enemies. Like so many things, if we aren’t careful, they started off good but became distorted and negative.
Like so many things, if we aren’t careful, they started off good but became distorted and negative.
Emotional eating can be separated into four different emotions and situations. Some people who emotionally eat don’t have a pattern with each of the four. Others bounce from one pattern to the next and back again.
It’s also important to note that emotional eating comes in all shapes and sizes. A person who emotionally eats may be morbidly obese or looks quite healthy.
Let’s start with rewards because it’s the easiest one. Birthday cakes, ice cream treats, Sunday morning donuts, holiday cookies. Each of these are meant to be a treat, a reward, and a celebration for something or another.
We do it because we want to show our loved ones (or ourselves) that they (we) are worth treating. That’s not bad, right?
Unfortunately for some people, this pattern can lead to a problem in a few different ways.
- If a child is rewarded with food routinely for good behavior, grades, and/or special outings, they can develop an emotional eating pattern in this way. If their self-esteem as a whole is not good, food can turn into their preferred method of feeling good about themselves because it is tied to positive memories.
My mom loves to bake and when I was young we had multiple kinds of dessert in the house at all times. (I promise I’m not blaming you) Desserts are connected to positive memories and emotions for me, so when something happy happens in my life I want dessert! It is a connection that has been established.
- Emotional eating surrounding rewards and celebration can also become established as an adult because of your new freedom to buy whatever food items you want.
Maybe decadent food wasn’t something you grew up with so you splurge when you ace a test or land a new job. Maybe you don’t have your family to help you celebrate so you get yourself a cupcake (my preferred choice) or something else to commemorate the event.
The troubled behavior comes when the situations worth celebrating because smaller and smaller. No longer is it, I aced a test but I passed the test. Or no longer is it, I got the job, but I went to work.
I know this sounds like I’m talking about drinking or drugs but the same patterns occur.
When it came to holidays, get-togethers, or potlucks I wouldn’t hold back because it was a celebration. So I could eat anything I wanted, right?
Soon emotional eating surrounding rewards and celebration turns into emotional eating for comfort.
Comfort eating is the emotional eating pattern than most people think of when discussing the topic.
This pattern can be established when people use food as a way to handle, tolerate, and/or manage a distressing emotion. These emotions can include but are not limited to – sad, disappointed, rejected, abandoned, embarrassed, anxious, worried, overwhelmed, nervous, lonely, and bored.
I’m fairly certain the ice cream industry has become as lucrative as it is because of comfort eating. And there’s a scientific reason for that.
When a person consumes sugar or simple carbohydrates (chips, bread, and pasta), the brain releases dopamine. Dopamine has many functions but to be simplistic, it is a chemical in your brain that affects your emotions, movements and your sensations of pleasure and pain. So when your body releases dopamine you experience pleasure. Hence why you are momentarily comforted from your negative emotion.
Comfort eating can either be something taught in the family or something reinforced individually.
I remember utilizing comfort eating when I was a small child. I would be bored, lonely, disappointed, embarrassed, etc and I would sneak into the kitchen and take some cookies or some chips and then I would sneak back into my room or where ever in the house where no one else was. There was a thrill that came with the sneaking as well as the dopamine increase from the sugar.
This is a pattern that stayed with me for decades. I would find myself distressed due to whatever and I would end up in my pantry eating some carb-loaded food I could find to receive a momentary release. But here’s the problem. The release really is just momentary. You only experience comfort for the brief moment of eating whatever sugary item you are consuming. As soon as it’s over so it the comfort. So a person finds themselves continuing to eat even though they may no longer be hungry (because it was never about hunger anyway).
To get scientific again, when dopamine is artificially released (do to added sugar) often and at high levels, it can mess up the body’s ability to naturally produce dopamine. Therefore, a person may become more reliant upon sugar to receive pleasure. Increased added sugar also messes up the hormone leptin which cues your body to know when you are full.
When comfort eating becomes your pattern of emotional eating it quickly turns into guilt.
The definition of guilt is a bad feeling caused by knowing or thinking that you have done something bad or wrong.
Guilt eating can occur as a continuation and result of comfort eating or it can be a response to feeling guilty about something else in your life and using food as a way to handle or tolerate the emotion.
This does not tend to be the place that most people start their emotional eating cycle. More often than not guilt is just a part of the larger cycle.
I would find myself in my pantry having consumed a couple thousand calories in a very small amount of time. Truly a binge eating situation and then guilt would settle in. “That was bad.” “Why did I do that?” “Why did I eat so much?” “How could I have eaten my kid’s candy?” (yep that happened)
And as confusing as it is to understand, sometimes after guilt would settle in about the binge eating situation, I would eat something else again. Undoubtedly shame would follow.
There is a large difference between guilt and shame. As stated above, guilt is feeling bad about your behavior. Shame is feeling bad about who you are as a person because of your behaviors. Shame is destructive to your self-esteem, self-worth, and your identity.
I remember many times sobbing in my room, closet, or shower because of my emotional eating habits. I felt physically and emotionally disgusting. Feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing would creep in. How was I able to be successful in so many areas of my life and be such a total mess in this area?
How was I able to be successful in so many areas of my life and be such a total mess in this area?
For me, shame took place directly related to my other emotional eating patterns. However, some people start their emotional eating because of shame in other areas of their life.
It can become a way to self-harm of sorts. Eating in a way that is harmful to the body because you feel like you need to punish yourself for some reason. Or feeling like you aren’t worth taking care of.
Shame can also lead a person to purge after binging or to use laxatives. Both are attempts to rid yourself of the damage from the food intake as well as punish yourself for your behaviors. I never purposefully purged but there were times that I unintentionally vomitted because of overeating.
I did, however, have a period of time where I would use laxatives. I would “celebrate” at holidays and events by eating whatever I wanted. But because of my emotional eating the food had a way of taking over so the focus no longer became about the people or the event itself. Then afterwards I would feel physical and emotional discomfort because of my behavior and I would use laxatives. It was a way to try to erase my behavior and truthfully a way to hurt myself because of shame but also in an attempt to create pain and discomfort to stop the pattern from happening again. But it wasn’t enough.
The story certainly doesn’t end there for me or for you but that is where we are going to end for this post.
If this post if ringing true for you and you are still stuck in this emotional eating cycle I ask you to take the time to identify your patterns.
Where do you start the cycle?
What emotional eating habits do you have?
Where did these patterns start and how did they get reinforced?
The answers to these questions are going to be important to know for the follow-up post.
This post was hard and not very pretty. It didn’t provide a lot of comfort but I hope it did provide some education and insight into the emotional eating cycle.
There is hope and there can be healing.
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