Emotional Eating

Food is an emotional thing. It can distract us when we’re bored, comfort us when we’re sad, and it occupies a central role in social gatherings of all kinds — the birthday cake, the Christmas dinner, a romantic evening with your partner, a night out with friends, and so on. Humans have a complex relationship to food, unlike any other species. Most animals eat to survive — food is fuel, and that’s the end of it. And perhaps in our caveman days, food was the same for us. But as our societies advanced, food became something much more than that. Food went from simple fuel to a source of sensory and emotional pleasure, and even cultural identity.

That drive for pleasurable experiences has led to some wonderful things — art, music, literature, deeper insight into the nature of the physical and spiritual universe, and so much more. None of that is needed for simple survival; it’s the stuff that enriches our lives, deepens our experiences, and satisfies our emotional selves in such a way that our lives have a sense of meaning and belonging. But it hits a complication with food because in spite of our advances, food still IS fuel — and a lot of the more “pleasurable” foods make poor fuel! While our emotional relationship to food has changed, our bodies’ relationship to food has remained the same!


For those of us with diabetes, food is even more complex. Like everyone else, our emotions still get tangled up in our food choices; and, like everyone else, food is still fuel for our bodies. But we have the added complication of having to manage a whole part of our bodies’ food intake systems (the transfer of sugars from the food we eat, through our bloodstream into our cells) manually. And the negative effects of poor food choices are both more immediate and more impactful for us than for the general population.

Managing our emotions
We all know a lot about how to manage our blood sugars — there’s information galore out there, and hopefully we all have a good team of doctors, dietitians, and diabetes specialists that we can go to for help. But the emotional management of food is something we talk much less about, yet it can derail everything else we’re doing if we’re not careful. So, let’s talk about it.

Years ago, I had a friend who was upset about her weight. One night she was particularly stressed out about feeling “overweight,” and because of that stress marched out of her apartment, down to the corner store and bought a carton of ice cream, which she ate that night to counteract the stress of feeling overweight. And yes, she realized the circular logic of what happened that night. She said she even realized in the moment how counterproductive her actions were. But that’s the power food can have!

But there is more to this story. The stress about “weight” wasn’t the only stress she was facing. In fact, the whole weight issue was really just the easiest place to “park” her feelings of stress. In truth, she was in the middle of watching her long-term relationship to her fiancĂ© fall apart, and would, within the year, split up with him. And not incidentally, she would lose that weight she was stressed over and find healthier rhythms.

This story highlights a very important phenomenon that we need to be aware of. In her case, the real stress was watching her relationship, something she had previously felt enough confidence in to become engaged, crumble beneath her feet. But acknowledging this directly was simply too scary at the time, and so she started to experience that stress in all these daily areas, like her weight, or how long the commute was taking to work, or the fact that the cable bill went up $10 a month. In other words, that deeper stress that couldn’t be addressed directly started seeping up through all of the little cracks in her life. And conversely, once she identified the real source of her unhappiness, all of that surface stress cleared up.

So what does that mean? It means we need to treat emotional eating not as “the problem,” but as a symptom of something bigger — whether that’s a larger emotional issue like the story above, or simply a larger practical issue like never scheduling time to cook or prepare healthy food. We need to find a way to step back and see the bigger picture. That’s not necessarily a simple, or easy, thing to do, but here are a few pointers that might help move you in the right direction.

1. Pause before you act.
Anytime you feel the urge to eat out of boredom, irritation, sadness, or stress, pause — literally give yourself a 10-minute delay, during which you simply resolve to slow down, take some deep breaths, and sit with how you feel. There is no way you can move past those surface feelings of stress and into the real source of your feelings if you don’t slow down and give yourself a chance to move deeper. Now, you may still not get to the source, but even if you don’t you’ve still given yourself a chance to identify one simple fact: The source of the stress is deeper, and so that bag of potato chips isn’t going to solve it. Just having the awareness to recognize this in the moment can help you make a better choice.

2. Be fearless, and be kind to yourself.
Looking into deeper feelings takes guts. There’s a reason we do things like emotional eating to avoid facing them. Often those deeper feelings are tied to our sense of identity, our sense of our place in the world. Reexamining them can feel like we’re uprooting ourselves and can leave us feeling untethered and vulnerable. You might need to work with a therapist, and that’s OK. You might only be able to dig a little ways down at a time, and that’s OK, too. You don’t have to rush the process, but you can’t afford to simply ignore it, either. Be firm with yourself in facing the real issues, but be patient as you do it.

Editor’s note: Tune in next week to learn additional approaches from Scott for dealing with emotional eating…

The oral diabetes medicine metformin may reduce weight gain and the risk of preeclampsia in obese pregnant women, according to new research. Bookmark DiabetesSelfManagement.com and tune in tomorrow to learn more.