Working With Emotional Eating

Dear S.,

Last week, I began to respond to your e-mail and wrote about mental health issues and diabetes. This week, I’d like to talk about the eating patterns you are struggling with and why they are so challenging to change.

Eating is such a central part of our lives that food becomes associated with almost everything we do. If we’re happy, sad, angry, celebrating, grieving, lonely, or bored, we eat. Emotions become connected with food. Some foods also can have the physical effect of actually helping us feel better, temporarily. Remember when your mom gave you a Popsicle when you skinned your knee? It actually worked because your body produced some hormones that helped ease the pain. This isn’t a good or bad thing, it is just how the body works. Because this process works so well to help our pain go away, eating to treat emotions or stress can become a pattern.

Emotional eating is not a new issue for you, and having diabetes makes it that much more difficult to manage. From your description of your problem, you sound very distressed by your eating and its possible consequences for your diabetes control. The stress of worrying about developing diabetes complications and the guilt you may feel may make you want to eat. It is kind of a catch-22: The more you worry, the more likely you are to overeat, and the more you eat, the more likely you are to feel guilty, which makes it more likely you will overeat.

Because this problem stems from a combination of physiological, emotional, and social factors, to treat it effectively, you will need to address all three of these areas. In your e-mail, you asked if there was a resource on the Internet that might be helpful in dealing with this problem. The Internet has many options that might be useful, including chat rooms and support groups. From a social support standpoint, chat rooms for those who have overeating problems or diabetes can be helpful. Another option would be to seek out a support group that deals with eating issues such as Overeaters Anonymous (OA) or Weight Watchers. OA often deals with the emotional aspects of eating, while Weight Watchers deals with weight loss and gives people support along with accountability. Another potentially helpful type of support group would be a diabetes-specific group. Your boss also sounds like a good support for you, too, so keep him or her informed of your progress.


To address the physiological aspect of overeating, some good stress management techniques would be useful for you. Some daily exercise, meditation, listening to music—anything that has the effect of calming and releasing the hormones that make you feel better—can work as an alternative to eating.

Finally, from an emotional standpoint, it sounds as though you could use some professional help. A mental-health counselor or someone to talk with regularly might help you get started in this process of change. It is certainly not easy, but it can be done. The most important part of this is you have recognized the problem.

Next week, I’ll write about how change takes place and give you some more ideas about how to keep the process of change moving forward. Take care.

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Joe Nelson: Joe is a psychotherapist in private practice in Minnesota, where he specializes in the psychology of chronic disease and sexual problems and works with couples, families, children, and teens. He has been a Licensed Psychologist since 1985 and has earned a master’s degree from St. Mary’s College Winona, a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota, and an associate’s degree in human services from the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

Joe has worked with troubled youth in Chicago and Minnesota and on a special project on Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. He was the first social worker hired by an affiliate of the American Diabetes Association. He worked at the International Diabetes Center for 20 years, directing psychological services there for 12 years. A Certified Sex Therapist, Joe co-developed the Sexual Health Center at Park Nicollet Clinic.

Having practiced meditation for over 30 years, Joe offers instruction in mindfulness-based meditation to patients in groups and as individuals. Joe is married, has a 23-year-old daughter, and enjoys scuba diving, motorcycling, golf, and being outdoors doing almost anything.

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