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Into the Arms of the Comforter – Why We Emotionally Eat

December 11, 2015

One topic that I often get questions about in my practice is Binge Eating Disorder, or B.E.D.  I actually prefer to refer to it as emotional eating or comfort eating, which I will explain shortly, but regardless of what we call it, it is a serious struggle for many that impacts efforts to lose and maintain a healthy weight.  I’d like to take this opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about this topic and offer some advice to those who might be struggling with it.

What is Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge Eating Disorder is usually classified by a cluster of symptoms that include the following:

  • Frequent patterns of overeating
  • Feeling that your eating behavior is out of control
  • Eating even when you’re full or not hungry
  • Eating rapidly during binge episodes
  • Eating until you’re uncomfortably full
  • Frequently eating alone or in secret
  • Feeling depressed, disgusted, ashamed, guilty or upset about your eating

There are a few reasons that I prefer to refer to B.E.D. as comfort eating or emotional eating.  First of all, it’s a little less stigmatizing than simply slapping a diagnosis on someone, which can tend to make us lose hope.  Second, calling it comfort eating really points to the source of the problem, which is usually that when we explore the deeper function of the eating that many are using food in response to strong feelings of sadness, loneliness, anxiety, etc. 

Who is most likely to engage in comfort eating?

To a certain extent, everyone engages in comfort eating.  I once heard someone say we eat for three reasons– for fuel, for happiness, and for sadness.  Culturally we all have been taught to celebrate with food (think team pizza parties, Thanksgiving feasts) or even commiserating with it (sadness and a bowl of ice cream). It’s when the eating to numb or dull our feelings becomes a regular event that we need to be concerned. 

As I’ve mentioned in my research, many people who struggle with weight cycling (losing and regaining the same weight over and over) tend to struggle with stuffing their emotions.  Over time, this buildup is like an emotional container within us that begins to overflow. As we reach our capacity for stress, tension, anxiety and even sadness food then becomes the rescuer, the comforter, that saves us from emotional overflow by offering an escape or an outlet for numbing out.

Our Attachments to Comfort Food

In my practice so many of my clients are ashamed of their binge eating patterns. They eat in secret, immediately hide the evidence of their binge, and are terrified of discussing food or their weight with family and friends. Over and over I remind them that there’s a context for what feels like an otherwise shameful relationship with food. In other words, there’s a reason you’re overeating and finding comfort in food.

For many this context is found in how they were taught to experience and express emotion growing up. For many, emotional stuffing is a way of surviving in a household where primary attachment figures (parents or caretakers) are simply unavailable or uncomfortable with emotional expression.

Kids aren’t born with a filter for expressing their fears, worries or concerns. They automatically look for comfort in attachment figures during times when their emotional containers are overflowing. Emotional stuffing then is a natural response to unnatural circumstances. If emotions are shamed or discouraged from being expressed kids grow into adults that attempt to stuff their feelings to survive difficult times.

Your Brain on Comfort Food

While many comfort eating patterns are rooted in these attachment patterns there also is an aspect of brain chemistry that we simply cannot avoid. Most of the food we find comfort in also manage to light up the pleasure receptors in our brain. Over time this creates what some consider to be an almost addictive form of conditioning that pairs negative emotion like loneliness, rejection, or anxiety with food. 

Often I hear people say they feel powerless to their automatic calling for food. What they do not realize is that there often was an emotional trigger that set the cravings into motion. Identifying and developing an ability to sit in those uncomfortable emotions, rather than allowing yourself to instantly react to them, over time allows people to regain power. It also gives people a chance to realize why they really are eating and even develop new ways to advocate for comfort outside of food. 

How can people who struggle with comfort eating break the cycle?

In my counseling practice, I recommend a five-step approach to dealing with comfort eating:

  • Step one: Identify the emotion that is triggering your comfort eating. Often it’s 1-2 recurring emotions. Knowing which emotions are your greatest triggers will help you begin to gain a sense of control in this process. 
  • Step two: What is the backstory with you and that emotion?  For many people there’s a series of pivotal moments in their life where they felt that trigger emotion. These events centered around rejection or loneliness and play an important part in the level of emotion that’s often being triggered in the present. 
  • Step three: Process the trauma that led to the emotion in the first place. Processing these emotional events is not the same as reliving them. It’s pulling the book off the shelf and reading a few passages at a time just to understand and validate how the pairing for this emotion and comfort in food came to be. Doing this builds insight but it also helps the healing process too. 
  • Step four: Begin to develop a new level of compassion and understanding for what your comfort eating is really all about. After you connect these dots you’ll begin to already feel more compassion and less shame towards yourself for your relationship to food. It also will help you sit in your emotions with compassion rather than respond with being triggered to run to food. 
  • Step five: Explore new ways to advocate for comfort while also maintaining your health goals. Often this involves stepping up self-care practices like journaling, gym time, and whatever else allows you to stay emotionally balanced. Yet, the greatest comfort also comes in learning how to express your emotions regularly to others that can support you in your time of need. This may develop in your romantic relationships, closest friendships or in a support system that speaks the language.

For more information about comfort eating, check out my Road Map to Weight Loss program, which is specifically designed to help people struggling with problems related to drastic weight loss.