Do you ever find yourself automatically drawn to junk foods when you’re in a state of increased stress? Do you joke about “comfort food” in order to justify that second trip through the drive-through when you’re feeling down? Do you eat a pan of brownies when feeling lonely? If you can relate to any of these situations then you, like so many of us, are an “emotional eater.” This may not be new news to you, but facing the reality can still be tough. The good news is that there is always hope for change and beginning the journey of addressing emotional eating or food codependency is a journey that can be successful.
The Food and Mood Connection
Before we seek to understand our emotions, we need to understand physical hunger. Vanderbilt University’s Health & Wellness blog clarifies physical hunger and emotional eating this way: physical hunger is natural; it can be delayed and is satisfied by various foods. Once we are full, we can stop and have no feelings of guilt when we are done. Emotional eating however is immediate and impulsive, only a certain craving will satisfy my present emotions where I partake beyond what’s necessary. Then, I end up feeling guilty or ashamed for what I’ve just done.
To understand emotional eating we have to determine what is causing you to eat. Are you under stress at work or home? Are you sad or bored? Are you truly hungry or just want to snack for the sake of snacking? What is going on around you when you are feeling tempted to snack or binge on something salty or sweet? Is this occasional or is it happening more often? The initial task of identifying one’s own emotional state as specifically as possible isn’t as easy as it sounds. But it’s a skill you can develop
Now that you’ve identified the cause of your desire to eat, ask this question: “What am I hoping to feel because I am choosing to eat this cupcake right now?”
- Am I seeking a sense of control over something in my life?
- Am I looking for an escape from my reality?
- Do I want relief?
- Do I feel ugly on the inside and hope to reinforce that feeling on the outside?
- Do I feel unworthy of love so I neglect taking good care of myself?
- Do I feel I have earned this treat and therefore I indulge?
- Am I attempting to alter my feelings about a specific event in the past?
According to researchers at the University of Maryland, 75% of overeating is the result of emotions. Emotional eaters seek to use food as a mood stabilizer, whatever the situation.
Pause and Pivot
The next time you want to emotionally eat, stop yourself and answer the above questions in a journal about what you are thinking, feeling and hoping to accomplish. Next, remove yourself from the situation and ask God to help strengthen you to withstand this sudden craving and get beyond it. Go for a walk, call a friend or head to a nearby park and allow yourself to experience all that is going on in you at that moment. White knuckling it at your kitchen table won’t work. You have to change your context. This is the point where you should consider meeting with a counselor to begin addressing the heart issues associated with your emotional eating as well as to determine if you may also be struggling with depression. Doing so will help you get on track to being physically healthy and learn how to depend on and trust in Christ as you grow to be emotionally and spiritually healthy.
Print and Plan
If you are serious about making changes with emotional eating, I strongly encourage you keep a food journal. This will help you keep track of your daily meals and what you are consuming. Also include, the time of day, where you are, and a summary of the situation. Like this:
As you build this habit, you will see where your strong and weak points of the day are. Then you can prepare healthy snacks or activities to do in order to better handle the emotions that draw you to eat now that you know when you are most tempted to give in to emotional eating. You may want to consider working with a nutritionist or your general practitioner for accountability and to get help with healthy menu ideas and meal planning. Doing this will also determine if further assessment is needed (i.e. if you are suffering with an eating disorder such as bulimia, food addiction or obesity) as well as providing accountability and encouragement. You could even get some friends to join you in developing healthier eating and emotional habits.
Pray and Praise
Regardless of whether you’re in a tempting situation or not, be in the practice of listening to worship music that sets your mind on the Lord. Read Scriptures that focus on who God is. When we are emotional eaters (or drinkers, shoppers, etc), we are indulging in our fleshly desires. As Paul Tripp calls it, we have a “worship disorder.” We are worshipping the idol of our stomachs or impulses instead of worshipping our Creator. Next, repent. Confess your idolatry to the Lord and ask Him to help you give you a heart that desires Him above all else. Ask Him to give you a heart that trusts in Him to fill what you are seeking apart from Him.
Making changes to how we handle our emotions is a process. Lasting change can truly only come through the person of Jesus Christ as He transforms our hearts to be more like His. Rest in Him as you persevere and He will grow in you a heart that desires what is pleasing to the Lord. You are not in this struggle alone. As you seek to overcome any addiction or make significant lasting change, we do so best in the context of community. Find a counselor and a Celebrate Recovery or other accountability group to connect with so that you may best flourish.