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The secret to controlling emotional eating is understanding the reasons you eat. When you find ways of dealing with anxiety, boredom, loneliness, and sadness without food, you are far more likely to lose those extra pounds.

Many people think that emotional overeating is some kind of character flaw. If you just had the willpower, their reasoning goes, then you would never eat more than your body needed. The truth is that emotional overeating is something we do for reasons we can't control — yet.  Emotional overeating is something you can rein in when you understand the reasons for it, such as these in the top five.

We overeat to avoid dealing with unpleasant experiences

One of the ways emotional overeating differs from binge eating is its motivation. In binge eating there is a tremendous need to feel full, or fuller than full. In emotional overeating, there is a strong urge to fill the senses with food rather than dealing with some unpleasant emotional reality.

Contrastingly, emotional overeating often is largely a matter of avoidance. When we crave food, the reason usually isn't that there is some physiological reason that we are hungry (although see the last point below). When we crave food, we are usually trying to avoid processing some painful emotion.

Trying to muster the willpower to avoid overeating to deal with a painful emotion is analogous to not thinking about a pink elephant. The harder you try not to think about a pink elephant, the more you think about a pink elephant. The harder you try not to overeat, the more you will want to overeat.

To overcome avoidance overeating, you need to cultivate an awareness of what you are eating. Don't just eat everything in sight. Think before you eat each bite. Then if you just have to have that bite of food, eat it. But don't indulge guilty feelings. Guilt drives the painful emotions you otherwise self-medicate with food. Eat and enjoy, and focus on self-understanding.

We overeat to avoid dealing with difficult feelings

Difficult feelings go hand in hand with difficult events in our lives. Food can distract us from both. Sometimes it is better to feel bored, bitter, disappointed, rejected, mad, sad, or even uncomfortably glad and deal with emotions directly rather than sublimating them with food.

We overeat when the primary or only source of pleasure in our lives is food

It's not necessarily unhealthy to love to eat. But it is unhealthy to love to eat when food is the only love in your life. The comfort you feel when you eat combinations of sugar, fat, and salt, or gluten, dairy products, and beef that contains traces of blood is real. These foods contain compounds that function something like opioids (or, in a few cases, exactly like opioids) in your brain. They encourage your brain to release endorphins. Some of the chemical compounds in vanilla perform a complementary function in making you addicted to food. They help your brain remember happy meals. If you ate a happy meal with vanilla in the ice cream or the soft drink or even the burger as a child and you felt loved and safe, eating foods with vanilla in them as an adult will help you recall the those happy motions. (This makes the fast food chains very happy;)

Realize that food manipulates your emotions. Make an active effort to find other sources of emotional comfort. An occasional bowl of ice cream or a cheeseburger now and then won't be as harmful if you make a habit of finding other ways of feeling good. 

We overeat because we don't like the way we look

Many people decide that they will like the way they look after they diet down to their goal weight. The problem with this attitude is that choosing to be unhappy with your weight generates negative emotions that you may try to self-medicate with food. Find things you like about your body now, and your body will reward you by making it easier to lose weight.

And sometimes we overeat because our metabolism is out of whack

All emotional overeating isn't about negative emotions. Sometimes it is about low blood sugar. When our blood sugar levels sink too low, our appetites impel us to eat to get the carbohydrates we need to get them back up — and then some more. A few people have reactive hypoglycemia. Their bodies release too much insulin in response to the sugars released by digesting carbohydrates. Paradoxically, eating sugary, starchy, high-carb foods makes their blood sugar levels go down, instead of up.

And millions of type 2 diabetics have a great deal of difficulty in finding the right levels of medication, sometimes including insulin to keep their blood sugars acceptably low without taking those blood sugar levels too low.

There is a simple solution to this problem. If you are going to make a mistake in regulating your blood sugar levels, or if you are going to go off your diet, think small. Cake is not on your diet? Then eat some. Just have a slice, not the whole cake.

Blood sugars soaring so high your sliding scale tells you that you need another insulin shot? Don't take the maximum amount your sliding scale allows. Take the minimum. When your metabolism is off kilter, don't make it worse. Smaller inputs lead to smaller errors.

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  • Fahrenkamp AJ, Darling KE, Ruzicka EB, Sato AF. Food Cravings and Eating: The Role of Experiential Avoidance. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Apr 2.16(7). pii: E1181. doi: 10.3390/ijerph16071181. PMID: 30986941 .
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  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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