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Emotional Eating – To lose weight, know your emotional state

January 23, 2013

With the winter holidays just a few weeks behind us, one of the things I’ve been thinking about is how long it will take to burn off the calories from all the chocolates and other sweets I ate. Now, thinking about what I ate may not sound like a profound or meaningful activity. But, an upcoming report by the American Psychological Association on the topic of “emotional eating” is making me wonder how Christmas and New Year’s (two emotionally filled holidays) affected my eating habits.

People will often overeat to make themselves feel better.

People will often overeat to make themselves feel better.

This past September, the American Psychological Association (APA) collaborated with Consumer Reports National Research Centre and polled over 1,300 psychologists on the topic of weight loss. They wanted to know how psychologists dealt with their clients’ weight loss challenges and concerns. Almost half of psychologists (44%) said that if people understand the emotions and behaviours attached to eating, they would have more success in managing their weight. They also said that emotional eating was a major barrier to weight loss. I have found this to be the case in my own private practice, and even in my own life. Many times, when we feel certain emotions (e.g., stress, sadness, disappointment) we may turn to food as a way of lessening (or heightening) the intensity of these emotions. When we’re trying to problem-solve our way around these emotions, we may do so while eating unhealthy foods. Instead of working through them, we look towards food to help us cope with them.

A good friend of mine, Derrick Shirley, a psychotherapist specializing in weight management, has personal experience in dealing with the issue of emotions and weight loss. In his book, “The 400-pound Male Stripper,” he talks about his personal struggle of overcoming racial discrimination, and how eating became the way he dealt with these struggles. He credits two interventions as the primary reason for why he was successful at losing – and keeping off – over 200-pounds.

1) Keep a journal of your feelings and thoughts. Whenever you feel like binge-eating, take a few seconds to first write down what you are thinking and feeling. Through this process, we begin to identify the emotions that lead us to eat. Eventually, we gain more control over our eating habits.

2) Have a meal plan. A meal plan provides you with a structure and routine for what to eat and when. Essentially, having a meal plan eliminates the guesswork from having to decide what to eat. This also gives us more control over food choices.

These two strategies – recognizing the emotions behind eating, and having a set time and structure for what and when to eat – are typical of strategies used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT also represents one of the approaches recommended by psychologists in the APA study. Learning to recognize the thoughts and emotions behind our eating, and then coming up with a set of behaviours to address these thoughts and emotions, helps people to achieve, and maintain, healthy eating choices.

What are some of the emotions that lead you to eat and what has worked for you?  I’d love to hear from you on this topic.

Links in this post:

APA summary article on Emotional Eating Survey***Click here to read the full article by the APA*** – psychotherapist and author who has worked with clients on weight management issues. for a free e-book on the topic of emotional eating

  1. Hi Richard ..once again great article ,this has always been a very important part of my life struggels ..Weight gain /loss.There are predisposing factors like biological that may contribute in own’s weight gain , but Anxiety depression ,behavioural and emotional issues are also other factors.Large family dinner gatherings in some cultures is a social function and a norm (Italians, Portugese, Greeks ) Eating is the one thing in our lives we still have some control and power over, It acts like a distraction from one’s problems…But It is a vicious cycle we must control if we want to change our lives.Some of the recent changes I have made in my own personal life are as simple as limiting caloric intake, increasing excercise ,gaining control over my emotional state and having a positive attitude. We must keep in mind we are worth it, and want to do this for ourselves and our loved one’s …Thank-you!

  2. I couldn’t have said it better myself, Mary. We are all worth it, and having more awareness of what is within our control (like caloric intake, exercise, and a positive attitude) will make us become better people. Thanks also for pointing out the cultural piece. It’s a big contributor to how we see our personal relationship with food.


  3. adriana burnside permalink

    I don’t understand the factors for weight gain, but one thing i know personally is : if i am sad , i don’t like to eat or think much of food , however if i am happy , i will be sharing meals with everyone and thinking a lot about food and what to be cooking …Can you figure that out for me Richard??? A priest once told me: if you want to see people happy bring them food. Food is life. Maybe that is my philosophy also.

    • Hi Adriana,

      Thanks for bringing up such a great point! You’ve correctly pointed out that the relationship between emotions and eating is different for everybody. No one handles sadness or happiness in the same way. I can’t explain why some people tend to eat more when they’re depressed, while others eat less when they’re depressed. But, what I can say is that a dramatic change in body weight in a short period of time (usually a change of 5% within the last two weeks) is one of the symptoms of depression. Some people won’t feel like eating when they’re sad (like yourself); while others can’t seem to stop eating.

      I remember when a good friend of mine called me on the phone once because she got into a fight with her best friend. Every couple of minutes, she’d say something with a muffled voice. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I’m eating cheesecake,” she said. It turns out that whenever she got into a fight with someone, and felt stressed, she’d turn to cheesecake. For her, this was how she coped with the emotions of guilt and frustration: by eating sugary foods. I have another friend of mine who turns to alcohol when he’s stressed. He won’t eat anything; he’ll just consume large amounts of alcohol. Sadly, both extremes (too much junk food and too much alcohol) only leads to more feelings of guilt and sadness, which in turn can lead to more of the problem behaviours. It can be a vicious cycle.

      Thanks again for taking the time to ask a question and share your experiences. I really appreciate it.


      • adriana burnside permalink

        Thanks Richard for the answer. One day at the time for everything or every moment in life. My regards to you and family…We will keep in touch.

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