There is No Such Thing as Emotional Eating

movie night

Hear ye! Hear ye!

I come bearing wonderful news.

What we call “emotional eating” – it doesn’t exist.  You actually just have terrible habits.

Who are YOU really?

A lump of clay? An eternal soul?
A child of God?
A descendant of Ancient Aliens????

I say you are a BRAIN. And maybe an alien also. I guess in some sense you’re a lump of clay too.

Whatever. But what you perceive, what you think, what you do – they are the all the same. They all originate in your brain, and they also shape your brain.

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Your neuroses, your hangups. And yes – your eating disorder. These all happen to your brain. The people you love & hate. All of it, all of them – they only APPEAR to live in houses and apartments. Really, they live in neurons that fired together.

As Woody Allen once said, “the brain is my second favorite organ.” If I had a penis, I might agree. But since I have lesser genitals, my brain comes first.

Some small portion of my brain is conscious. That tiny portion wants to be dictator, and I don’t even know why.

But even though my conscious brain wants to be dictator, it can never be. It’s too small, and too powerless. The rest of my brain is less conscious, but quicker. It knows it can do better than “I” can do. It’s been around millions of years longer, long before I was a reptile-fish.

These “reptile-fish” parts, they are my instincts. On top of that, I have a bunch of “mammal parts” – my habits. They are stronger than my human parts. And the only way to control them is to help shape them. 

The Power of Habit

What is your brain?

Is our “life” the current? Or the synapse? Or the things on both sides of the synapse?

I don’t know. It seems though, that whatever it is – it learns.  In the evolutionary past,  we couldn’t survive if we didn’t create shortcuts. We had to learn by making conscious associations, and then, by repetition, our brain made those associations unconscious.

Thus, we became habit machines!
We became so good at it, that we lived to tell the tale.

One of my favorite books is called “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. You should give it a read. If you’re not familiar with this area, empower yourself.

Whatever you are –  you are a bundle of habits. Your brain only leaves precious few things to its limited conscious control.

So when you are eating emotionally, are you really eating emotionally? Or are you eating out of habit? I say, the latter. And I’ll tell you why it matters.

..Why it Matters

Many emotional eaters feel they need to address their emotional issues in order to stop their emotional eating.  But you’ll never address your emotional issues. You’ll always be fucked up. You have less than zero hope.

Does this sound cynical? Because it’s not. Be empowered. To me, this sounds like freedom.

I promise you this. You don’t need to address any issues in order to stop overeating. You need to address your habits.

You can be fucked up beyond belief, and still be a size 6. Or 8. Or 10. Here are just a few examples of people who are fucked up beyond belief:

  • every single size 6 on earth
  • every single size 8 on earth
  • every single size 22 on earth
  • every single nudist, nun, attorney and/or doctor on earth
  • me
  • you

If you’re fucked up, that only means you experience emotions. We all do that.

Of course there are extreme outliers. But 1/3 of the population having depression?? Give me a break.

Is a basic condition of being human really something you want to “fix”? 

Maybe you do. But in any event, you don’t NEED to fix your emotional issues to fix your over-eating.  Believe it or not, skinny people have emotions too.

Do Emotions Have Anything to Do With Your Eating?

Yes! They have everything to do with it.

Emotions trigger your habits, they help form your habits. The emotions you feel while doing an activity make certain habits “stickier” than others.

But you don’t eat because you’re emotional. You eat because of habit. 

Habits are all about triggers. And even if you *THINK* an emotion is the culprit, usually that emotion is brought on by some kind of environmental trigger.

Mindfulness versus Fixing Everything

Maybe you should try to deal with your issues. I don’t know.

I tend to think that things sort themselves out when you focus on them less, not more. The less neurons fire, the more their connections atrophy and die off. That’s just my approach. So go ahead: ignore your problems. Repression is kind of a  bullshit sham anyway.

Instead, be MINDFUL of your issues. Don’t try to fix them, just know what they are, know what your triggers are, and focus on a new behavior you can use to replace an old behavior:

Example:
Issue: I am fat and no one loves me because they are afraid I’ll eat them. When I sit on the couch and watch TV, I am reminded of my overwhelming size and sweatiness, and so I just eat more to cover my sad emotions.

  • Classic solution that is pointless: I’m going to talk to a therapist about how fat and sad I am. She will probably refer me to a psychiatrist who will diagnose me with depression. Instead of recommending exercise or more time outside, they’ll recommend a drug. The drug might work, or on the other hand, it might make me suicidal. I’ll probably end up even fatter.
  • Mindful Solution: I know that I FEEL fat and sad and that no one loves me. But I also know that plenty of fat people are loved, and that losing weight is possible, even if I haven’t done it yet. I know there is nothing INHERENTLY FAT about me. It’s only temporary. Every time I start to feel sad, I’ll go for a 20 minute walk, and see if I feel better. Even if I really really really don’t feel like walking.

What Happens When you Try The Mindful Solution?

You stop trying to fix things, which only reinforces their very existence.

Remember, the things you want to fix live in your brain! A brain that wires itself based solely on past experiences.

Instead, you focus on a concrete behavior that not only begins to REPLACE the prior bad habit,  but is also a small step towards your goal. This kills two fatty birds with one habit-stone.

Because of the power of habit, if you repeat a behavior enough times, you’ll begin to WANT to do the new behavior.

Your new behavior won’t ever completely replace your bad habits. They’re already wired, and may always lie dormant.

But your new behavior will make it MUCH easier. And it will change your brain for the better.

..all it takes is a little bit of repetition.

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12 thoughts on “There is No Such Thing as Emotional Eating”

  1. Well, technically, to take what you wrote to its natural conclusion… Men aren’t as screwed up as women because our favorite organ isn’t our brain… that comes in second. 😉

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  2. Hmmm….I agree that mindfulness is a powerful tool, and more and more psychologists are exploring that school of thought for a whole myriad of mental illnesses and disorders, and seeing considerable success. And I agree with a lot of this post. But. I think that reducing eating disorders (including overeating) to a simple “bad habit” is a bit overly simplistic. It’s true that therapy will never rid a patient of emotions (nor should it). But, learning WHY you feel the emotions you do, and WHY you reach for unhealthy food when you feel a particular emotion can go a long way towards modifying that behavior, especially in the long term.

    I also think that changing habits is so much easier said than done. Many people don’t want to look directly at the-way-deep-down issues that are making them fat to begin with. You’re advocating that they don’t. I believe that it is easier to change those very habits once you understand where they are coming from in the first place. 🙂 In other words, I think behavior modification is good, but it should go hand in hand with introspection.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. These are the things the kinds of issues that made me wish I went into psychology, because I could talk about it for hours.

      I actually feel so strongly that eating disorders are in fact bad habits, but keep in mind, I feel the same way about most things we call disorders today (and also about addictions). The exception would be like – schizophrenia or things along those lines, which I actually consider a true disorder.

      When you look at something like disordered eating, which affects SO many women and young girls – it just doesn’t seem like a “malfunction” to me, as much as it seems like the product of a lot of bad thinking, rooted in the environment, as well as other in other factors. It seems inevitable that so many women end up with disordered eating in a world where your self-worth is on being thin, and yet all the foods are designed to be physically addicting. And you try over and over and over to succeed, until all of those tries begin to add up to a very bad, very difficult to break habit.

      I’ve been through every eating disorder in the book. I think when I was maybe 14/15 I begged my mom to take me to a therapist because I was counting calories compulsively and I couldn’t stop.

      Anyway – the therapist was useless. She wanted me to talk about issues. I said my only issue is that I can’t stop counting calories, it doesn’t go much deeper than that. It was a complete compulsion, I just needed techniques to stop. Of course I was concerned about food, and image and etc. But really, I’ve never cared too much about “looks” (esp at that age). I just had gotten into a habit of counting, and I couldn’t stop counting and it was freaking me out.

      That therapist was not up to date on any of the many techniques that might have actually helped me break that habit. I had to figure it out myself.

      Later in life, I went to a therapist who told me that I needed a boyfriend.

      Maybe some therapists are great, if they actually use techniques that center around mindfulness and CBT. I think a lot of therapists are phonies, who cause more harm than good. I’m very skeptical of “getting to the bottom of issues” because I just don’t see any reason to believe that will help. Awareness is one thing. Facing issues from the past, it just doesn’t seem helpful to me. It all seems like some remnant of Freud to me.

      Maybe I’d understand if you need to deal with some kind of traumatic event, but even compulsive overeating – what is that if not a bad habit?

      I think that once the habits change, the issues begin to resolve themselves. There’s a physical aspect to all of this, but people don’t often realize how “physical” habits are too. You’re body literally pushes you into doing things that you’ve spent years doing.

      I’m not saying these things are habits as if to suggest that dealing with them is easy. I’m saying it bc I think we are looking in all the wrong places for answers. I don’t think fixing emotional issues will necessarily address emotional eating. We eat for all kinds of reasons – happy, sad, celebration, because its there etc…

      Breaking the habits allows you to deal with the emotion in different ways. I just think it’s the perspective that eventually most mental health professionals will share.

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      1. I am with you – I could talk about this stuff forever. If you haven’t already, you should check out a podcast called Invisibilia from NPR. The very first episode, called The Secret History of Thoughts, is absolutely fascinating, and tells a story of man with a similar compulsion to yours. He went to several therapists who were complete garbage and didn’t help him at all He didn’t find a solution to his problem until he started practicing mindfulness – just sitting with his compulsion without “judging” himself – because when he would try to push the thought away, they would only get worse.

        I haven’t read the book you mentioned, so maybe if I did, I could come around to that kind of thinking. But looking back on my own struggles, especially with trauma, depression and addiction (like real, change-your-brain-chemicals-addiction, to real drugs, not “I’m addicted to Taylor Swift, tee hee!”) and how overeating was intertwined with all of that…it took a lot of healing in order to get to a place where I even cared enough to WANT to change my habits. And I went to therapists who did NOT prescribe me medication, but DID suggest I get out and exercise more. So I guess that’s why I think it helps to start with the psychological, or at the very least understand that you have some psychological shit that might be contributing to your current situation, and the habitual and the physical will follow.

        On the other hand, I do agree that “fake it till you make it” works pretty well when you don’t feel like getting out of bed. So…I’ll concede it makes sense that changing habits can have a positive impact on your emotional wellbeing.

        This is all very chicken-and-egg-ish, isn’t it? Maybe it’s just different for different people. Some people work better when they sort out their heads, while others need to just get moving and the rest will follow.

        What I keep coming back to is how people who get bariatric surgery have much higher rates of alcohol abuse than people who don’t. The surgery forces them to change their habits, right? So by the habit-is-king theory, they should be a-ok afterward. But for the vast majority of them, it’s not so simple. They still have mental issues and compulsions that just get redirected to other substances.

        I think this post is fantastic and very thought provoking, so don’t take my long comments as confrontational! 🙂

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  3. Man is very fucked up. And then you have companies making food as addictive as possible and telling us that’s what we want. I am a boredom eater. And of course that’s all my fault. But yesterday I decided to join a gym. Last time I did that I got really addicted but at least I wasn’t bored.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Don’t blame yourself entirely!

      You are so right about companies making food addictive. We rely on it, and we start doing it at a very young age. So the foods we eat really become a part of us. Of course it’s hard to break free.

      We tie food with all sorts of moments in our lives: happy moments, sad moments, bored moments. We are just brought up doing this. And that’s OK, food can be such a source of pleasure and nutrition if done the right way. And honestly, even “bad” food can enhance life – the problem is how often we eat it.

      Anyway – I personally never ate out of “boredom” so much as eating at certain times just out of a very bad habit. And by eating I mean serious bingeing. Like a lot of people, I would do it at night. I found myself basically powerless – once the binge started it was just ridiculous.

      And I know that deep inside myself, that tendency is still there. It gets weaker every time I don’t do it. But I keep my eye on the triggers:
      1. night time
      2. presence of carbohydrates

      That’s awesome that you joined the gym. I wish you luck with that and I’m sure you will do great!!

      I’ve spent so much time thinking about weight loss and fitness, and I kind of have this theory that there are three aspects that you need to begin mastering to get where you want to be: 1. psychological, 2. physical, 3. habitual.

      I started writing a series of posts on this, but so far I’ve only posted one. Maybe you might like it. I’ll post the second one this week. Here it is: https://fatgirlsfitness.com/2016/02/12/three-pillars-of-fitness-part-1/

      Stay in touch, I’d love to hear about your progress 🙂

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