Emotional Eating: The Battle Within

“I hate myself for eating this way—why can’t I just stop??” If you’ve ever asked yourself this question, you probably eat in a compulsive way for reasons you can never quite understand. You wonder why an intelligent, capable person like you can handle other aspects of life so well, yet continue to fail time after time with this one.

Most compulsive eaters get their start in childhood. It often begins with the child’s discovery that when life hurts or disappoints, food is one of the few things the child can gain access to and control, and which seems to help. For some of us, eating becomes our primary emotional survival strategy, to the point where many of us stop even trying to comfort ourselves any other way. If you are like most people, you have arrived in adulthood with more knowledge, intellect, and life skills in many other areas, yet still cling to that survival strategy you discovered at such an impressionable age. You have practiced it ever since, and have now done it so much and for so long that it feels like an indelible part of who you are. 

The part of you that goes so urgently to food for relief is based deep within. It doesn’t respond well to logic, which is why it doesn’t help that you know better. It hates to be told “no,” which is why you have irresistible urges for forbidden foods. It hates to be told how it should behave, which is why you feel so resistant to health-related choices like exercise and quality foods. Unfortunately, that part of your system is quite powerful, which is why you repeatedly lose when you try to conquer it with brute force and willpower. Worse yet, it is highly impulsive and anchored in the moment; it feels much more intensely about what’s in front of it right now than it can about future consequences (even in the future that is mere minutes away). This is the part of you that feels relief when you give in to the urge to overeat, even as another part of you knows that you’re hurting your body and spirit with every bite. On a primal level, you have been convinced for many years that eating is the most reliable strategy for achieving comfort and relief. Until you are able to deal effectively with that part of yourself, nothing else you ever try will last. 

Conventional weight management efforts usually fail, in part because they focus mostly on what to do differently. Odds are you already know what to do, but can’t get yourself to want it enough to stick with it. Beyond being ineffective, dieting does harm in that most people end up feeling deprived, coerced, and generally put-upon. These are emotional experiences that trigger resistance to actions that support health, as well as fueling powerful urges for more of the foods that caused the problem in the first place. You can hold off the urges by sheer force of will for a time, but the drive to retreat to the food will eventually prevail. This is an important part of the yo-yo diet syndrome: you beat the urges into submission for a while and lose some weight, but eventually tire from the effort and rebound back into overeating. Most people regain what they lost; many add more still.  

The good news is that we now understand why this seemingly irrational pattern afflicts most of us; it has everything to do with how the brain is organized and how its natural processes backfire in our comfortable-but-unnatural world. Once you see how this works, it becomes quite obvious how we got into this mess, and also what it will take to get back out. It will require learning a few new things, but they will make intuitive sense when you discover them; you will likely feel like you’ve almost known them all along. Once you learn to use your innate tendencies more effectively and to deal with yourself from a position of personal compassion rather than judgment and self-abuse, amazing changes begin to occur:

You can gain a greater genuine interest in eating well, moving more, and generally caring for yourself in ways that ensure a longer, happier, and more fulfilling life. The processed foods that have tempted you for so long will become less compelling—some of them will even lose their appeal altogether. You can begin to truly enjoy food for the first time, rather than merely shoveling it in while feeling tormented. You can end the battle within once and for all.

What you need to learn cannot be covered in a brief Internet article, unfortunately, but detailed information is now available here. Meanwhile, one-on-one help is available if you wish. The beginning of your path to freedom is as close as the next click you make. 

Copyright © 2015, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.  All rights reserved.


Some other articles you may find useful:  

Are You a Compulsive Eater?  Test Yourself and See...

Basic Strategies for Managing the Urge to Eat

Compulsive Eating and How I Treat It

Compulsive Eating: Serious Health Issues
Fat: Important New Findings
Loving Each Other to Death with Food 
Raising Kids to be Emotionally Balanced with Food 
Risk Management: The Overlooked Key to Finding Peace with Food

Why You Love Exercise, but Don't Know It 

Your Weight May Not be the Problem
Self-Help for Intense Anxiety

When is It Time to Consider Psychotherapy? 

Depression Series, Part One: Depression -- Myths and Facts


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