Gatewell providers often work with clients presenting with “compulsive” or emotional eating. These same clients typically have a history of dieting or somehow restricting their food. Restriction can take various forms, including limiting when we eat, what we eat, and how much. In fact, we rarely encounter self-identified overeaters who don’t skimp on their intake at other times. Restriction can even be unconscious, making unintentional food choices toward the goal of weight-loss or weight-maintenance.
Dieting, or any other form of restriction, causes us to feel deprived. Our bodies become hyperfocused on food cues, and food takes on more of a mental role than it previously did. We might be constantly thinking of food. When we allow ourselves to eat, we might fear we’ll lose control. All of these behaviors are a function of the restriction itself.
But I’m emotional eater.
You might be. Many of us will turn to food for comfort from difficult emotions, like sadness, fear, anger, or states such as boredom or loneliness. In fact, emotional eating at times is normal and adaptive. In therapy, you can work on reducing the frequency and intensity of emotional eating episodes by understanding your triggers and identifying alternate coping skills.
However, you will never succeed at addressing emotional eating if you don’t simultaneously address your restriction. You can’t treat your overeating problem without treating your undereating one. The two go hand in hand.
Your body is designed to survive. Each time you restrict, your body works diligently to ward off starvation. Your hormones shift. Your metabolism slows. You’re appetite increases, and you might feel like you need more and more. This is your body’s innate wisdom helping to keep you alive.
Yes, people are prone to eat for comfort, but this fact is intensified when restriction occurs. People engage in a variety of behaviors to cope with challenging emotions: we drink/drug, shop, play video games, gamble, work, and eat. Why is it that some people “choose” one maladaptive coping skill over another? Many factors are at play, but if you’re consistently turning to food, it’s time to take a serious look at any past or present restriction that might be influencing you.
This is exactly why programs that preach food abstinence (restriction), such as OA, FA, etc. don’t work. They are prescribing the problem as a solution. Most people will end up with a more significant case of disordered eating or confined to a food prison for their rest of their lives.
So, if you want to tackle emotional or compulsive eating, please understand that you must also be willing to stop dieting and to curb any other form, conscious or unconscious, of restriction. Addressing restriction might not provide an immediate fix, but it’s a necessary requirement for moving away from emotional eating and turning to more adaptive coping skills. And it’s important to remember that even those that have a healthy relationship with food will eat emotionally from time to time.