Do you sometimes experience episodes of eating where you feel out of control? Do you then promise yourself you’ll never eat like this again? Only to eat again like this on a different day? Do you try diets, but find them hard to stick to? If you relate to this you may be struggling with emotional eating and you’re not alone. Emotional eating is a very common eating difficulty that’s associated with various issues, including:

  • Eating disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor body image
  • Gain of weight or weight fluctuations

Most people who suffer from emotional eating, blame themselves for their eating struggles. You may find you say to yourself:

  • “I should be able to control myself”
  • “I lack willpower and control”
  • “I’m weak”

As a result of these beliefs, you may find yourself trying countless amounts of diets and feel undeserving of certain foods. However, if you suffer from emotional eating, it’s important to recognise that this has nothing to do with self-control or willpower. In fact, emotional eating has nothing to do with your discipline as a person at all. Emotional eating (which may also be referred to as binge eating) is generally influenced by various underlying issues as well as certain beliefs and behaviours surrounding eating. Let’s take a look at some of the main factors that influence emotional eating and the first steps to take in getting this under control.

What causes emotional eating?
Often people who eat in this way may either actively restrict their eating or don’t eat regularly (or enough) throughout the day. Eating too little or not regularly can lead to binge eating. If our body and mind perceive a lack of food and prolonged hunger as a threat, our brain will tell us to prepare and to “stock up on food”. Even if you’re desperately determined not to binge, your mind will trick you into getting what your body needs – food.

Different emotions for different people can trigger a binge. Commonly, emotions such as – relief, happiness, boredom, anger, anxiety and loneliness – trigger binge eating. Eating in this way may help us cope with uncomfortable emotions, effectively helping us to “numb” our emotions. It is perhaps hard to imagine that emotions like relief and happiness could trigger a binge, but these emotions can often feel uncomfortable and overwhelming.

Feeling vulnerable, followed by a particular event or thought
Often people are prone to emotional eating when they’re already feeling vulnerable in some way. What makes someone feel vulnerable will differ between people, but common vulnerabilities include: Being home alone, feeling exhausted from a big day at work/school and feeling fragile in your self-worth. When you’re vulnerable, a simple event or thought can trigger a binge – for example, you may have had an argument with your partner, which might trigger a binge. Similarly, a thought, like “I’m a failure” or “no one cares about me” may also trigger a binge.

Perception of “good” and “bad” foods
If you struggle with emotional eating, you most likely see foods in categories of “good” and “bad” foods. This type of ‘black and white’ thinking can lead to emotional eating, as when you eat foods you perceive as forbidden, you experience a sense of failure. Naturally, it is hard to stop eating if you believe you’ve already failed.

If you try to rid yourself of food eaten after a binge (e.g. using laxatives, self-induced vomiting or excessive exercise), you’re far more likely to binge again. This is because purging acts as a type of “permission” for continuing to binge – that is, if you know you’re going to purge after a binge, you’re far more likely to binge compared to if purging was not an option for you.

Getting help for emotional/binge eating
The good news is there are highly effective therapies for treating binge eating. By changing your diet; shifting your attitudes towards food; problem solving ways to decrease your vulnerability to harmful eating behaviours; helping you understand the chain of events that lead to emotional/binge eating and teaching you strategies to break this cycle including the use of a range of coping strategies.