What Is Emotional Eating? My Story

From the WebMD Archives

Do you remember when your out-of-control emotional eating first began? I can, even though it was more than five decades ago. I was 9, a skinny, active child -- and suddenly I was stuffing myself with entire cans of spaghetti for lunch, two or more desserts at dinner, and, throughout the day, all the soda, candy, cupcakes, and potato chips I could buy or find.

At 13, I weighed 180 pounds; at 15, I starved myself and lost 50 pounds; at 18, I was back up to 180 or more. The stage was set for a lifetime of yo-yo weight gain and dieting.

Sound familiar? Then you also know how out-of-control emotional eating feels. Inside, whether I was fat or slim, I despaired. Whatever was "wrong with me," I thought, would never go away. How could it, when I didn't know what it was? I tried for years to understand why I was doing this to myself. And to stop doing it. But mostly I ended up making myself more unhappy. And fatter.

Finally one day I began to search for practical clues to the problem. Were there small steps I could take to start bringing the reasons for my emotional eating out into the open? I started by reading self-help books, especially ones that had places in them where I could write my personal responses to the questions and challenges they raised. It was like the "journaling" that's often recommended today as a way to help emotional eaters start to get control. And it really helped.

Looking back, I'm amazed at what I wrote. A lot of it was so angry, so hurt, so despairing, so scared. But that was how I felt. And as things turned out, writing it was an important sign that I was making progress toward understanding my emotional eating, although I didn't realize it at the time. I was saying things I'd kept inside for so many years because I was feeling them -- at last.

I also found my way to counselors and therapists from time to time during especially painful periods when I'd get so depressed, and my desperate food cravings, binging, and weight gain would get so out of control, I didn't know if I could go on.

The counselors and therapists usually helped me, for the moment at least. And somehow I did go on. But I still didn't know why I couldn't stop binge-eating and why I kept making myself fat, over and over again.

Then one day several years ago, weighing well over 200 pounds, I again began working with a therapist. And this time something clicked. Slowly but surely, and then with increasing excitement, I began to "get it." And I started taking those first steps toward finally letting go of my need for emotional eating.

Of course, there were times when I felt scared about venturing outside my familiar ways of thinking about myself. And times when it took me a while to accept what I learned about what food and being fat meant in my life.

But I kept going. And to my surprise, I discovered that my emotional eating and my fat were actually choices I had made for myself. Yes, I'd needed to focus so much of my life on eating. And I'd needed to surround myself with something (my fat) that would protect me so I could get through life with less risk -- as I saw it for so long -- of being hurt by others.

What I just said seemed strange to me when I first began to realize it. After all, why would anyone choose to overeat and become fat? But the more I learned about what my emotional eating and being fat had been doing to help me get through the ups and downs of my long life, the more ways I saw to do those things for myself. At last. Slowly, I found I didn't need the food and my fat as much as I had before.

Armed with this new understanding, I began uncovering some of the actual benefits I'd been receiving from binge-eating and getting fat. The more I worked through my life of emotional eating from this point of view, the more I realized that the eating and being fat had taken the place of some important areas of living, areas I'd been unable to deal with in other ways.

I was taking some more small steps toward my goal.

For example, I came to realize that letting emotional-eating cravings steal my attention and make me fat took up the space in my life that meaningful relationships with other people, and even with myself, would have occupied. And slowly I began to want those relationships, and the richer, fuller life they represented, more than I wanted to eat.

I was on my way.

Now for a surprise, something else I learned that I never would have predicted:

It turned out that getting fat so I could "keep going" despite my fears and anxieties, although not the best way to cope with them, nevertheless was a way to cope with them, and that -- here's the surprise -- this was a good thing. It may sound strange at first, but it was true: Through all the long years of my life, I was actually taking care of myself with my emotional eating!

Now here comes the part that amazes me, the part that still gets me excited every day: When I realized that my emotional eating had been a way of taking care of myself -- of course, not the best way, but a way that kept me going despite a heavy load of uncertainties, fears, and anxieties -- for the first time ever I could see my life in a positive light instead of as a series of failures to lose weight and keep it off.

That felt good. And it was the start of feeling better and better.

Over time, I began to feel compassion, instead of dislike and rejection, for the woman I had been during all the times before when I was fat. I had struggled so hard with the constant burden of those awful cravings, made myself fat over and over. Yet, with the protective "support" of my lonely emotional eating and my fat, I'd gotten out there and worked and raised two daughters even though I'd been scared almost all the time (without realizing it then, of course). I felt love for that woman, me, who had needed food and fat so much yet had never stopped trying, bravely and with hope, to get emotional eating out of the way of her life.

As compassion for how I was then grew, I began feeling compassion, even love for myself as I was now. And that was when I began to unlock the reasons why my emotional eating had so dominated my life. My excitement grew as I came to understand that this time, if I decided to lose weight, I wouldn't do it only to gain it back again -- and end up hurting myself even more. This time, I'd have the strength and self-esteem I needed for my life inside. I wouldn't need fat on the outside anymore.

And losing my dependence on emotional eating brought me so much more than a healthier-weight body. Along the way, I discovered I'd replaced the "benefits" I'd received from emotional eating and being fat with real benefits, including real feelings and wonderful friends, that added up to being -- really alive.


How Does Emotional Eating Affect Your Life?

To learn more, ask yourself:

  • What does my Emotional Eating help me do that I want, or need, to do?
  • What does my Emotional Eating help me avoid doing that I should, or want to, do?
  • What does my Emotional Eating help me avoid doing that I don't want to do?
  • What am I doing now that I couldn't do without my Emotional Eating?

Show Sources

SOURCES: WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: "Healthy Eating." Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, nutrition consultant; author of Stealth Health: How To Sneak Nutrition Painlessly Into Your Diet. Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, nutrition consultant; author of Healthy Foods, Healthy Kids.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's alone and have not been influenced by WebMD.

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