Why Emotional Eating is B.S.

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For my girls out there that are reading this, I wanted to address a topic that like running, has been addressed countless times, yet, we are still struggling with, and that is, emotional eating.

Now I find the term “emotional eating” a little redundant, because eating is inherently, emotional to begin with, as we talked about this topic a little in the Food, Sex and Pleasure article.  Our intentions for eating, our decisions about what we choose to eat, how to eat, and how much to eat are all tied to our emotions.

For instance, eating a meal too high in carbohydrates can cause a subsequent drop in blood sugar a couple hours later, which, can make us feel tired, lethargic, anxious and even depressed.  Skipping meals can have a similar effect.

On the flipside, eating a meal that is best suited for our metabolism can leave us feeling happy, healthy and satisfied.

So in a sense, all eating is emotional.

Reactive Eating

Instead of using the term “emotional eating” I feel the term “reactive eating” is more suited.  And it is the reactive eating that we can tend to fall prey to and which causes us to fall of the wagon and get off track.

To give you a real world example, I take a post from one of my LBC girls:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned- I’m an emotional eater. Especially in stress and distress. At these times I’m usually tired, down and the will power is weak- and the cravings for junk is high. Logically I know a pint of Ben and Jerry’s won’t help, but the “effit” response is strong. Wondering if any of you have any strategies that have helped you?

She refers to herself as an “emotional” eater, but what she is really referring to is “reactive eating”.

To understand this concept better, look at the actual word reactive a bit closer:


adj rē-ˈak-tiv

Definition of REACTIVE

1a : of, relating to, or marked by reaction <reactive symptoms> <a reactive process>

b : capable of reacting chemically <highly reactive materials>

2a : readily responsive to a stimulus <the skin of the geriatric is less reactive than that of younger persons—Louis Tuft>

b : occurring as a result of stress or emotional upset especially from factors outside the organism <reactive depression>

We see that one of the definitions states that “reactive” occurs as a result of stress or emotional upset especially from factors outside the organism.

And this is precisely what I want to discuss today so that we can help this client understand exactly what is going on.

Defining Reactive Eating

By using the definition above as a backbone, we can suggest that reactive eating is the act of choosing less than optimal food choices as the result of stress or emotional upset typically caused by external factors.

In other words, reactive eating is going home and ordering pizza and eating a pint of ice cream after a shitty day at work because your boss is an asshole.

In the client’s post she even defines the term herself by stating that her “emotional” eating stems from times of stress or distress.  Meaning, it was the presence of the stress that directly triggered her case of the “effits”, as she put it.  Her cravings for the Ben and Jerry’s were a reaction from a stressor.  In this case, it makes more sense to call her response reactive eating not emotional eating.

Again, as we said, all eating is inherently emotional.

A Slight Change in Language Changes Everything

If we change the verbiage from emotional to reactive eating we accomplish a couple things:

  1. We begin to positively associate emotions with eating, and we begin to be OK with the fact that eating is emotional.  Eating should be enjoyed.  Our family, traditions, and cultures have all been built upon the act of enjoying food with loved ones.  I feel it is time to bring this back and start to re-embrace that food is and should be considered emotional to begin with.
  2. By changing the word emotional to reactive, we set a clearer definition of what we previously considered “emotional eating”, which in most cases involves binge eating, excess alcohol intake, and the consumption of sweet fatty foods as a result of some external stress.

By using the word reactive we understand that the subsequent eating that follows an emotional or stressful event is a reaction, and like Pavlov’s dog, most reactions can be trained, which means that they can be untrained. 

The untraining portion is a journey and process in and of itself, and overtime, through self-reflection and some re-wiring, can be accomplished.  The first step though to preventing reactive eating is to understand what are your triggers.

3 Common Triggers That Cause Reactive Eating

The actual thing that causes the stress which leads to reactive eating can be referred to as a “trigger”.  In the case above, our friend did not specify the trigger in her question but I can almost guarantee that is coming from one of the following areas of her life:

  1. Work or career
  2. Finances
  3. Relationship

Now this is not to say that these are the only emotional triggers that cause reactive eating.  But from my experience in my practice these are the 3 biggies.  And they all are tied to our 1st, 2nd and 3rd chakras.  So if you’re looking for help in these areas and would like to explore devling into this check out the articles linked below:

1st Chakra Healing

2nd Chakra Healing

3rd Chakra Healing

Why Knowing Your Triggers Helps Prevent Reactive Eating

The difference between knowing your triggers and not knowing your triggers is like the difference Indiana Jones had with his father’s notebook in the Last Crusade.

In the scene where he has to maneuver his way through a booby-trapped maze to make it to the Holy Grail, Indiana uses his father’s notebook to help decipher the riddles which allow him to make it through unharmed.

The other guy without the book?  Well, he loses his head in the process, and metaphorically, if you don’t have your own notebook to decipher your own mazes, you will figuratively, lose your head as well.

By identifying what your triggers are, you start to develop a deeper understanding of your emotional state and what sets you off.  Sometimes we don’t even realize what is triggering us because our reactions have been so engrained, they’ve become second-nature much like a knee-jerk test at the doctors.

When we can identify our triggers, like the people, places, or situations that set off reactive eating, we can then recognize when they are imminent and take positive steps to dealing with it proactively rather than reactively.  So to start we must figure out what are your triggers.

How To Identify Your Reactive Eating Triggers

This is a very simple process which requires a little bit of detective work on your end, and although it is simple, can be emotionally and mentally challenging.

Here’s what you do:

  1. Away from work and outside distractions, find a space and a time that you can dedicate to yourself.  On a sheet of paper write down all of the instances off the top of your head that you had an “emotional” eating binge.  Look back at this past week, look back at the past month, year, etc.  Write these instances down.  There’s no right or wrong answer, just times that you felt like you ate as a reaction to stress.
  2. Write down all the commonalities you are finding with each event.  If you listed 3 major events from #1 that all revolved around an argument with your boyfriend/spouse/girlfriend, take note of that.

Some things to look for are:

  • Where you were right beforehand
  • Where you were during your reactive eating
  • Who you were with beforehand
  • Who you were with during your reactive eating
  • What time of day was it
  • What season was it
  • Where were you in your cycle
  • How much sleep did you get the night before
  • How much stress you have been experiencing
  • Any changes in family, social, or work structure

These are just some ideas to get you started.  In Step 2 your goal here is to find any and all common factors so that you can identify your triggers.  Once you have done this exercise, you should have gained a clearer idea of the people, places and situations that cause your reactive eating.

Like Indiana Jones and his notebook, having your own notebook of triggers will help you navigate stress-full times and learn to deal with them proactively rather than reactively.

Why Emotional Eating Really is B.S.

All eating is by nature, emotional.  So to use the term “emotional eating” is not only redundant, but assumes that there is a “non-emotional” form of eating as well.  Non-emotional eating just does not exist.  Food, regardless of how you eat it, slice it, chew it, bake it, fry it, or share it, is emotional.  Food naturally has an affect on you emotionally as it does physically, which is why “emotional eating” is B.S.

What we are struggling with is “reactive eating”.  And as the definition of reactive states, it is a result of stress or emotional upset especially from factors outside the organism.  Meaning, most of your reactive eating is going to be from a person, place or thing that triggers a stress and emotional response.

Rather than blindly make your way through a booby-trapped maze of junk food, start to compile your own notebook of triggers that can help you avoid falling prey to reactive eating.  Like Indy with his father’s notebook, you’ll learn how to duck, dodge, maneuver, and side-step your way around a reactive eating binge.

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