The events, or non-events, of recent times – lockdown, social fracture and disconnection, multi-faceted grief and loss, even boredom – have contributed to a change in how many of us engage with food. It’s no surprise, then, that we’ve seen a rise in “emotional eating”.
Eating when we’re not physically hungry occurs in response to other drivers. These may be “head hunger” – when cues such as adverts or smells draw us to food, or when we are bored and seeking mental stimulation – or “heart hunger” – when we eat for emotional reasons.
Although long held to be eating in response to negative emotions – to numb or soothe mental discomfort – “emotional eating” can also occur in happier settings, for example celebrations or simply getting together with friends and enjoying the community of food when we’re not really physically hungry.
Generally considered to be more benign than its negative counterpart, eating for happier reasons may be explored in relation to impact of over-eating on weight- or other related health risks. Otherwise it’s left to play its part in a “normal” way of eating where food is one type of “social glue”. Being partial to social or celebratory sharing of food, I have no problem with that.
I don’t even have an issue with eating for negative emotional reasons: acceptance of it as a coping technique, albeit perhaps not the best we can choose, is a key first step in being able to explore it from a point of curious non-judgement, to understand it and perhaps begin to create other, more health-supportive, ways to manage uncomfortable emotions.
Where “emotional eating” becomes a concern is when eating becomes uncontrolled or when the uncomfortable feelings that have been temporarily soothed by food return, shortly after eating, plaguing our minds with guilt, shame and other intrusive self-talk that perpetuates our misery.
As one client of mine said:
“I eat my feelings. And that’s fine. Until it’s not.”
So, what do we do when it stops being fine? When we realise that uncontrolled eating of delicious, ultra-processed, high-fat and high-sugar foods is contributing to our weight-related or other health concerns, or when the guilt, shame or disgust we feel afterwards consumes our mind.
We explore, we build our understanding of what’s going on, then we create strategies and tools to help break the pattern of
feel bad → eat, eat, eat → feel worse.
Once the pattern has been acknowledged – we can see it, accept it, and recognise that it’s probably not serving us well, we can explore the reasons behind it.
Emotionally driven eating may be embedded in our automatic coping behaviours, those habits that may have developed to help us cope with perceived threat. Such behaviours may be encouraged by our chimp/monkey brain, an idea put forward by Steve Peters in his book, “The Chimp Paradox”. The chimp in our brain concerns themselves solely with keeping us safe; behaviours created there may, at some time, have been very effective at defusing an uncomfortable feeling or situation. As a result, we repeat them and reinforce the learning whenever we need to feel protected or safe. They may have been acceptable at that time but haven’t been updated over time and now they’re causing us a problem.
When I work with a client who wants to understand and maybe change their eating, we have to talk about ERIC.
This isn’t some sort of zoology lesson, ERIC is merely a great name for the chimp in our mind, our monkey brain. It’s also an introduction to a central principle of eating behaviour: why we eat when not physically hungry.
ERIC is an acronym, standing for:
Once we’ve introduced ERIC into our conversations, we can explore the presence of emotions in our food choices and eating behaviours. From here, we can springboard into the next step: curiously asking ourselves at every eating episode, “what am I feeling in this present moment?”
We try to understand what it is that ERIC is trying to tell us.
And that opens the door to a deeper understanding, and the possibility of creating other ways to calm ERIC and show him that we’ve got this.
Curious about ERIC? Want to learn more? Let’s chat.