Emotional Eating: How We Try To Regulate Our Emotions With Food And What We Should Do Instead

When we use food to regulate our emotions either by overeating or restricting food, we are trying to self-soothe but, in fact, we may get caught up into a vicious cycle and gravitate between emotional systems.
Cinzia Pezzolesi is a clinical psychologist and mindfulness teacher.
emotional eating at work
Cinzia Pezzolesi is a clinical psychologist and mindfulness teacher.

Sometimes we eat in response to a feeling or emotion instead of eating when physically hungry. In fact, the most powerful way to override the body signals of hunger and fullness is to eat in response to our social environment and/or our emotional states. This is what we call ‘emotional eating’.

Emotional Eating: How We Use Food To Manage Emotions

Our basic emotions, e.g. anger, anxiety, shame, joy, happiness, etc., are part of our genetic inheritance. We all have emotions that are ready to be triggered and accompanied by urges or the desire to act upon, them e.g. celebrate, fight, or flight. If we are not used to recognizing, understanding or coping with them, our emotions can be overwhelming.

Some people have learned to use food to deal with their emotions. Often, as children, we were given food when upset instead of talking about our emotions, and for some, the consequence is to shut down or distract themselves from any emotions later in life. Over time this strategy may have also become a way of living. There are, however, several other reasons why we eat emotionally, such as social pressure, unawareness (mindless eating) or trauma.

The 3 Different Emotional Systems

So, let’s have a deeper look; what is an emotion?

In very basic evolutionary terms, one way of seeing emotions is that they are clear signals that we are achieving, or not, our fundamental human goals, i.e. survival and reproduction. In practice, emotions help us to attach meaning to events and relationships and to recognize the things that we need. 

We are equipped with three different emotional systems (Gilbert, 2009) that have distinctive roles and help us manage our emotions on a daily basis.

  1. The Safety System is the most ancient system and concerned with keeping us safe and away from threats. It is also the most powerful emotional system and designed to activate our fight or flight response. When switched on, it brings about emotions like fear, anxiety, anger, and disgust. 
  2. The Drive System is the system that gives us vitality and makes us focus on achievements. It anticipates pleasure and excitement related to achievements and has evolved to motivate us to do things and actively engage in the world. The downside of this system is that it can go on overdrive, i.e. if we don’t obtain what we want, we may experience a sense of failure, regret, guilt or shame and we might get caught up in trying harder and harder to achieve a goal. 
  3. Our third emotional system is the Soothing System, which is related to soothing ourselves and to contentment arising by connecting to others (affiliation). It is developed in our childhood as we were soothed by our significant adults through love and affection. This system can regulate the feelings of distress and anxiety and generates by experiencing kindness, affection, and compassion from others and ourselves.

On a regular day, we move across these systems to regulate our actions. Also, if we think about our relationship with food, it is easy to see how we eat may interplay with these systems in an attempt to modulate them.

Switching Emotional Systems With Food

If we are under stress (Safety System) we can try to turn off such unwanted negative emotions by comfort-eating. We know from research that eating certain foods has the temporary capacity to bring the emotional homeostasis, e.g. to make us feel better. The Drive System gets activated when we foresee a potentially positive outcome, for example when we are about to start a new diet. The story goes as follows: as we may notice that we have lost a few pounds, the Drive System may anticipate how exciting it will be to be thinner and lead us to wrongly believe our life will be better that way. After a few weeks, however, we may also realize that being on a diet is not sustainable over time, and that food may be experienced as something good, bad or even dangerous. In turn, we might then feel disappointed, even angry with ourselves or become afraid of failing at losing weight.

Read more: Psychotherapist, author and Insight Timer publisher Andrea Wachter proposes and reflects on six ways to overcome the negative body image that has sickened our society.

To summarise, when we use food to regulate our emotions either by overeating or restricting food, we are trying to self-soothe but, in fact, we may get caught up into a vicious cycle and gravitate between the Safety and Drive System respectively which creates more negative emotions.

Overcome stress eating with the help of meditation for stress. Discover our free library.

What To Do Instead Of Emotional Eating

If I can’t eat or restrict my eating, what can I do with my overwhelming emotions then?

Although emotions can give us a hard time, it is important to always keep in mind that they are designed to send us a message. They are not our enemies and they should be listened to.

Imagine that you can take any emotion and sit it on your lap, talking to it instead of running away from it. Once we understand this and begin to work with feelings of anxiety, anger or loneliness we can learn to respond to such in ways that have fewer unwanted side-effects and that help us to manage life’s challenges.

We can also engage the Soothing System to answer our emotional needs more appropriately. Genuinely, a psychological need cannot be met by putting energy (food) in our bodies. To use a metaphor, it would be like taking paracetamol (food) when we have a fever (emotional pain). We may temporarily reduce the fever, but we are not addressing the underlying inflammation (need) causing the fever.

Read more: International known mindfulness expert Tara Brach talks about meeting underlying needs when dealing with strong emotions. Explore her mindfulness approach of how to let go of anger. 

We can, therefore, train our ability to soothe ourselves by practicing self-compassion and self-kindness. Developing a gentle and kind inner voice, whenever we notice that we are struggling with our emotions or that we have dealt with stress or pain by overeating or undereating, has the potential to heal our relationship with food. Finding the right words that work for you is a lovely self-discovery journey; I  like to remind myself  ‘I am here for you. And I love you’.

Meditation To Stop Emotional Eating

Psychologist and mindfulness teacher Cinzia Pezzolesi offers free guided meditations to practice mindful instead of emotional eating:

  1. Mindful Eating: Forgiveness For The Body Cinzia Pezzolesi 12:37
  2. Mindful Eating: Hunger Awareness Cinzia Pezzolesi 4:35
  3. Fullness Check-In Cinzia Pezzolesi 4:32

Discover our free library of guided meditations for mindful eating and develop a new conscious relationship to food.

Meditation. Free.