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T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies
Do You Eat Your Emotions? How to Help With Binge Eating

I am an emotional eater. I eat because I’m stressed, I eat because I’m sad, I eat because I’m bored, and sometimes I eat because I’m happy. My emotional eating manifests itself in the form of binge eating, and for me binge eating is the consuming of an abnormally large quantity of food in a short period of time.

When I am on a “binge” as I call it, I eat beyond satiety to sickness. I have eaten, more than once, a dozen donuts in less than 10 minutes. I have eaten, more than once, a large pizza, a 2-liter bottle of diet cola, and a veggie sub in one sitting. And I have eaten until I am sick to my stomach, many, many times.

I know now that my eating patterns are emotionally determined, but that realization came to me only in the past few years.

I believe I first became an emotional eater when my parents got divorced in 1967. I remember the day in first grade when my grandmother came to my school in her 1963 black Cadillac and took me to her home, where I lived for almost a year. She didn’t say anything about my parent’s divorce—one day I lived with my Mom and Dad, and my brothers, and the next day, I lived with my mom, brothers and my grandparents. Looking back, I believe my emotional eating started while I was living at my grandmother’s house. Sitting at the breakfast table one morning eating eggs for breakfast my grandfather yelled at me about shoving a large bite of egg down my throat, and at many meals after that, he would tell me to eat more slowly. A year later, at the age of eight, our pediatrician put my brother and I on our first diet. That restrictive diet was the beginning of the binging and starving I engaged in for the next 40 plus years, compounding my emotional eating with abnormal hunger. You can probably imagine the emotional swings of an eight-year-old emotional eater, coupled with the mental anguish of a starvation/binger dieter.

After 40 plus years of living this way, and after having tried every diet on the planet (I once tried a vegan version of the Atkins Diet), and getting to a place where my weight was out of control (at 500 pounds), I adopted the plant-based diet. I changed my relationship with food, stopped starving myself, made healthier choices, began exercising on a regular basis, and lost over 200 pounds. 200 pounds that I’ve kept off for over 7 years. But I hit a plateau. I stopped losing weight. And let me say here, that hitting a plateau is not like running into a wall that you did not see coming. It was more like coming onto a traffic jam–all of a sudden traffic gets heavy, and comes to a stand-still. It moves forward in starts and stops. You get encouraged when you reach a certain speed, thinking that the traffic jam may be over, but then it stops again, and you wait. And of course that traffic jam causes an emotional reaction, which, for someone like me, leads to emotional eating. The cycle becomes very self-destructive in an unending traffic jam where you are constantly trying to determine whether you should stay on the route, or get off and find another way to move forward. In my traffic jam of eating, I would be okay for a short period of time, lose 40-50 pounds (traffic moves forward a little), and then hit another jam, and gain all the weight back.

After years of gaining and losing weight, and trying, failing, and then trying again, to lose weight, to stay on track, I knew that I needed help. It was my business partner Dr. Pam Popper who sat me down one day and said you’ve got to deal with the elephant in the room (my words not hers). She said what I knew, that I was unhappy and that I had to stop dealing with my unhappiness by drowning it in food. It was the first time I really equated my emotional eating with my success or failure in dieting. I spent many years blaming the yo-yo diet as a fact of nature. Her advice rang true and I decided to do just that. I also decided to take the pressure off of myself, and to quit thinking that I had to figure it all out in one day. I did not get to where I am in a day or a week or a month, and I wouldn’t figure it all out that quickly either.

Taking the pressure off of myself, deciding that I can’t do it all today, has been liberating. It’s been like deciding to get off the freeway and take a more scenic view, to relax and let common sense have a chance in my life. It’s not the same as quitting, as not trying at all. Instead, it is the opportunity I’ve needed to put a real plan into action. To manage the rest of my life, and to find a different response to all of the emotional bumps in the road.

I’ve done some good things for myself. I have started the hard work of changing my emotional relationship with food. And while I do that, I’ve put a plan into action to help reduce my compulsion to binge eat. I share them here along with my story as a way of helping others who, like me know how to eat, who know that a whole food, low fat, plant-based diet is the right diet for humans, but who, like me, have an unproductive relationship with food.

  1. I look for and learn to identify emotional triggers, times when I am more likely to engage in emotional eating. Being able to identify those triggers allows me to stop and take a breath, and to think of a plan of action to avoid the binge.
  2. I plan my meals and never let myself go too long without eating. Excessive hunger triggers binge eating in the same way that my emotions do.
  3. I stay hydrated.
  4. I get plenty of sleep. People who do not get enough sleep tend to eat more than those that do.
  5. I exercise regularly—helps to reduce stress, and elevates my mood.
  6. I don’t let myself isolate socially, especially when I am bored. Which also means for me that I let my friends know that I am an emotional eater and that I need them to be aware so that I have some kind of touchstone. By letting my friends and family know that I am working through this issue gives me allies who can and do want to help by being there, and by helping me to see what’s going on when I am too involved in my own stress to see for myself.
  7. I have a plan for boredom—sometimes I leave the house and go to a movie or to the gym, or to a friend’s house, because boredom is one of my biggest eating triggers. Boredom allows me to sit and stew in my emotions and that usually has negative consequences—for me binge eating.
  8. I slowly unravel the emotions that for so long I have shoved down my throat with food. Taking my time to make some decisions about how I want to live my life, and deciding that while I can not change the past, I can stop living there.
  9. Helping others helps me. It makes me be present and to want to be an example to others.

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