How to Stop Emotional Eating and Find Recovery

Emotional eating happens when you use food to cope with the stress and pain of life.

It's a way to avoid difficult feelings or seek comfort. Most sufferers are women but according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders 10-15% are men though they're far less likely to seek treatment.

You don't have to suffer in silence alone. There is effective treatment for eating disorders. This blog talks about why compulsive overeaters can't stop eating and where you can seek help.

Compulsive Overeating Starts:

  • In early childhood or adolescence

  • After a traumatic or life changing event

  • Often gets worse after being sober

  • As a reaction to abuse, neglect or abandonment

  • When overeating is role-modeled or food is used as a source of comfort

Some alcoholics crave sugar in sobriety because alcohol has a high sugar content. When someone gets sober, eating sugar feels comforting but can get out of control quickly. Giving up smoking can also trigger eating problems. Because food is normalized as a source of comfort, it’s an easy go-to- habit.

Cultural Messages About Food

There are lots of cultural messages around food that contribute to eating problems. Food becomes a source of love and nurturing when needs aren’t met. Sometimes, kids are given food to be quiet so they learn to stuff their feelings instead of learning how to voice them.

If children don't get the emotional support they need, food can become an easy way to cope. It's cheap and readily  available. Often it's the first addiction to develop because food is so accessible to kids.

Common Reasons to Overeat:

  • The need for comfort

  • To escape painful or uncomfortable feelings

  • Fear of success, self-sabotage

  • Feeling alone, different than others

  • History of trauma or alcoholism in the family

  • A lack of support with family or friends

  • Difficulty coping with stress

Using food to escape is similar to alcoholism. Both addictions take over your life and cause a variety of problems. Depression, low self-esteem, anxiety and social isolation are common struggles for the overeater. 

Compulsively overeating is much harder because eating isn't optional. You can't completely abstinent from it. It's also a part of every single social event and family tradition. You need to eat to live but compulsive overeaters live to eat.

The Shame of Overeating

There is a deep sense of shame the accompanies over-eating. Drinking like one of the boys is encouraged, but binge-eating and gaining weight get judged. Self-esteem and body image suffer and create an unhealthy desire to isolate. Over time depression sets in. Some overeaters stay home because it’s easier than facing the harsh ridicule of strangers.

The daily pressures to eat are intense. At social events, there's tons of food. Family encourages you to eat so you don’t offend the cook. Kids are given sugar to “be good" or to “be quiet” which sends the wrong message.

If you don't have a weight problem, it can be even harder to seek help. You fear that no one will believe you or even laugh if you admit your struggle with food.

Tips for emotional eating and compulsive overeating

Tips for emotional eating and compulsive overeating

But your weight is not the determining factor in food addiction. If you can't stop eating compulsively or you have compulsive eating behaviors, it's time to seek help.

How to Start Recovery

Overeaters Anonymous is a free, 12 step program that teaches you how to get abstinent from food addiction. Abstinence is defined as the act of compulsive food behaviors - including but not limited to:

  • Eating large quantities of food (binge-eating)

  • Using laxatives, vomiting or compulsive exercise to “get rid of excess food.”

  • Restricting food intake

  • Obsessively counting calories and weighing themselves

  • Attempts at starvation ( anorexia )

Recovery starts when you admit your powerlessness over food.

How does it work? Once you find the courage to go to a meeting, you’ll realize that you're NOT ALONE anymore. Other people eat compulsively just like you.

If you're not familiar with 12 step programs, read my article Busting Through The Myths of 12 Step Programs. 

Tools to Help You Stop Overeating

  • Find a buddy for mutual support and encouragement.

  • Pay attention to what's bothering you before you eat.

  • Find healthy treats to avoid feeling deprived.

  • Set realistic expectations for healthy eating.

  • Try Overeaters Anonymous meetings for online, phone or in person meetings.

  • Get a sponsor in OA that has what you want.

  • Listen to podcasts for additional support on Overeaters Anonymous Virtual Speakers.

With the right support, you can recover from food addiction. Trying to do it alone only increases the shame that keeps you isolated. The 12 steps can walk you through what it takes to recover one day at a time. Try it, it can change your life if you let it.

I’ve created a private resource library including 20 Ways to Detach with Love and 15 Steps to Setting Healthy Boundaries and more to help you create amazing relationships. 

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