Earlier this month, John Briffa wrote an interesting post on his blog: Is ‘emotional eating’ always due to emotions?
In my experience, many individuals who believe they have an ‘emotional eating’ problem appear to have nothing of the sort. How do I know this? Because, I’ve seen time and again that when an ‘emotional’ eater eats properly, and in particular stabilise their blood sugar level, their ‘emotional ‘eating’ just disappears. In many individuals, what appears to be a psychological issue is, in reality, physiological in nature.
Well, I’d argue, as I did in Dr. Briffa’s comments, that all “emotional” eating is essentially physiological!
Now wait, hear me out. Are emotions involved in overeating? Absolutely. But my argument is that you can’t really separate stressful emotions from the physiological — and that has implications for how to deal with it.
Interestingly, Chris Kresser touches on this on his recent podcast about the gut-brain axis, where he mentions that in Chinese medicine, they take a systems approach that doesn’t differentiate between emotion, psychology & physiology:
The truth is you cannot talk about emotion without talking about physiology and you can’t talk about physiology without talking about emotion. They’re not connected; they’re just the same system.
Appetite vs hunger
One thing that I think is important when considering overeating is to differentiate between appetite and hunger. Wikipedia says that appetite is the “desire to eat food, felt as hunger.”
Well, I beg to differ. Or at least, I think it’s worth looking at this slightly differently. I agree that appetite is a desire to eat food (sometimes great quantities of food), but this is not necessarily connected to the physical sensations of hunger in the gut.
This is overly simplistic, but I like to think that appetite is the brain telling you to eat, hunger is the stomach. And this would be fine if the brain only drove you to eat when you actually needed food. Aye, there’s the rub!
Hopefully you know what real stomach hunger feels like. Maybe your stomach will feel empty or it might even growl at you. But if you’re anything like me, you can often feel the desire/urge/craving to eat well before this happens. I don’t think it is a coincidence that, between industrial food and our stressful environments, we’re eating a lot more food, a lot more frequently than our bodies need. I think this is appetite run amok.
As Dr. Briffa suggests, one of the ways your brain can urge you to eat is when your blood sugar gets low. But that’s not the only way your brain can be involved in urges to eat.
If you haven’t, I strongly urge you to watch Gabor Mate’s video Brain Development & Addiction. He lays out four pathways to addiction — and whether or not you buy the idea of “food addiction” — it’s easy to see how there are different mechanisms that can be at play as far as the brain and appetite (including one I find very compelling, the endocannabinoid system … see the section re inflammation and the munchies).
Key takeaway: it’s not “emotional” eating if the foods you eat are messing with your brain!
Pavlov’s dog & your lizard brain
Perhaps you’ve gotten this far, but you’re still convinced you overeat for emotional reasons. Well, yes, you’re may well be responding to an emotional trigger (your spouse yelled at you, you got cut off in traffic, or the scale went up instead of down).
But again, I would suggest that you don’t have psychology without physiology … and like Pavlov’s famous experiment, what may be at work here is classical conditioning: over time, perhaps you’ve conditioned yourself to use food to manage stress — because it works!
So the bad news for emotional overeaters is that it’s likely that part of your brain has learned that the way to deal with some troubling emotion is with food, and as Seth Godin says in Linchpin, it always wins in a fight (emphasis mine):
The first part of our brain, the part that shows up first in the womb, the part that was there a million years ago — that’s our lizard brain. The lizard brain is in charge of fight or flight, of anger, and of survival. That’s all we used to need, and even now, when there’s an emergency, the lizard brain is still in charge. …
The lizard brain is here to keep you alive; the rest of your brain merely makes you a happy, successful, connected member of society.
So the two parts duke it out. And when put on the alert, the lizard brain wins, every time, unless you establish new habits and better patterns — patterns that keep the lizard at bay.
The good news, I think, is that just as we can learn a behavior, we can ‘unlearn’ it. Or as Godin says, “create an environment where the lizard snoozes.”
Me, I’ve been spending the last several months trying to do just that.
In this respect, I think Dr. Briffa is spot on. If you are an overeater, it’s essential to eat a diet that 1) stabilizes blood sugar and 2) also supplies essential nutrients (being obese & malnourished are not mutually exclusive).
I like the Jaminets’ Perfect Health Diet, but any diet that eliminates or at least reduces modern foods (especially added sugars, refined grains, and vegetable oils) and incorporates healthful whole foods is a good start.
I also think that including healthy fats is critical, for both satiety and nutrition. I eat pastured eggs, raw butter and braunschweiger made from grass-fed cow liver in order to get important nutrients like choline, K2 and vitamin A.
Your mileage may vary, but I find that when I’m eating a healthy, “clean” diet, I don’t feel the urge to overeat on a daily — or even weekly — basis. And the garden variety triggers (like coworkers bringing in goodies) aren’t a problem at all. So for me, healthy eating is the foundation.
Alas, if only a healthy diet was enough! But if you’re like me, once you get over the initial hurdle, you’ll be rolling along fine, maybe for weeks or months. And then, boom. Life happens.
I went thru this twice last year, once after Christmas and once after Easter (long story about holidays with family saved for another time!). Alas, the after Easter roller coaster lasted about six months — and I gained back all the weight I’d lost. So when I got back on track this past fall, I knew I needed to add something more to my plan than just a healthy diet.
Taming my lizard brain. Now here’s the realization I finally had, months after the Easter relapse — one that my well-meaning therapists, who over the years tried and tried to get me to “just sit with” my feelings never suggested to me — that the key was to work on dealing with triggers well before they happened.
For me, this has meant neurofeedback — essentially brain-based biofeedback. I first read about this in Nora Gedgaudas’ book Primal Body, Primal Mind. A few Google searches later, I learned that neurofeedback has been researched as a treatment for addiction. As I believe that much of the physiology of overeating (mine anyways) is based in addiction-related pathways, I thought this might be the key to real freedom from overeating for me.
Now, 50 sessions of neurofeedback later, I am cautiously optimistic. It’s been almost surreal, because although I am still “triggered” occasionally (e.g., some situation will push an old childhood button), it happens so infrequently that I find I actually can sit with it when it comes up — or be able to consciously take an action that will relieve it in a healthier way.
If that doesn’t work (sigh, there was the take out from Jerry’s after a ridiculous traffic jam on I95 heading back to DC one weekend), I have found it easier to get back on track right away.
The downside. But while I think neurofeedback rocks (as does Bulletproof Exec’s Dave Asprey), it’s not particularly accessible for most, as health insurance typically doesn’t cover it. [As an aside, if you have the $$, I think it's worth it ... I spent far, far less on neurofeedback than I did on years and years of therapy with IMO much better results.]
However, I’ve also been incorporating other meditation-related practices into my efforts that are more affordable. And for someone whose issues aren’t as severe as mine, these may work really well.
Of course, a healthy diet and stress management may not be enough for everyone (e.g., when emotional/compulsive overeating is connected to relationship problems or grief or other issues that would benefit from another type of support).
But it might be worth an experiment. Take a couple of weeks — or better, 30 days — and follow both a clean eating program *and* some type of meditation practice (and from my perspective “modern” and/or “assisted” meditation is fine) and see how your overeating and/or cravings respond.
We’re all different, so for some, this may work great. For others, it may not be enough. Michael Prager lays out a compelling story as a man who has been very successful following a 12-step approach, and he has a great resources page. Also check out Green Mountain’s article on emotions and food and Something Fishy’s website and forums.
As someone who could be a poster child for BED, I wrote this simply because I think it’s worth considering that addressing the physiological first may be a good strategy for what appears to be primarily psychological. But we’re all different, and what’s important is what works for you!