The year 2012 was the filling in a grief sandwich for me: one beloved grandmother died the year before and the other the year after. I worked full time at a retirement center, where I grew deeply attached to the seniors. I fell apart each time I heard news of another resident’s physical ailment, mental decline, or death. To add to that, an unhealthy relationship with my boyfriend and the tumultuous breakup that followed left me further adrift.
Through all my sadness, I found solace in food. I dove into the biggest serving size of whatever comfort food was most readily available. I bought boxes of mac and cheese, fully intent on eating the entire box in one sitting. Whatever I could stuff myself with—pints of ice cream, bagels, TV dinners, a large pizza, boxes of cookies, bottles of wine—I would.
Everything in my life hurt, but stuffing myself offered release: I got so full that I felt physically sick. I could concentrate on that rather than thinking about everything else. Food was my numbing agent, my drug, my ecstatic feeling of nothingness when everything else felt painful.
Every time I was alone, I ate. I ate bags of chips in the car. I excused myself from conversations to eat a candy bar in the bathroom. I was like a drug addict: shaking, panicked, guilty. Binges took me outside of my body; I’d watch myself like I was viewing a movie, horrified yet detached.
I had a problem, and I knew the only way I’d receive help was to ask for it. As a deeply private person whose worst fear was burdening others, this was no easy task. But I had reached a point beyond desperation. So I Googled it: “emotional eating.” I checked out several therapists’ websites and found one who looked promising. I took a deep breath, drafted an email, and pressed the send button before I could give it another thought.
It was the best decision I’d ever make, but at the time I didn’t know that. I had no way of knowing then just how many lessons I’d learn.
01. Saying ‘I have a problem’ out loud is the hardest—yet most essential—part of the process.
The American Psychological Association reports that 43 percent of American women surveyed “have overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods” because of stress. “Women of every age are more likely than their male counterparts to report unhealthy eating behaviors as a result of stress.”
It’s difficult to catch because emotional eating (aka binge eating or compulsive eating) thrives on secrecy. Most emotional eaters, myself included, are fully capable of eating normal meals in the company of others. It’s when we’re alone that all hell breaks loose. It tends to be an invisible problem: No one would guess I struggled with it if I didn’t say so, which amplifies the shame and guilt.
Walking into my therapist’s office, sitting across from her, and telling her what I’d been doing was as terrifying as I expected. But it was also more empowering than I could have guessed. By simply saying the words out loud, I already felt stronger. Sharing our personal struggles with someone we trust is the first step in overcoming emotional eating.
02. Imbalanced eating prevents us from recognizing healthy (and real) patterns of hunger.
Talking to my therapist made me realize that one of the big reasons why I binged at night was that I wasn’t eating nearly enough during the day. The APA survey states, “Thirty-six percent of women report skipping a meal due to stress.” What’s more, “Forty-one percent of adults who report skipping a meal due to stress report doing it weekly or more.” It’s easy to see how these bad habits instigate a cycle of emotional eating.
I regularly skipped breakfast. I treated black coffee as a snack. We received free lunches at work, which was great—except I was vegetarian. So I often skipped the main course, convinced that side dishes and salad would tide me over until dinner. Without realizing it, I was basically starving myself. This made my nighttime binges inevitable.
Before I beat myself up for polishing off a huge sandwich, I had to think about what I ate earlier that day. When was my last meal? If it was more than four hours ago, that’s too long. Our bodies need fuel. Instead of questioning or berating myself for being legitimately hungry, I learned to eat balanced meals and snacks every two to three hours to keep blood sugar levels in check and hunger levels balanced.
03. You better sit down for this: Eating at a table changes everything.
Oh, the places I stuffed myself with food: in my car, on my couch, standing outside the refrigerator with the door wide open, hunched over my kitchen sink. On especially exhausted days, I ate on the floor. And I always had my laptop next to me, watching a show while I grazed. Or I’d flip through a magazine or read a book—anything to avoid noticing the food I was inhaling in front of me.
My therapist offered a new choice: I could eat anything I wanted but only if I ate sitting down at a table without distractions. Instead of pulling a TV dinner out of the microwave and using a potholder as a tray while eating on the couch, I started fixing real food, which I put on real plates and set at a real table. I removed the clutter, lit candles, played soft music, sat down, and enjoyed my meal. I noticed the different aromas and textures. I checked in with my body, registering how full I felt. I lingered for twenty minutes, which in the beginning felt unbearable.
Learning to be mindful of how I ate was one of the hardest parts of the process, but it transformed the way I view food. Food is now something to be appreciated and savored, not shoved down.
04. Food isn’t good. Food isn’t bad. Food is food.
Imagine if someone told you it was OK to eat cookie dough every meal for the rest of your life. That’s exactly what my therapist told me: I was allowed to eat whatever I wanted. No more forbidden foods. No more thoughts of, “Oh, I really shouldn’t have that,” or “I don’t deserve that.” Whatever I wanted, I could have. It didn’t matter how many calories, how junky, or how previously off-limits. It mattered that I gave my body what it craved. I began to see how equating food with moral reasoning is faulty logic.
Binges are almost always the result of deprivation. We don’t allow ourselves to have something, we feel like we’re going crazy, and then we overcompensate. We politely say “no, thanks” to a piece of cake at the office birthday party, only to spend the rest of the day thinking about it and then going home and eating ice cream. And cookies. Still unsatisfied, we inevitably make a late-night trip to buy cake.
Telling myself it was OK to eat food (any food, all food, even “bad” food) was terrifying at first. How would I stop once I allowed myself to start? Would I fall into a tub of ice cream and never find my way out?
But here’s the thing about learning to trust yourself: Your body is a smart machine. Your body may want cookie dough now, but your body won’t want cookie dough for life. Some days your body will want a salad or yogurt. And when it does, you can give your body what it needs without shaming or judging yourself in the process.
05. Emotional eating is an ongoing struggle.
You know how alcoholics and drug addicts describe themselves as “recovering” instead of “recovered”? It’s the same for food addicts. I’ve cultivated healthy habits over the past few years, and my binges are now few and far between. But they’re always there, lurking under the surface. Every now and then, I give in. When I do, I take stock of what happened and try to learn from it.
Binges often occur when I let myself get burned out. But I learned about self-care in therapy; realizing its value had never occurred to me prior. By learning to prioritize myself, I eliminated situations that would have left me resentful, stressed, and searching for food.
Now, when I feel that panicked, buzzing, must-stuff-my-face-right-now feeling, I sit down and take a few deep breaths. I reflect on what’s really bothering me and see if I can find a solution. I exercise. I write. I plan meals I’m excited to eat. And if after all this, I still eat too much food, I forgive myself. Then I drink water, ensure my next meal is a healthy one, and I start again.
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