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How to Decode Emotional Eating

By Michelle May, M.D.

In my last video, Why do we turn to food?, I shared a little bit about my long struggle with eating. I asked you to think about why you eat, when you eat, and what you eat so we could do a little more work in this video to help you decode emotional eating. Thank you for all of your comments and insights!

Bottom line: When a craving doesn’t come from hunger, eating can never satisfy it. However, your emotions can give you clues about how to meet your true needs.

Eating out of habit or for emotional reasons creates a very predictable pattern that I call the Overeating Cycle:

Am-I-Hungry-Overeating-Cycle

Sometimes, figuring out why you eat is the easy part. The harder part is figuring out what to do about it!

Many of you posted about emotional eating. Use the fill-in-the-blank script I shared with you in the video to decode you emotions: Think about a situation when you are likely to overeat. Identify the emotion(s) you typically experience in that situation, then think about what information that emotion is telling you about your underlying need(s). Now, what is one step you can take to meet that need more effectively than eating?

Please post your insights and questions in the comments section. I’ll check in to see if anyone needs any help figuring it out! (Don’t be concerned if your comment doesn’t show up right away. We have to approve them to prevent spam.)

In my next video, I’m going to talk about an important but hidden causes of emotional eating.

(Need help? Check out our vibrant Mindful Eating Support Community!)

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About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

32 Comments

  1. Cindy Ray says:

    One situation I came up with right away was when I am tired, I feel like hunting for something to eat. I need to rest a while. Certainly, it is currently a dilemma because I am trying to not nap because they suggested that at the sleep center, though I am not sure it makes any difference. I probably need to rest. So I need to rest, whether that is just sitting and being quiet, not worrying if I doze and take a little power nap, or I need to lie down and actually plan on a little, or maybe not so little nap.

    • Good Cindy! Food will give you a temporary “pick me up” but it is always followed by a “let me down” so you’ll feel even more tired! Taking a rest is great way to meet that need. Also, think about what else might give you energy (besides caffeine!): Aromatherapy? A brisk walk? A great conversation… You get the idea.

      It is also great that you are working on the underlying cause of feeling tired during the day by consulting with the sleep center. Ultimately, that seems like that will give you the best long term results.

  2. Jean c says:

    When I feel overwhelmed or bored, as in too many things to accomplish at home
    I Feel hopeless & attempt to avoid the overwhelming situation by eating
    I need structure & organization to get back on track
    I will take a walk & when I return, set a timer & accomplish one small task. After the timer rings, I will accomplish another task if I feel like it. At the end of the day I will make a list of 3 things I want to accomplish the next day.
    This has been more difficult since I recently retired working in a busy hospital as a therapist & had to structure my day & really did not have time to eat.

    • Jean, you nailed it! One more thing – give yourself credit – credit for doing this work, credit for noticing what is happening, credit for taking the walk, credit for doing one small thing, and so on.

      Our brains have mistake-focused wiring so we need to retrain them to notice the positive!

  3. Gemma says:

    I realise that when I reach for food I am either feeling overwhelmed with work or else craving for contact from another person. I spend so much time giving to others that I feel deprived. So in the future I will contact a friend, go for walk or drink a pint of water.

    • Nice work Gemma! Since you notice that you need connection, it will be interesting to see if the most effective option is to contact a friend. I’m thinking that taking a walk or drinking a glass of water are redirection activities (chapter 3) so that can be helpful too – especially if you don’t have another way to meet your need in the moment. Are there any other additional ways that you can meet that need for connection?

  4. Rachel says:

    When my husband is away. I feel free to eat the way I would like to eat. I’m not sure what I need — maybe to be “in charge”? I don’t what step to take next either? Any suggestions?

    • That’s interesting Rachel. It will be helpful to think a little more about the feeling so you can explore the underlying need. Here are some questions that come to mind. Is this when your husband is gone on a trip or just away from the house? And the feeling is freedom? What else? Rebellion? Loneliness? Is there a reason you are not able to eat what you want when he is there?

      For example, if you feel that he watches what you eat, talking with him about that might be helpful… Let me know what you discover!

    • Rachel, I just read your comment on the last video so I see your answers to my questions. Great work! I completely agree that having him read that first chapter is a great idea. Also, talking with him about this will be very helpful.

      Here’s an idea: “I would love to talk with you about something. Is now a good time? I know you love me and you want the best for me. I do too so I am committed to working on my relationship with food. I need to tell you about something that you can do that will help me. When you make comments (or even looks) about my food choices, I feel like a child. It triggers rebellion so I end up eating when you are not around. I think I judge myself too so I am working on that because I can see now that it is not helpful. I need you to let me work through this without judging me or my food. Please read the first chapter of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat so you will have a better understanding about what I am working on. I’d love to talk with you about it when you are done. OK?”

      What do you think?

  5. Ilze says:

    When a lunch-hour (1PM) comes at work normally I would have eaten only once early in the morning and feel really very hungry. Perhaps I wanted to finish something absolutely before I go to lunch, too. Often when the morning is spent alone in the office with little or now physical contacts with my co-workers I feel like being lonely, timid, shy, not recognized, perhaps I would think that I am even criticized (a boss who does not even come to say hello!) and laughed at (oh, she is so arrogant and incompetent!). I would then go to the self-help bistro with very tasty and healthy food and put too much on my plate in order to comfort myself. Consequently I would eat too much, become heavy and bloated and have no energy at all, even feel dizzy in the afternoon.
    I will instead:
    1) leave the office a couple of times and talk to some people,
    2) eat a fruit or a small sandwich around 11AM in order to feel less hungry,
    3) do not attempt to finish if it is too much (wasted food! all good girls must finish their plates!). Alternatively I can use take-away box and take the rest home for my husband or eat it later in the afternoon if I wanted to.

    • Great insights Ilze! You have three great strategies here and they each address one part of the cycle of overeating. Together, I believe they will be very effective.

      If I may suggest, with strategy 3, it helps if you don’t have too much in front of you in the first place. And it may be easier to start by saying “I’ll save this to eat later if I want” rather than, “I’ll take it home to my husband.” I don’t know about you, but feeling you have to give it to someone else might trigger feelings of deprivation at first (until you realize that there is plenty).

      Good work!

  6. Maria says:

    One scenario –

    When my critical thoughts or I see my imperfections
    I feel like a failure
    I need acceptance and affirmation
    I will _________________ (I havent figured that out yet!)

    Thanks again Michelle!

    • Great Maria! You are already much closer to meeting your true needs than eating!

      One hint about meeting your needs: Look for a small step! In your scenario, an example might be “I will remind myself that perfection isn’t possible – or necessary” or “I will ask myself if I would say those things to a friend. If not, I won’t say them to myself.” You get the idea!

  7. Ashisha says:

    When I am alone at home and have been drawing for hours
    I feel antsy, frustrated, or drained
    I need to feel valued, seen, creative, satisfied
    I will STOP and stretch, meditate, take a short walk (some
    action that reads self-care).

  8. Priscilla says:

    When (I wish I knew sometimes what the issue is, but I think it’s mostly fear of rejection)
    I feel (anxious, antsy, a ‘who cares’ attitude)
    I need reassurance that I am not alone
    I will recognize it and calm myself (not a great time to call someone) and see if I can make plans to connect with someone later.

  9. Melissa says:

    When I’m bored I feel lonely & food is my friend, I need comfort, I will connect with someone other than my friend, food.

  10. Debra says:

    When I am board..
    I Feel restless and unproductive…
    I need to feel organized, accomplished and valued…
    I will take a small step towards self care: exercise or organization (file/house or closet cleaning) or having a conversation that I know I have been avoiding…

  11. Claude E. Grenier says:

    My attention span is greater than most show s or movies. It seems I need to multi task ever when I am watching TV. Any suggestions?

    • Good observation Claude! In terms of suggestions, ultimately, you will be the best person to figure this out so I’ll just share a few things that came to mind. You can experiment with these to see what resonates for you; perhaps these will trigger other ideas.

      – While eating is something to do, you can consume a lot of food you don’t need during a show or movie and you probably won’t really enjoy either as much as you could! This is because although you can physically DO more than one thing at a time, your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. Therefore, if your brain is focused on following the visual, auditory, and emotional cues of the plot line, you will miss much of the sensory experience of eating and the awareness of satiety!
      – If the show or movie is not holding your full attention, perhaps it is not worth watching!
      – If you like multitasking while you are watching TV, consider an activity that uses a different area of your brain. For example, you may want to choose activities that don’t require your full attention (unless the show is boring!). Hobbies like doing puzzles, whittling, building a model, doodling, needlework, or coloring can work for this. (I once had a patient who liked to do stained glass in front of the TV.)
      – Folding laundry, cleaning out a drawer, polishing the silver and other chores are far more productive than eating!
      – Pet or brush your dog or cat. Rub someone’s back. These provide the connection that is missing from simply watching other people on TV.
      – Try an eating-incompatible activity. For me (though maybe not for you), this would be polishing my nails.
      – Mindfulness is about focusing on one thing at a time – but that takes practice if you are used to multitasking. Perhaps you could practice mindfulness for brief periods of time, maybe during other activities, to build up your mindfulness muscle!

      Did this help?

  12. Claude says:

    Yes, Thanks I will venture into the new horizon.

  13. Dee says:

    When – i have unstructured time
    I Feel – empty, overwhelmed, lonely, unloved, misunderstood
    I Need – affirmation, connection, acceptance, help
    I SHOULD – sit quietly and try to identify the voice of the addition and try to ground myself by sharing with my very loving and understanding partner
    BUT – I feel out of control and not able to redirect my next step in the moment. i have the will but can’t seem to find the way…

    • Dee, this is a very powerful script. I wrote to you about acceptance on your comment on the other blog post. Could this be the missing piece?

      • Dee says:

        Thank you for your thoughtful responses, Dr M. I value your experience and insights (tho don’t quite buy ‘normal’ as of yet ;-)) and do think your ‘A’ could be a big part of the solution or at least a bridge to one. i’ve been struggling to prevail (?) over the very persistent resourceful and persuasive addiction voice in my attempts to get quiet over the last several months, but agree that i need to learn to ‘be’ to better guide my doing. perhaps with more patience or self-compassion, i can learn to sit with the discomfort and allow it to pass without necessarily acting on it, or numbing it w food, at all.

  14. Thank you, Michelle, for these videos! After watching them tonight, I immediately sat down and used the decoding scheme to look at why I want to eat mid-to-late afternoons at work. Your comment about stress as a high level emotion and the need to dig deeper opened the door for me. The answer was so simple, yet I couldn’t see it when I was in the midst of the urge to eat: I feel trapped in my job, which leads to depression which leads to my shutting down at work. I’m also overwhelmed with all that needs to be done, to the point where even creating a list and prioritizing it is overwhelming. I’ve asked for help several times now and the last time I did so, my supervisor said he heard a sense of urgency in my voice that hadn’t been there in the past. If he follows through with his promise, I should be getting help soon. In the meantime, I can keep my bag of activities close by and choose one small thing that I can do at the time. I’m looking forward to the next video!

  15. Shelly says:

    These videos are great refreshers! The last two evenings I’ve struggled with getting home tired and hungry, and then numbing myself with food. That is part of what I need in that moment, to veg out and not think about work or life for a bit, but that’s not the best way for me to go about it. Instead, I’ve decided having a snack, taking a walk (with nature or Netflix), then making and eating dinner would be best. This gives me a bonus of a potential energy boost from that walk!
    Thanks for helping me work through this!

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