When Emotional Eating Stops Working


Food is meant to be pleasurable. Pleasure is how your body affirms your eating: yes, this is what I want. This is what I need. Thank you for this food. And physical pleasure diminishes over the course of a meal. This is how your body tells you: cool, I think I’ve had enough. 

But we’re emotional creatures, too, not just physical creatures, and food has emotional effects on us. Eating can give enough pleasure to soothe over other unpleasant emotions. It makes us forget shitty goings-on. It distracts us from what’s not fun. 

And that is fine. Food is a relatively benign coping mechanism. Eating can make you feel a little better until you’re in a place to handle what’s uncomfortable. 

But its pleasure potential is limited. Not only does eating not solve or fix anything, it’s not the most sustainable coping mechanism because you can’t eat continuously and keep feeling good. At some point, it’s too much food, and that hurts.

So what do you do when emotional eating stops working? Here’s a case study:

A single mom working two jobs, anxious about money, worried about her future, and concerned about her kid eats emotionally a lot — almost every day — but it’s draining her physically, not great for her budget, and doesn’t really work in the long run anyway.

This same woman on a business trip, with more free time to do what she wants, intellectually stimulated by her work, and socially engaged with interesting people, doesn’t emotionally eat at all. 

Why does this woman emotionally eat at home but not when out of town? Because of relative pleasure. She eats emotionally at home because it’s hard for her to find pleasure elsewhere in her life. She doesn’t eat emotionally when out of town because there are so many other sources of pleasure. 

So what’s the answer here? Does she have to go out of town every time she feels compelled to eat emotionally or every time emotionally eating just doesn’t seem to do the trick? No. All she has to do is diversify her sources of pleasure. She can learn to find joy in parenting, in budgeting, in planning. She can take up new pleasurable activities, like taking a warm bath, going for a walk, reading a book, or calling a friend.

If you eat emotionally and it’s just not working for you anymore, don’t let food be your only source of pleasure. Diversity. Inject a dose (or two!) of pleasure into your life in arenas outside food. 

Note: To mitigate diet mentality, I recommend pairing new sources of pleasure with old ones. Take a warm bath and eat a cookie. Talk on the phone and eat the chocolate.


About Holland Hettinger

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Hi, I’m Holland Hettinger, and I help women heal their relationships with food. I believe your life doesn’t have to revolve around food. Your mind can think about something other than what you eat. You don’t have to shrink yourself and hide your body. There is an alternative to food guilt and body shame. And none of it includes dieting, meal prepping, weighing yourself, or forcing yourself not to binge-eat for just one—more—day. (Insert sigh of relief here.) Through training videos, coaching emails, and one-on-one work, I teach women to heal their relationships with food for good.

Holland Hettinger