What Need Does Food Fill?

If hunger isn’t the problem, food isn’t the solution. Easier said than done when it comes to emotional eating, right?! When you have struggled with emotional eating for years, food seems to be the solution for any emotion, even the positive kind (celebration anyone?). Why does this happen? More importantly, how do you do it differently? Let’s start with the why….

You get knocked out of your window of tolerance. Your window of tolerance is your ability to sit with uncomfortable emotions. When you get knocked out of the window, you are either in “fight or fight” or “freeze or dissociate” experience. I often refer to dissociation as the psychological form of shock. You mentally separate from distressing experiences. Dissociation occurs on a spectrum and any compulsive behavior (eating, drugs/alcohol, sex, gambling, internet, etc.) becomes a form of dissociation. The problem with dissociation is it works, but at some point, it starts to cause more problems than it solves.

When we use any type of dissociative behavior, our brain becomes wired to use that over and over again for escape. We will do it even when our distress would actually be manageable. However, the window of tolerance becomes smaller and smaller when we don’t allow ourselves to sit with discomfort. It is like an unused muscle, the skill starts to atrophy over time if we don’t use it.

The other reason food effectively fills a void short-term is that our brain gets a dopamine surge when we eat certain foods. This is particularly true when sugar, salt, and fat are combined. Think about a baby nursing. That milk is filled with the perfect combination of yummy goodness. Babies are usually held when they eat. The combination of physical connection and milk gets wired together in the brain. Milk = comfort. Even decades later and in the absence of actual physical contact, food feels like a hug from the inside.

So, there is the “why” of emotional eating. Now, here is what to do about it. First and foremost, you have to work through any trauma from your past. Find a therapist skilled in this area. I have never seen talk therapy get to the deep places needed to fully heal these patterns which is why I highly recommend Accelerated Resolution Therapy and EMDR Therapy. Next, using these therapies, you can disconnect the emotional payoffs that your brain has wired to food. By doing this work, you can start to reconnect with your body and learn how to use food as fuel instead of engaging in mindless or emotional eating.

Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis has a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from Weber State University and a Master's degree in Social Work from the University of Utah. She has been working in the mental health field since 2001.

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