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The great gift of emotional eating

By July 14, 2018March 17th, 201952 Thoughts for the Chronic Dieter

If you’re anything like most of my clients, you probably hate your emotional eating habits.  While emotional eating may sometimes make you feel better in the moment*, after you finish you quickly go back to feeling how you felt before.  And that’s if you’re lucky.  Often, you’re now frustrated with yourself, thinking “why the hell did I do that…again?”, meaning you have just double dipped on your bad mood.  Needing to feel better, you eat more, and become worried about the effect all this eating is having on your weight.  This triple threat of emotional eating is why I have in the past likened it to triple dipping on a bad mood.

So when I heard a world-leading expert and best-selling book author who also has a lived experience of emotional eating talk about it as…

A great gift

…Well, I was pretty bamboozled.

In 2013 renowned Health at Every Size pioneer Linda Bacon was doing a whirlwind tour of Australia.  With a zillion professional presentations, she didn’t have any time to meet with the public.  But I’m pretty determined when I see a great possibility** and Linda is too passionate (and lovely) for her own good, so she agreed to meet for an hour with a small group of my clients***.

The view from my seat of Linda’s only non-professional Australian workshop.

Rather than planning a presentation, Linda decided “I’m just going to talk with these ladies”. And it was going beautifully.  There was a special energy in the room, and I could feel my clients relishing the opportunity to connect with this amazingly intelligent, unbelievably articulate, and bravely authentic person.  That was, until she shared the thought…

“I think disordered eating is a gift”****

I thought “I’m pretty sure my clients don’t think of it as a gift” and looking around the room I could tell they agreed.

But, after a short conversation, Linda convinced us.

She highlighted an unfortunate reality; that most of us kind of meander through life without any great awareness.  We’re not really in touch with our feelings, not really sure of our unmet wants and needs (let alone how to meet them), and not really understanding the changes we could make that would make our lives happier and more fulfilled.  Linda told us the great thing about being an emotional eater is, whenever something’s not quite right, you get a


Unfortunately, the signal doesn’t come unveiled for all to see.  It comes in the form of a powerful urge to eat, so it has to be interpreted.  But if you can unwrap the gift and see what’s inside, it is there for you, and it’s a gift that can change your life.

Linda told us how one Sunday she found herself digging into a tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.  Her son came in and asked “what’s this about, Mum?”*****  prompting Linda to reflect herself.  It was her son’s birthday party earlier that day – she had eaten delicious cake freely so she didn’t feel deprived.  She had also been surrounded by friends and family, so she wasn’t feeling lonely or disconnected.  What was it?  After doing a task I’m going to ask you to do soon, Linda realized that she had an important presentation the following day – and it was likely to be challenging.  She didn’t need Ben & Jerry’s, she needed to calm down.  After acknowledging this, the answer came quickly – she spoke with her partner, who said “you are very smart, you know your work, and you’ll be fine.  And if you’re not, you can come home and we will still be fine!” after that reassurance, and a couple of hours of extra preparation, she was able to calm down and leave the Ben & Jerry’s in the fridge.

It is through understanding and interpreting her emotional eating cues that Linda credits a significant portion of her success.  She has developed abilities allowing her to pick up on things others miss, and use the information as an opportunity to improve her life.  It’s safe to say, we were sold on the idea.

I have come to call these abilities “emotional eating superpowers”.  My clients love developing their own superpowers, I use mine almost every day, and now I want to see if YOU can start to develop yours by unwrapping the gift of a desire to emotionally eat.  Here’s what to do:

The next time something is not quite right.  The next time you are feeling a bit – or a lot – off.  The next time you feel like you can’t do without your go-to comfort food, I want you to ask yourself:

“Do I really need food right now? Or do I need something else?”

Maybe you need to:

  • Resolve some unpleasant emotions.
  • Fulfill some unmet wants or needs.
  • Make some important changes in your life.

Often what you really need to deal with will be staring you in the face, so don’t skip the obvious.  If this is the case, you can get to work straight away!

If you can’t figure out what’s underneath your food craving I want you to try this simple free association writing exercise******

Sit down somewhere quiet by yourself, and begin to write.  Without censoring yourself, write whatever comes to mind, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense.  After a page or two, what is residing in your subconscious will become clearer.  If you do this, you will be surprised at how well (and how reliably) it works.  Often my clients start writing something like “Glenn is making me do this stupid exercise…I really want to just eat the chocolate…this is dumb…I can hear a bird outside…” and end up with “I can’t believe my sister she said that to me, she’s always treated me like I’m the dumber one…arrgghhhh I’m furious!”  Get writing and all of a sudden…BAM…what’s really happening will come to you.

I want you to try to open the gift and see what happens.   If you do, you’ll begin to realise the true gift that emotional eating can be.   It’s completely free, it turns life’s downs into ups, and it is a gift that keeps on giving.  This homework may not be easy*******, but I’ll be back soon to help you deal with the hard parts no one really talks about, and I need you to give it a go before then so we have something to work with.  I can tell you it will be more than worth it.  Since that day with Linda I have seen hundreds of clients – face to face and online – who start emotional eating work to get over a really upsetting habit, but end up transforming their lives in more profound ways than they ever expected.

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*Although many of my clients don’t even enjoy the eating part of emotional eating anymore.

**And was also willing to beg a little! 🙂

***We did an early breakfast meeting before I hosted her Australian Psychological Society workshop.

****Linda considers emotional eating a type of disordered eating.

*****Linda’s son knew enough about her work to be mindful to ask appropriately!

******This is my favourite way to identify what’s going on and unwrap the gift.

*******Who said being Superwoman was supposed to be easy?