Emotional Eating Revealed: What’s Really Triggering Your Food Cravings

triggers behind food cravings

“If I had more willpower, I wouldn’t eat cake.”

“I have no control when it comes to potato chips.”

“Bread is my thing.  I can’t help myself.”

If you’re like most people, you probably know exactly how to lose weight.  Eat less, and exercise more.   Yet, that is usually easier said than done.   Many of us find it difficult to consistently make healthy food choices.  We sometimes feel out of control or think we lack willpower.  We often believe that food itself is a trigger.

The willpower myth

Diets fail because on some level they are always about willpower and deprivation.   And, the anticipation of deprivation – of knowing that you won’t be able to eat what you want – only makes you want it more.  

If you’re thinking about not eating pizza or pasta or ice cream, then you’ve got food on your mind all day, which puts the focus on what you’re eating, instead of why.  

The first step to creating a healthier mindset is to identify what’s eating “at” you.   Although it may seem that food is the problem, the true triggers are often out of your awareness.

“Doughnuts are my downfall”

Ariana* sought treatment because she could not stop eating doughnuts.

“Doughnuts are my downfall,” she told me.   “I have zero willpower.”

These doughnut cravings struck out of the blue and were overpowering.  As an example, Ariana told me that as she drove home from work earlier in the week, she suddenly needed doughnuts.  “I drove right to Winchell’s,” she told me.  “I literally could not stop myself.”

Ariana ate doughnuts in her car, feeling a combination of relief and misery.   

“I’ll never lose weight if this keeps happening,” she said.  

I asked Ariana what was going on before she felt the craving.  Was she listening to music or an audio book?   What was on her mind?

Ariana recalled that she had a music playlist on, and a Frank Sinatra song had started playing.  She gave a wistful smile, saying, “I used to listen to Sinatra with my grandfather, so it really brought back memories.”

Ariana was close to her grandfather, who had developed Alzheimer’s and often did not recognize her.  She started to express how difficult it was to lose the bond with her grandfather, and then abruptly stopped.

“I don’t want to talk about this.  It’s too sad.” she said.  She quickly changed the subject, asking, “So, how do I stop being triggered by doughnuts?”

I suggested that she was actually triggered by Frank Sinatra.  Hearing the music brought up painful thoughts about her grandfather, and she used doughnuts for comfort and distraction.   

Plus, the hole in the doughnut likely represented the “something missing” in her life, a loving relationship with her grandfather.

Ariana did not realize that she was being triggered, because she started thinking about doughnuts before the uncomfortable feelings reached her awareness.  By eating until she was uncomfortable, she also converted emotional discomfort to physical discomfort.

Once we identified that Ariana had trouble identifying and experience painful emotions, I was able to help her process those feelings.  She learned how to respond differently to herself when something bothered her and she stopped craving doughnuts.  

The food-mood connection

Like Ariana, you can get so good at coping and distracting with food, it can be difficult to realize you are being triggered.  I created a formula to crack the code of emotional eating.  

FILLING FOODS

Filling foods such as bread, cake and pasta (and doughnuts) are associated with emptiness or loneliness, since they take up space inside, symbolically filling an internal void.   If these types of foods are the ones you eat most, consider what is missing in your life.

Say this to yourself:  I feel lonely or empty, and that’s painful, but it does not mean that there is anything wrong with me. I can take steps to fill the emptiness inside by being there for myself and reaching out to people.    

CRUNCHY FOODS

Chips, nuts and pretzels are associated with anger.  If you crave these types of foods, take a look at who or what is making you angry.  Women are often taught that it “isn’t nice” to get mad, so we deny our frustration, stuff our anger, or turn it on ourselves for eating the wrong thing or weighing more than we think we should weigh.   

Say this to yourself:  Anger is a reaction to a situation, not a character flaw.  I’m a person who is angry in this moment, not an angry person.  I have the right to be upset!!!!!

CREAMY, SMOOTH FOOD

Ice cream, pudding, and other soft, sweet, creamy foods are associated with a need for comfort.   If these are your go-to foods, you may need more sweetness in your life.   Start using comfort words, instead of comfort food.   

Say this to yourself:  I’m having a tough time right now.   I’m not going to feel this way forever, but right now it hurts.  But, I’ve gone through difficult times before I will get through this, too.  I’m going to be okay.

Keep in mind that bread, chips or ice cream are not always signs of inner conflict.  There’s nothing wrong with having chips with your sandwich or ice cream for dessert once in a while.  This formula only applies to situations in which you may be using food for comfort or distraction.

The key to permanent, sustainable weight loss is to identify and process your underlying emotions. By accepting yourself and taking care of your emotions, you will make lasting peace with food.

*All names have been changed for privacy reasons

About the author:

Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin is a psychoanalyst, author, radio host and internationally-recognized expert in the psychology of eating.  She has been featured in Psychology Today, The Los Angeles Times, Prevention, Real Simple, Redbook, Huffington Post and many other publications, as well as numerous radio shows, summits and events.  Her book, Food For Thought, is an Amazon bestseller.  Dr. Nina also writes an award-winning blog, Make Peace With Food and hosts a call-in radio program, The Dr. Nina Show, which airs Wednesdays at 10am PST on LA Talk Radio.  For more information please visit: WinTheDietWar.com

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