The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Mark Hyman, MD Headshot

How Emotional Eating Can Save Your Life

Posted: Updated:

Click here to read Part I of the story.

Have you ever found yourself polishing off a plate of chocolate chip cookies, not even conscious of your actions, or submerged yourself into a whole pizza wondering why you're still eating when you're not even hungry?

More than 9 million American men and women would answer this question "yes." And with that confirmation would undoubtedly reveal shame, regret, fear, disappointment, frustration, loneliness, and confusion.

While we are wired to love food and derive great pleasure from the act of eating, somehow our love affair with food has become an abusive relationship.

We are suffering as a community -- women and men, all races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups, are struggling to find solace in healthy eating behaviors. We have a national eating disorder, and it is time we shed some light on this skeleton in our closet.

Emotional eating is the title bestowed on the act of using food to escape painful emotions or as a means to press the pause button on a life disrupted from its expected trajectory. Some find a sense of control in the act, while others feel their sense of self diminish with each bite.

Emotional eating can run the gamut from unconsciously or consciously eating in the absence of hunger to an intense binge where complete loss of control takes over while food is used to create a numbing effect in the body so that reality can fade away for a fleeting moment.

Binge eating disorder, compulsive eating, and emotional eating are given a bad name in our culture. These titles are limiting and trap the person suffering with these conditions in their own isolated inner turmoil. The pain that some of my patients share with me about wanting to be free of this imprisonment is as intense and real as the complex medical imbalances I note as I review their patient histories.

We often focus on the fact that chronic overeating leads to diabesity and predisposes the body toward inflammation from elevated lipids, insulin resistance, dysglycemia, elevated blood pressure, psychiatric illness, poor digestion, malnutrition, and hormone imbalance.

While it is true that more than 65 percent of people with binge eating disorder, or BED, are obese, it would be too simplistic to reduce this disorder to a mere prescription of weight loss without addressing the underlying causes.

A culture that enforces perfectionism, idolizes unrelenting ambition and exalts emaciated bodies at the expense of health has led to a society of people fearing food as the enemy. How did something so natural and necessary to our survival encourage an overly aggressive milieu of critical, restrictive, and incessant dieting commonly seen amongst those struggling to befriend food?

Addressing the Root Cause of Emotional Eating

Some physicians are treating patients desperate to be free from disordered eating patterns with certain drugs that alter the neurotransmitters in the brain. Do I think Topamax and Meridia are the answer to our nation's disordered relationship with food? No, I certainly do not.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Imbalances in the brain corrected by SSRIs, or psychiatric medications, do not imply we have a deficiency in these pharmaceuticals -- they are purely band aids covering up important information we must deal with in order to heal correctly.

In my book, The UltraMind Solution, I discuss the etiology of syndromes comprising the constellation of mental health disorders and brain conditions and offer solutions from the principles of functional medicine. If you are concerned about your mental wellness, then I strongly suggest you consider your symptoms in the context of this medical paradigm for a fresh and nonjudgmental take on health and healing.

Addressing imbalances in The 7 Keys of UltraWellness is critical to healing and preventing emotional eating. In my most recent book, The Blood Sugar Solution, I discuss the steps you can take to reset your metabolism and create hormonal balance in your mind and body.

You can use food to balance blood sugar, optimize nutrition status, and improve digestive issues implicated in disordered eating as well as include supplements relevant for cravings, mood, and energy. Restoring health in these seven keys is one way to approach managing your relationship with food and your body.

But perhaps some of the most useful gifts provided in The 7 Keys of UltraWellness are a sense of empowerment, understanding, and belonging. In functional medicine we believe that health takes place when the systems in the body are communicating smoothly so that each function of the body completes its task efficiently.

When a patient can understand why they are sick it is easier for them to gain inspiration to heal the root cause of disease. By actually listening to patients speak about their quality of life, I find that interestingly it is usually those who wish they could increase their vitality and ability to live life more joyfully who struggle with food the most.

My goal when people leave my office is for them to feel heard and understood. I want them to know that their complaints are valid, symptoms are real and that they are not alone in whatever obstacle to their health they are facing.

Could there be a legitimate connection between our satisfaction with our life and how we approach food? This area of mind-body medicine has been gaining momentum over the last three decades and it turns out that, YES, there is a strong relationship between our inner and outer worlds. It might be that part of why we eat has nothing to do with the food itself, but more our relationship to ourselves and the quality of our lives.

There is no room for shame, guilt, or embarrassment in healing, especially when that healing has to do with our greatest key to lifelong health -- food! We must modify the culture of embarrassment and secrecy around emotional eating so that people can feel comfortable enough to come out and share their stories and allow the healing to begin.

Willpower, Appetite, and Emotion

Are you, or someone you know, ashamed about being an emotional eater? Part of our birthright is to live life in color and with feeling. Feelings are natural, and denying emotion is simply illogical. It's like telling an infant to stop crying!

We are emotional beings, and it is 100 percent normal to have a relationship with food that strikes an emotional chord within you. We are wired to love food and to be turned on by it. Denying this by trying to have the willpower of steel is like denying a part of your humanity that relies on pleasure and enjoyment from food for survival.

I encourage you to question your appetite for life and increase your curiosity about what you want to get out of it. In what ways do you substitute food for authentic fun, excitement, or satisfaction from living the good life? What really nourishes you, and what first step is realistic for you to take to move toward that?

If you struggle with emotional eating I propose you accept yourself and all of your emotions first. Sounds easier said than done? By tending to your emotional wellness, perhaps with a trusted professional or friend, you enlighten a piece of yourself that's been left in the dark.

By acknowledging your whole being and allowing these emotions to surface, you free yourself from a mental tangle harping on rigidity, judgment, and pain. You'll no longer require food to keep difficult emotions or stress stuffed deep down inside.

This new space gives you more availability to live the life you actually want. It also fulfills a missing piece of you that perhaps blocked your success on a previous diet or attempt to overhaul your lifestyle. Ninety-five percent of people who currently go on a diet will fail or gain the weight back and then some.

When the emotional gap is filled, our mind and body soften and open up. This provides access to the missing piece of the health and wellness puzzle. For those of you who have been struggling to achieve your wellness goals on The Blood Sugar Solution, this approach can pave the way for real lasting success.

If you can remember that your struggle with food is trying to teach you something about yourself that you have not yet attended to, you can see that emotional eating is, in one way, a gift. It is a doorway into your inner world to tune in and let go.

Listen to what your body is trying to tell you. Just as with human conversation, our body often is talking to us yet we don't hear the message, or maybe we don't want to because we are afraid of what it means or reveals about us. It is beautiful to see a mind-body in harmony. This is the ultimate UltraWellness.

Yet, it takes strength and deliberation to make the choices about our life and what we do or don't do, eat or don't eat, thoughts we welcome or let go of, that determine how well we are communicating with ourselves. Practice compassionate communication with your body and mind and watch with utter amazement at the healing occurring deep within. A life free from the fear of food and a resolution to trust the sacred relationship with your body is what I wish for you.

Is this easy? Not necessarily. Is it worth it? 100 percent! Begin slowly, go easy on yourself and yet challenge your deepest-held beliefs. In this time of high-speed living, where we can easily become lost in the race to the finish line, ask yourself what is worth sacrificing your health for and what isn't.

Find out what serves you and note what drains you. What would it look like if you could slow down and indulge yourself in the kind of life that nourishes and provides you with meaning and real happiness? By giving yourself permission to live the life you want, food loses its power over you.

Addictions such as alcohol or drug use can be cured by complete abstinence, but food will always be an essential part of life. Consciously connecting your deeper motivations for what, why, and how you eat allows you increased sanity, dignity, and pleasure around food.

While discovering how and why we eat is paramount to whole living, you can't meditate your way out of certain conditions. To get the most out of this inner work our bodies have to be fed properly, and sometimes medical intervention is necessary to bring the body back into balance in order to do this work.

If you are looking to end uncontrollable food cravings, lose that stubborn weight, and get your life into alignment with your deepest ideals, then apply the aforementioned to your journey on The Blood Sugar Solution or a lifestyle you are looking to attain. Together, these guidelines will work in unity to bring a sense of equilibrium to your mind, body, and soul.

Now I'd like to hear from you...

What have you tried to break free from emotional eating and what works? What doesn't?

Does the thought of accepting your emotional eating or cravings as a gift scare you or liberate you?

Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below.

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, MD

For more information on steps you can take to end food cravings, please read this article.
To explore your relationship with food, nutrition status, body image, and quality of life, please visit my nutritionists online and begin the journey.

Mark Hyman, M.D. is a practicing physician, founder of The UltraWellness Center, a four-time New York Times bestselling author, and an international leader in the field of Functional Medicine. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, watch his videos on YouTube, become a fan on Facebook, and subscribe to his newsletter.

For more by Mark Hyman, M.D., click here.

For more on weight loss, click here.