A couple weeks ago, I received a question from someone on Instagram asking how to stop emotional eating at night. The question said…

I’ve always struggled with eating and binging urges at nighttime because that’s when I have the most anxiety and downtime. I was also taught at a very young age by my mom that eating is just what we do when we’re feeling tough emotions, something happens, or we have anxiety.

I can almost always pinpoint anxiety as a trigger for such urges if I’m mindful about it, but that still doesn’t help expel any of the uncoontrollable feelings and I almost always end up giving in, which usually leads to a full blown binge or at least lots of over eating.

If you’re more of a video person, scroll down to the bottom to hear my response to this question, otherwise, keep reading!!

Quick disclaimer: This answer is for informational and educational purposes only and does not replace the advice of your personal medical provider.

First of all, I couldn’t relate to this more. I am a self-proclaimed emotional eater who struggled for YEARS to “control” my emotional binge eating. I always just assumed that there was something deeply WRONG with me that I couldn’t control my binges.

So… what is emotional eating?

Well for starters, it’s quite literally eating to soothe emotions rather than eating because we’re hungry. In our culture, emotional eating is normalized and shamed in the same breath. We’re all super on board with the whole “grab some ice cream to deal with a breakup” approach to feelings, and yet, in reality, we privately stuff our faces in the solitude of our kitchens, eating as quickly as possible hoping that nobody will catch us.

For a lot of us, eating is the only way we know how to cope with our emotions. If we don’t learn it from our parents, we learn it from society or from that first diet. In fact, according to Linda Bacon’s Health at Every Size, people who have a history of dieting are more likely to eat more in times of stress, whereas people who DON’T have a history of dieting are more likely to LOSE their appetite in times of stress. So if you’ve ever been annoyed that your friend “can’t eat” because they’re stressed, then at least you know now that it’s proven by science. And on that note, if you have a history of dieting, the fact that you do emotionally eat when you’re stressed is also proven by science, so let go of that shame, my friend.

Plus, there’s actually a chemical explanation for why we emotionally eat…

Food is delicious, keeps us alive, and is associated with all these warm and fuzzy feelings in our brain. Those warm and fuzzy feelings are actually the result of dopamine being released in the brain, rewarding us for eating (it’s how our body helps us survive by rewarding survival mechanisms! Read more about dopamine here). When we feel sad or anxious, we turn to things that make us feel good (coping mechanisms) for a quick boost of dopamine. If you’ve always used food to soothe emotions, your brain will automatically think of food when you’re feeling sad. Anxiety makes it hard for us to think clearly, so we rely on habits to get us through times of stress. Because emotional eating feels SO good to the brain, we oftentimes don’t learn any OTHER habits to get us through stress.

Why do we binge at night?

The math on this one is pretty simple…

Anxiety & sadness about something in our life + nighttime silence = FEELINGS

FEELINGS + need for dopamine = URGE TO BINGE

Urge to binge + Feelings + FEAR of binge eating = LAYERS AND LAYERS OF ANXIETY LIKE HOLY SHIT I’M SPINNING OUT SOMEBODY HELP ME WHERE’S THE ICE CREAM!?

Before you spin out, understand that your urge to binge is really an urge to numb your emotions so you can better deal with them. If we’re too overwhelmed with feelings all the time, life would be a lot more difficult to survive. We NEED coping mechanisms. In the same vein, those feelings of guilt and shame AFTER a binge is also a numbing mechanism or a distraction technique or whatever you want to call it. We’re so used to hating ourselves that we go to this familiar place of shame to distract ourselves from the real issue underneath. We end up on this self-hatred spiral that takes us so far from the original problem we don’t even know how we got there, all we know is that we hate our bodies and the DIET STARTS TOMORROW. See how unproductive that is?

So how do we stop emotional binge eating?

The first thing I’ll say is that I don’t know if we ever entirely STOP emotional eating. Sometimes we need that ice cream after a break up (so cliche) or that pizza at the end of a long day. Sometimes our feelings don’t go any deeper than just needing an edible hug, and that is OKAY. I mean seriously, there wayyyyy worse coping mechanisms than food.

That being said, if you want to stop RELYING on food for emotional coping, you need to do a few things… First, you have to accept that eating is a coping mechanism. It has been hard-wired into your brain your entire life and is not something that you need to CONTROL. Because, well, you can’t. Your brain is a lot more powerful than your ego.

Next, you have to find some new habits or coping mechanisms that can replace eating. Again, it’s not going to replace the urge to eat entirely, but it will help you figure out other things that make you feel happy when you’re sad. Remember, you can’t run away from negative emotions forever. Eventually, you will have to deal with them, so it’s better to start dealing with them now and coming up with new ways to respond to triggers.

So next time you find yourself going to the kitchen to soothe your anxiety, I want you to do two things…

  1. Before you start judging your urge to binge, try giving yourself PERMISSION to eat. Go get that ice cream or those chips or whatever your feel-better food is. The more you try to resist it, the more you’ll end up feeling “out of control” around those foods (read more about that here).
  2. Next, ask yourself WHY you have the urge to binge. Approach emotional eating from a CURIOUS mindset rather than a JUDGEMENTAL mindset. This will help you uncover the root cause of your anxious or sad feelings so that you can actually allow yourself to feel them.
  3. Figure out a new processing technique. Do you like to write? Do you like art? Do you like to take walks or call a friend or do a video diary? Whatever it is that helps you, do that. If you don’t have any other coping mechanisms (a lot of us don’t), experiment with a few until you find one that feels natural. And then let those feelings flowwwww.

I’ll say this a thousand times… If you don’t feel your feelings, they will come back up. So stop fighting your feelings.

Even the most “irrational” feelings are valid because you’re feeling them.

And as a final reminder, I promise that you will not magically cure your emotional eating overnight. This will happen again. You are working on rewiring a lifetime of learned responses. So please be gentle with yourself, this is not an easy process but it will get easier, I promise.

As always, if you’d like to work with me, apply to be a client here. And don’t forget to follow me on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest for daily help, inspiration, empowerment, and information.

xo, Whitney

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