How to Overcome Emotional Eating When Willpower is Not Enough


She was the last of the group to arrive. Meagan’s friends were taking her out to celebrate her new job offer after a long period of unemployment. This was her favorite restaurant but she couldn’t afford to eat here since she lost her job over a year ago. She also expected that she wouldn’t be eating out again for some time because she was planning to start a strict diet the next day. She was determined to lose the weight she had gained over the past year and start her new job with the self-confidence that she expected weight loss would give her.

By the time she arrived, the server had just taken her friends’ orders and asked Meagan if she wanted some more time to look at the menu.

“No thanks, I know exactly what I want,” she replied.

Meagan had been there before and knew that one of the best items on the menu was the Cajun salmon, seasoned with a perfect combination of spices and blackened just right. She was never able to replicate that on her own and she was looking forward to having it again. It was also important to her that it was one of the lower-calorie options available.

As the server turned to enter the orders in the computer, Meagan asked her to wait. She just saw someone at the next table get the fettuccine Alfredo and decided to have that instead. She’d never ordered that before, partly because it looked too heavy on the cream sauce, although she did once taste a friend’s and thought it was nothing special; certainly not worth all the extra calories.

So, what was going on?

Meagan told me this story during our first therapy session. Even before this experience, she had noticed that every time she began a new diet, she’d soon sabotage it by binge eating. The incident in the restaurant felt similar to her and it confirmed her sense that there was more to overcoming her struggle with weight loss than a simple determination to diet.

She recognized that there was an emotional component connected to eating that was stronger than any willpower she could muster, and she suspected that even losing a lot of weight wouldn’t take care of that. While searching online for help with emotional eating, she found my name and saw that I specialize in this area. She made an appointment to see me.

When she finished telling me what happened, I asked what inspired her to change her order at the last second. Her response wasn’t surprising because I had heard it many times before. Nevertheless, it continued to mystify me.

What she said was, “I just wanted to be bad.”

One of the most difficult puzzles in all of psychology can be simply put: Why do people choose to do things that they know they will regret? Shouldn’t we choose to act in our own self-interest if we have the option? This is the problem of self-control that could come up any time you find yourself having to make a choice to delay some satisfaction for a future benefit. The consequences of poor self-control can negatively impact very important areas of your life, like health, relationships, education, career success, and financial security.

Whether it’s eating something we don’t really want, or buying something we don’t need, we often engage in some form of unwanted behavior. Why should we be tempted to do something that we don’t really want to do? In this book I’ll propose the concept of a “transgressive motive,” a motive that can be seen as the driving force behind many behaviors that people engage in when they know they’ll regret it later.

While this transgressive motive may apply to many types of impulsive behaviors—like sudden outbursts of anger, compulsive shopping or gambling, binge drinking or procrastinating—my focus will be on emotional eating. In most books about emotional eating the emphasis is usually on figuring out what’s bothering you, often expressed by the old chestnut, “It’s not about what you’re eating, it’s about what’s eating you!”

Okay—that’s clever and true enough. But everyone can identify something that’s “eating” them, yet it may have little or nothing to do with this particular behavior problem. The question remains: Is there a specific type of motivational trigger that compels someone to do something that they know they’ll regret, like binge eating? If so, what’s the link between that trigger and the behavior, and how can they be disconnected?

As in any detective novel, one can always round up the usual suspects. The explanation that’s offered most often is that when people experience negative emotions, like stress, anxiety, loneliness, or depression, they’re motivated to do something pleasurable to make them feel better. At the very least, they hope that it will take their mind off of how they’re feeling.

This is known as the hedonic motive and it may explain why people often give in to tempting indulgences: because it feels good—a guilty pleasure. But it doesn’t explain why people feel like doing something that they feel they shouldn’t do for whatever reason, but feel compelled to do it anyway. That’s more of a forbidden fruit than a guilty pleasure. The impulse to break the rules comes first, and then they’ll look for a way to do it.

For most people who struggle with binge eating, in fact, it doesn’t feel pleasurable at all. When I speak with my patients about their experience during a binge episode they’ll often describe how they shut down emotionally and just eat until they can’t eat anymore, without getting any real pleasure from the experience. Then, after the crumbs settle, they feel much worse than before—guilty, hopeless, and out of control. If engaging in this behavior was ever intended to cheer them up, it failed utterly.

Many people overeat when they’re happily celebrating too, as Meagan was doing that evening. But to find the real culprit, a good detective tries to understand the motive. Meagan was clear about hers: “I just wanted to be bad.” I, however, was stumped trying to figure out what that motive means. Is there such a motive to be bad? If so, how can we explain it?

I strongly believe that it’s not enough to simply identify and somehow change the feelings that trigger emotional eating. A coherent understanding of the motivation that drives emotional eating is essential in order to address the problem and that’s the piece of the puzzle missing from most other books on this topic. I wrote Too Much On Your Plate to fill that gap.

What motivates unwanted behavior like emotional eating? Over the past decade that I’ve been thinking about this question, the research in the area of motivation and self-control has exploded. Before ever going to the search sites for psychological and medical research, I put the search term “unwanted behavior” into Google. I got over five million hits, so I tried to narrow my search to “understanding unwanted behavior.” I could hear the virtual crickets chirping. I got fewer than fifty hits, mostly about training puppies. There may be other ways to interpret these search results, but the explanation that seems most plausible to me is that unwanted behavior is a common problem that’s poorly understood.

The human struggle with impulse control has been told in stories throughout recorded history. The Bible begins with the story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. Greek mythology tells the story of Pandora opening the box that turned out to contain all the evils in the world. It appears to be part of the human condition that we want what we’re warned to avoid, then later regret our choice.

In The Odyssey, Homer describes how Odysseus dealt with this problem by using a technique that’s now referred to as “precommitment.” The sorceress Circe warned Odysseus to avoid the island of the Sirens, women whose voices were so alluring that passing sailors who heard their song would steer toward them and perish on the rocky shores. So Odysseus put softened beeswax in his oarsmen’s ears and made them tie him to the mast of his ship because he did not trust his own ability to resist. When he heard their song he signaled his crew to untie him, but they ignored his pleas, saving them all from disaster.

You’ve probably used precommitment to cope with Sirens of your own. You may have asked a waiter to remove a basket of bread from your table, or a sales rep to stop bringing donuts to your office, or a coworker to please keep the candy dish off her desk. You may not think of your efforts as heroic, but your challenge is even more difficult: Odysseus could have steered clear of the Sirens, but you can’t avoid food.

This problem isn’t unusual, nor is your interest in seeking advice to help you deal with it on your own. In the United States alone there are over a hundred million dieters, and eighty percent of them prefer a self-directed program. As a result, there is a glut of self-help books available to help these dieters, whether their goal is weight loss or improved health.

If such books already flood the market, why add one more? My answer is that this is not a diet book; it’s about overcoming emotional eating. Even if weight loss is your main goal, it can only be achieved over the long-term if you first address your tendency to use food to cope with emotional issues. Without that, as you have probably experienced, any weight that you lose by dieting is almost certain to come back.

My goal in writing this book is to reach out to a wider audience and extend the work that I do as a therapist beyond the confines of my office. I was fortunate to have found an approach that has been very effective in helping people whose problems with eating range from those who frequently turn to food as an outlet for stress to those suffering from eating disorders like bulimia and binge eating disorder. This book is my way of offering that approach to anyone who may have similar struggles with food.

In 1951 the social psychologist Kurt Lewin wrote, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” I wrote this book in that spirit, not simply to present a new theoretical perspective on what drives unwanted behavior, but to use that theory as a hands-on guide that will help you take practical steps to end your preoccupation with food and manage your eating behavior for good.

Emotional eating is a way of dealing with an unconscious need unrelated to food. In this book, I’ll explain what that need is and I’ll outline coping strategies to respond to it that are far healthier and more effective than emotional eating. I’ll help you understand why the impulse to eat can feel so compelling, despite your genuine desire to eat well. Once you have that new understanding, you’ll be better equipped to regulate how you eat without restrictive diets, deprivation, and self-denial.

Just Do It?

As teenagers, my brother and I loved listening to Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s “2000 Year Old Man” routine. A man (Brooks) who claims to be two thousand years old has been discovered, and Reiner playing a reporter covering this fascinating story, interviews him. In one interview, he asks the two-thousand-year-old man if he knew Sigmund Freud.

“Oh yes,” he answered, “Siggy was a good friend of mine.”

“What made him such a wonderful psychiatrist?” the reporter asked.

“Well,” said the old man, “I don’t know, but I watched him cure someone. There was a man who came to see him who would tear paper all day. He wouldn’t work, he wouldn’t sleep, he wouldn’t eat; he would only tear paper.”

“That’s terrible,” said the reporter. “How did Freud cure him?”

The two-thousand-year-old man responded, “He told him, ‘Don’t tear paper. What are you tearing paper for? Stop tearing paper.’”

Although I’ve never tried this approach with my patients, you could make a logical case that it should work. After all, the fact that they’re asking me for help seems pretty strange. They’re intelligent, highly competent and successful people who engage in a behavior that they don’t want to do. Then, they ask me to help them stop!

There are, of course, many people who decide to lose weight or quit smoking and they’re able to do it without help and sometimes without even much of a struggle. The difference between these two groups is in the motivation for their behavior, and that’s an important part of what we’ll try to understand as we explore the question of unwanted behavior.

For those who do need such help, like the guy trying to stop tearing paper, the idea that the founder of psychoanalysis could cure him by just telling him, essentially, to knock it off sounds ridiculous. But apparently not everyone sees the absurdity of that. Nancy Reagan sincerely believed she could turn the teen drug problem around with her catch phrase, “Just Say No,” and Nike’s earnest motto, “Just Do It,” makes lifestyle change sound effortless.

These facile slogans strip away all the complexity behind the motivation for behavior change and reduce it to a simple act of willpower. This attitude may explain why people tend to blame themselves for their difficulty with emotional eating. They see it as a simple failure of will, and they feel ashamed that they can’t “just” do it.

Telling someone who is struggling with emotional eating to work harder on his or her diet is not merely a callous oversimplification—it can make matters worse. The feeling that you’re not trying hard enough is more likely to make you want to reject the effort altogether, rather than take it up a notch.

In the early 1990’s, psychologist Gabriele Oettingen began researching the concept of positive thinking. In her initial study, she asked a group of women who were about to begin a weight loss program to think about their ideal fantasy of losing weight. She discovered, to her surprise, that those who were more optimistic about how much of a challenge it would be lost significantly less weight, almost 25 pounds on average, than those who had a more negative view of their future success. Feel free to read that sentence again.

It sounds very counterintuitive, yet it makes sense. When we think a challenge will be a breeze, we’re less likely to consider the realistic obstacles that we have to overcome. The result is that we’re more likely to be surprised and discouraged by how hard it turns out to be. Lack of realistic foresight leads to a greater likelihood of giving up on the effort. That’s the problem with thinking you should “just” do it. She developed a technique called “mental contrasting” that I’ll discuss in more detail in a later chapter.

The failure to accomplish what you believe should be simple can also cause you to feel pressured to apply stricter constraints on your eating. This too can have the opposite effect and can even trigger binge eating. How could doing something that you apparently wanted to do anyway, like dieting, suddenly make you want to do the opposite instead? This is the main question that I’ll address in this book, but here’s the short answer: unwanted behaviors like emotional eating represent an active abandonment of self-restraint in response to perceived control, especially control over eating.

That means it’s not about the food, and it’s really not even about the diet. It’s about what the diet represents: namely, the sense of feeling pressured to sacrifice some degree of control over your own choices, even if you’re on board with the ultimate goal. In other words, feeling pressured to lose weight—whether by a significant other, a doctor, by social attitudes toward weight, even by your own self-reproach—can create a sense of resentment that’s expressed by doing the opposite.

Since this is a reaction that’s caused by a perception of pressure to change, it also implies that changing the cause—your perception of this outside pressure—can help you change the effect, or how you respond to it. That puts you back in charge of making your own choices. How to go about that change in perspective is the practical part of this book.

As I mentioned in the introduction, this type of response is not limited to emotional eating. Even though that will be our focus, it would still be instructive to look at how this natural response to feeling controlled can be expressed in other situations. This can help us see more clearly the common thread that intertwines all of these behaviors and perhaps better understand what causes emotional eating. And understanding it is the first step to overcoming it.

Let’s begin by looking at this larger context.

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Here’s a little quiz: What do rituals like the college spring break, Mardi Gras, the twenty-first birthday “bar crawl” celebration, and the bachelor party have in common?

First, they usually involve the type of behavior that may cause some regret or embarrassment later on, the kind of behavior that when it “happens there” you can only hope it will “stay there.” Second, these rituals all either mark the end of, or the beginning of, some type of limits on personal freedom. Spring break is, for many college students, just another excuse to party. But it’s also a way to celebrate the end of a school semester and final exams that involved a lot studying and sacrifice of freedom. Taking advantage of the freedom from parental or legal restrictions is a main part of that ritual.

These rituals could also mark the end of such freedoms. Mardi Gras, which immediately precedes the fasting period of Lent, is celebrated in many cultures by abandoning inhibitions and overindulging. Similarly, in our culture, the bachelor party is often celebrated by close friends throwing one last wild party to mark the end of the groom’s single lifestyle.

Closer to the topic of emotional eating, many people scheduled to undergo bariatric weight-loss surgery have a food binge shortly before the procedure as their way of marking what they view as the end of “normal” eating. It’s even common enough to have its own unofficial name: “the last supper syndrome.”

These rituals are all common responses to the feelings associated with having to rein in one’s behavior, whether celebrating the end of those restrictions or letting go in anticipation of them. When that happens, the behavior that’s acted out tends to be an exaggerated caricature of autonomy and freedom from outside control.

The mindset that underlies these culturally sanctioned behaviors is the same that motivates the private behavior of emotional eating. In both cases, there is a feeling that your freedom is in some way constrained. But instead of being prompted by an obvious cause like the examples above, the experiences that may trigger emotional eating often occur below the radar, unnoticed, and as a result, are overlooked. These may be chronic stressors of daily life that make you feel controlled, powerless, or that your freedom to make choices in life is limited. Recognizing them and how they connect to the unwanted behavior is a critical step in overcoming it.

What is it about eating that so often makes it appear to be the representation of external control? There is clearly something, that on a cultural level at least, sets up food to be the symbol of both freedom and repression through which our struggle with control gets acted out. Let’s try to understand why that is the case.

Our nutrition intuition

In 1939, Chicago pediatrician Dr. Clara Davis presented a paper at a conference that summarized the results of a research program she had begun a decade earlier. Her goal was to learn how children who were just beginning to have regular food would eat when they were allowed to choose foods freely. She set up a residential care program for single mothers and their newly-weaned infants and recorded everything the children ate for up to four and half years.

The children were offered a variety of over 30 different foods to choose from, and the only rule was that they had to choose for themselves, without adult guidance or encouragement. “The nurses’ orders were to sit quietly by, spoon in hand, and make no motion,” she said. The children could have chosen to under-eat or overeat, or to eat an unbalanced diet by preferring foods naturally high in fat or sugar, for example.

When the study was over, Dr. Davis found that a child’s average daily calories consumed over each six-month period was always within the recommended nutritional limits for the child’s age. The only exceptions were noteworthy: children who were malnourished or suffering from vitamin deficiencies when they joined the study took in more calories than average for the first six months.

Today, we’re far more sophisticated about nutrition. We have access to all kinds of information about calories, carbs, fats, and proteins and their role in a proper diet. Diet programs have taught us about points, exchanges, and portion sizes, and restaurants have begun to display this information on their menus. And with smartphone apps to help us eat better, we have all of this data literally at our fingertips. So we should be doing pretty well with our eating, right?

As you may have guessed, we’re actually doing worse. Obesity in the United States has risen at an alarming rate in recent decades. As recently as 1985, no American state had an obesity rate greater than fifteen percent. Just twenty-five years later, not one state had an obesity rate of less than twenty percent. One-third of adults and twenty percent of children and adolescents in the United States are now classified as obese.

Since obesity is the number one risk factor for heart disease and diabetes, these chronic illnesses have also risen dramatically over the past twenty-five years. In his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan calls this the American paradox. Ironically, it seems that with more nutritional information available than ever before, we’re somehow doing a worse job managing our health. How could knowing more about nutrition possibly be harmful?

Because too much information can overrule our instincts.

Like the toddlers in Clara Davis’s study, there was a time when we were all experts on what we should eat, even though we knew nothing about nutrition. Babies are fed when they’re hungry, and turn away from the spoon if they’re not. They know what foods they like and let you know it. They’ll try something new if it looks good but they’ll spit it out if it’s not as good as they expected. Then they’ll stop when they’ve had enough.

But over time, children are taught to override those instincts. They’re told what they may and may not eat, and often learn that what tasted good was really bad for you, while some things they didn’t care for were actually good for you. They also learn that if they had an appetite to eat, they might ruin it by, of all things, eating! Then, even though they may feel satisfied after eating, they’re told that they’re not finished until they eat everything on their plate.

So let’s review those confusing lessons: Don’t eat what you like. Do eat what you don’t like. Don’t eat when you’re hungry. Do eat when you’re full. What’s the takeaway from all of this education? Don’t trust your instincts about eating. But if we can’t trust ourselves, whom can we trust? Ahhh, thank goodness for the experts! We can read about the latest advances in nutritional science and medicine.

We’re interested in learning about major scientific breakthroughs, so reports of new findings, even tentative ones, usually grab our attention. In reality though, science tends to work slowly and incrementally. Even the most important studies may on their own provide only a small piece of a very large puzzle. The researchers then try to make sense of what the results really mean in the context of what’s already known. That’s why studies must be replicated, discussed, and debated before making practical recommendations.

Reports about diet and health are of great interest to consumers, even those who aren’t usually interested in science news. But by the time the findings from these studies filter down to the general public, they have been digested, interpreted and simplified by a science writer. Most journalists who report on science are genuinely interested in understanding the research and are very good at explaining it in its proper context with all appropriate disclaimers.

However, there are also those who present very preliminary findings as scientific breakthroughs that grab our attention, especially if the results seem to conflict with previous assumptions about how to eat for better health. Then you begin to wonder: Should I change how I eat? This guy sounds pretty trustworthy, but so did the other one. How do I know which recommendations to follow? Should I wait for more research to be done? The effect of all this is that when you believe that you’re doing the smart and responsible thing by following the latest science news, you find that you’re more confused than when you started. Michael Pollan offers the example of the low-carb, high-protein diet that took hold in the United States in 2002. This followed the high-carb, low-fat revolution of the decades prior to that. He refers to such whiplash-inducing changes in eating habits as a “national eating disorder.”

This uncertainty about what to eat in order to lose weight or stay healthy is what makes many people vulnerable to fad diets of every kind. Meanwhile, all you want to know is what you should be eating, so you keep looking for definitive answers and clear direction, and you feel bewildered by information overload. Should you make different choices? Wait for more studies to confirm the new findings? Understandably you wonder, If the experts can’t figure it out, how can I?

 While you feel confused, disappointed, and impatient, promoters of the latest diets promise certain success and quick results. Whether they’re honest health professionals who understand the science of weight loss or hucksters selling snake oil, they understand the urgency you feel to have someone tell you exactly what to do.

Like the children in the study who ate well by making their own choices from an array of foods, you once had a natural instinct to eat well. True, you may not be an expert in food science, or health and nutrition, nor do you need to be. You were once an expert about yourself. You knew whether you were hungry or not, what foods you liked and what you didn’t. You don’t need an expert to tell you what to eat; you already have someone: you. The only thing you need to learn now is how to trust your intuition once again.

The effect of this uncertainty leaves us feeling incompetent to make sensible food choices. As a result, we feel the need to abandon our instincts reluctantly and do as we’re told. There’s a part of us that feels we have no choice. But at the same time, we still feel that the choices we make about how to satisfy our hunger and decide on our food preferences should be ours alone.

 That sense of reluctantly giving up control over how we eat, together with our culture’s attitudes toward weight and appearance, especially as it’s expressed toward women, leads to our feeling pressured to eat in a particular way. So it’s not surprising that when people who want to lose weight feel scrutinized and pressured. It’s not necessarily the food that’s unappetizing, it’s the loss of autonomy.

Combine that with the fact that we experience this form of control so frequently—consumer researchers estimate that we make food-related decisions over two hundred times a day—that food becomes a symbol of our freedom to be in control of our own choices. As a result, the idea of eating without these restrictions becomes the ultimate rebellion against feeling controlled, regardless of what form it happens to take.