The psychology of emotional eating

The conditioning that makes one an emotional eater begins early in life, when parents first use favorite foods to gain their children’s cooperation and love.

by James McClernan — 

Sensual in taste, texture, aroma and visual appeal, food can be as difficult to resist as alcohol, drugs or smoking are to addicts, particularly when one is under stress or any type of emotional pressure. Unlike alcohol and drugs, however, food can always be justified as necessary for life.

The conditioning that makes one an emotional eater begins early in life, when parents first use favorite foods to gain their children’s cooperation and love. Breaking emotional eating habits can be a lifelong challenge if people do not recognize their own motivations and/or rationalizations that contribute to their weight problems.

Follow-up studies have been done on people who have shed unwanted pounds and kept it off for five years or longer to determine how they achieved long-term success. Most of these subjects had tried many different diets and cures prior to achieving their long-term success and did not succeed until they let go of their quest for external magic.

Participants discovered and began to accept ownership of their emotions. With that emotional ownership came greater awareness of their beliefs and value priorities. The change within them occurred experientially. And after achieving emotional ownership and clear intrinsic insights came a relaxed harmony, as opposed to control, about reaching their goals.

Most successful long-term participants not only began to understand themselves from the inside and accept ownership of their feelings, but they also began to practice at least one focusing technique on a daily basis. No matter which technique they used, it was not until they could successfully quiet their minds and emotions — actually believing in their ability to enter a mind-quieting mental focus — that they could release their need to eat for emotional comfort. Satisfaction, self-trust and inner security followed, enabling them to extend their calm periods, until calmness eventually filled the majority of their day. This ability to focus was also useful in the development of a daily exercise habit, providing further inner satisfaction and self trust.

Participants also learned that they could compensate for the physiological conditions that inhibited weight loss. Discover-ing the magic inside proved to be deeply satisfying and contributed greatly to their ability to handle the normal stress of life and reinforcing self-efficacy without a need for hugs from the refrigerator. As emotional eating dissipated, they developed healthy new habits, skills and potentials.

It should also be noted that those who achieved the goal of keeping their extra pounds off for five or more years were divided into two primary groups: first, those who followed the method described above; and secondly, those who forced their way to their goals. With the second group, every day was a struggle; they did not find the emotional balance and harmony of the first group. There was some satisfaction with their determination and strength, but each day they encountered giant hurdles. On the other hand, those who released emotional eating found reinforcing potentials for success in all aspects of their lives because of the balance.

Most people who have dieted unsuccessfully over the years have sought magic weight loss methods, gimmicks, gurus, etc., rather than learning to love eating and exercise for life and health. A healthful lifestyle and discoveries about one’s potentials becomes an adventure which can even become financially profitable.

Healthful food can be sensual in taste, touch, texture and smell, and visually help you to feel good longer than the moments you spend eating unhealthy food, especially if you are getting real hugs from the new you in your new relationships. Resolving the psychology of emotional eating can go far beyond mitigating the temporary emotional need to eat and add many happy, healthful years to your life.


Dr. James McClernan, Ed.D., is a licensed psychologist at Palm Valley Behavioral Health in Goodyear, Ariz., and the author of Hugs From the Refrigerator: The Psychology of Emotional Eating. 623-925-2677 or

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 25, Number 4, August/September 2006.

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