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How Not to Stop Emotional Eating


Have you ever heard of “Mindful Emotional Eating”? I hadn’t until a few years ago when books and articles started popping up on the subject. I even wrote a blurb for a colleagues’ book about it based on the belief that if someone is going to regularly engage in emotional eating, why not make it more mindful. But the more I read about it, the more the concept simply doesn’t make sense to me. 

Assuming that someone is trying to end a pattern (key word here) of emotional eating, let’s definitely encourage them to have compassion for themselves when they seek food to deal with the blues or the blahs. Let’s help them understand that there should be no guilt, shame or judgment involved because they are not doing a bad thing; they’re actually trying to make themselves feel better! They’re doing what they know and what most of us do on occasion without giving it a second thought.

The point is, since emotional eaters don’t want to do it all the time, they need to practice not eating emotionally to break the habit. And habits are not broken through intermittent reinforcement which means sometimes getting a reward and sometimes not getting one. I’m speaking in behavioral terms here. When mice get a treat, that’s positive reinforcement and when they get a shock, it’s negative reinforcement. 

Do you know what happens when the mouse sometimes gets a treat and sometimes a shock? The pattern is reinforced as much as when the mouse receives treats only! Yes, intermittent reinforcement works as well as only positive reinforcement in habit development. So, if you sometimes eat emotionally—mindless or mindfully—you’re unlikely to break your pattern of turning to food when you’re emotionally uncomfortable. 

Moreover, much (but certainly not all) emotional eating is meant to capture the feeling of mindlessness. When you turn to food, you’re really looking for a way to de-stress, turn off your brain, and relax your body. You’re seeking a brainless activity. So if you’re eating mindfully when you’re hoping for some tune-out time, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Better to find a really mindless and harmless activity to meet your needs.

Last, imagine telling someone who’s habituated to alcohol, pornography, gambling, drugs, or cigarettes that it’s fine to do whatever they’re doing as long as they do it with mindfulness! Why tell someone that “mindful emotional eating” is okay when most other self-harming habits would not be encouraged, mindfully or otherwise. I worry that the message to engage in emotional eating as long as it’s done mindfully is confusing. At best, all I can say is that I don’t recommend it as a regular practice.




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