The Daily Beet

09 Aug Emotional Eating?

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*Artwork by http://www.matirose.com/

I always had this belief, I was an “emotional eater”. I was told this by various “experts”, TV show doctors, magazines and Oprah. And I believed it. It seemed to make sense, every time I got upset, I would eat, and make some bad choices.

But I looked around, I had thin friends that would go through a breakup, or have some other bad thing happen in their life. They would eat, lets say a pint or 2 of Ben and Jerry’s, or eat an entire box of oreos. They were thin, but I saw them doing the same thing I was doing in response to stress.

And if I was honest, I wasn’t just overeating when I was sad or angry, I was overeating on a pleasant, Tuesday afternoon or a nice dinner out, or, well really anytime.

It occurred to me that weight gain does not take much, if you have the right genes (high fat stores) to make it happen. It takes 120 excess calories per day of oil to gain 100 pounds in 8 years. That’s it. Spread throughout your day – 120 calories excess of empty calories. We’re not talking 3 pints of ice-cream or a bucket of fried chicken. We’re talking about a drizzle of salad dressing, or a few cookies, or a few potato chips.

This is the trouble when you have high fat stores. You store fat, very well. It was a great thing back in the day, it is why you survived. But in todays modern society, food is abundant, we can get it 24/7 without having to chase it, dig it, or catch it. We do not have to put an ounce of effort into getting food, unlike our ancestors who had to do a lot to not starve, not starving was a full time job back then.

When I started to really look into the reasons why we eat,I started to see the problem as one that is much more simple, yet far more complex at the same time. We overeat because we’re supposed to, we’re built that way, we have a unique wiring that says “get as much calorically dense food in me, or I might starve”. And we haven’t had that much food abundance, for that long to see any significant changes to our biology.

Same with working out. Your ancestors did not work out. They were active out of necessity, and the conserved energy, that was how they survived. Unless they were being chased by a lion, they didn’t run. So our modern brains are still catching up, if you aren’t being chased by a lion, why the heck are you running? If you have the opportunity to eat a donut that is deep fried, why wouldn’t you? Do you know how long that would last you if you were starving for the next few weeks?

So I started to examine what happens when we eat, for what seems to be emotional reasons. First, our brains sense there is something wrong. This is a great instinct, it means danger, trouble, and it probably meant that something bad was about to go down in the village, and that you might not be eating for a while. Our brains say “time to ramp up!” and we eat. We eat for a very normal, reasonable solution to a problem that took many centuries to develop.

There is nothing wrong with you.

Let me repeat that, and if you have to say it out loud, print it, put it everywhere. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU.

You are a normal human being, with a normal desire to survive.

You are not broken. You might feel like it. I felt like I was a big broken mess for years. I tortured myself over thinking there was something fundamentally wrong with me as a person, with my character, with my brain, with who I was. When there was nothing wrong with me at all. The response to eat and overeat can be traced back for as long as their have been humans on this planet. The difference is that now we have food available all the time, and then we did not.

That’s it. A simple yet complex problem.

So what is the answer?

The reason why this way of eating works for people who tend to have higher fat stores, and people who tend to eat more than others, is because of the amount of food you can eat. What we want to aim for is filling up your stomach, triggering your stretch receptors and telling your brain that you are indeed satisfied, and that you will not starve in the jungle.

It is why it is very important to make sure that you eat as many foods as you can that are lower on the caloric density scale. Eating a tbs of oil is NOT going to tell your brain that your stomach is full.

So this is what I do:

  1. Start with a huge salad or a huge vegetable soup at EACH meal.
  2. Try not to eat “compacted” food. By this I mean, things like crackers, breads, of course things like oil, potato chips, cookies/brownies. The more volume to your food the better off you are going to be. Let me state, for the record, there are people who can eat compacted plant-strong food just fine, and have absolutely no problem at all. I’m not addressing those people. I’m addressing people who identify with me as far as the amount of food they can eat or if they feel they eat A LOT more food during stressful times, and if they are trying to combat a health issue.
  3. Try eating more intact whole grains (for the reason above). Things like oats, brown rice, quinoa. Also starches like potatoes/squash/sweet potatoes.
  4. Drink water.
  5. Do not drink your calories. I can’t stress this enough. Juices/smoothies are not going to help you when it comes to weight loss (especially long term weight loss). It also causes a spike in sugar, which causes a greater release of insulin, which then causes insulin resistance. For some people the occasional juice or smoothie is just fine, and for some as a treat they are just fine. But if you are overweight, or if you have T2 diabetes/pre-diabetes/insulin resistance, drinking food is not the best option for you. Disrupting fiber of food like that is not the way we were intended to eat food. Chewing is an important part to digestion and to satiety. Don’t believe me? The next time you drink your food, test your blood sugar 1 & 2 hours after you eat. The next day instead of blending and drinking all of your food,  put the same food in a bowl and eat/chew it, and then test your blood sugar 1&2 hours after you eat.
  6. Eat whole fruits/vegetables when you can. I’m all for the occasional fruit sorbet, but for weight loss, stick to whole when possible. Frozen fruit (whole) is great!
  7. Working out is great, but it will not make up for unhealthy choices. Workout because it is good for your muscles, bones, mental health. It’s not a great weight loss tool. So before you think “I can work it off” think again.
  8. When you are facing a tough emotional stress in your life, have a plan.Map out how your day is going to go. Prepare the food for the week, get groceries delivered (Safeway, Giant, Instacart). Take a different route to work if you know that a certain fast food place is tempting for you. Do not keep bad stuff in your house, and if your family has the bad stuff, talk to them, or label their food, as a visual reminder.
  9. Do not deprive yourself of healthy food. Eat until you are comfortably full. If that is 1 plate of healthy food, great. If that is 3 plates of healthy food, that is just fine. Just be sure to fill your plate up with 1/2 vegetables, and then the rest whole intact grains/beans, and make your first course a huge salad or soup.
  10. Get moving. Doug Lisle, PhD talked about this in his interview on E2X a few months back. To combat depression the best thing you can possibly do is move. Even if it is only for a few minutes a day. The important thing is to do SOMETHING. Make sure that you plan your day to include moving – walk, dance, skip, go to the gym, swim, punch a punching bag, activity is key for combatting depression/anxiety/anger.
  11. Get support. That could be something you start in your own town, your workplace, with your family. It could be a facebook group, or hanging out on our facebook page. We also have an amazing support community, Engine 2 Extra with live chat, and help almost any hour of the day, if that is something you are looking got.
  12. Stay away from goals that set you up for traps. There are no goals, there is a healthy, long life. So if your weight goes up one week, it is ok, if your blood sugar is a little higher one day over the next, it is ok. The important thing is the overall pattern, over several years.
  13. Know that each bite of non-plant strong food has the potential of triggering pleasure traps (like addiction). It’s like a smoker who goes a long time without smoking and then has one cigarette. They are more likely to go back into the habit, because their brain remembers all of the pleasure they had experienced from smoking before.
  14. Your tastes WILL change, give it time. Have a plan, know what you are going to be eating, when you’ll be working out, and what you’ll do when you feel the urge to survive eat unhealthy food.
  15. Most importantly, know that there is nothing wrong with you, or how your brain works. I wish I could wave a magic wand and rid all people of the guilt they feel for what comes down to, being a completely normal human being with the desire to survive. The only difference now, is that we live in a calorically abundant world, and so we have to make a few adjustments to overcome that fairly new issue to us.

*The artwork is by this amazing artist, Mati McDonough. You can check out her Etsy shop here. 

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Natala Constantine
  • Marya
    Posted at 09:35h, 09 August

    I don’t know if you will ever know how much your posts help me, but they do. I have beaten myself up many times for this, and I’m going to have to take a little while to really let it sink in that it might not be my fault, I’ve been told so many times that it is, it’s hard to think different on that. It’s funny, just on the smoothies, I have type 2 and I was drinking them “Mostly Greens” as I told myself and my doctor. My doctor told me that there are no diabetics who should ever drink calories, and wasn’t sure why I got it in my head. Sure enough, took away my morning green smoothie, my blood sugars came down about 40 points more!!
    Thanks again for the blog.

  • VeganPrincess
    Posted at 09:39h, 09 August

    I’m seriously crying right now. I feel like you are the voice for all of us who have been told we were not good enough or that there was something wrong with us. Thank you Natala, from the bottom of my heart. And I agree on E2X, that community has saved me this year, even though I’m not one to jump on chat, the interviews, resources, ebooks, meal plans have all done a world of good for me.

  • Lisa
    Posted at 09:43h, 09 August


  • Jen in NY
    Posted at 09:44h, 09 August

    I can’t wait to hear you at plant-stock! When I saw the topic you’d be talking about that is what made me sign up! This kind of thing doesn’t get talked about, and I really get rubbed the wrong way when thin people tell overweight people how to eat or what they are doing wrong. Thanks Natala, you are a gem!

    • Rennie
      Posted at 21:00h, 09 August

      Now being overweight has become political. I read something recently that really broke my heart. There were people saying that morbidly obese people shouldn’t be allowed to have food stamps when all they do is sit in front of the TV eatng all day. I don’t use or need food stamps, but I thought that was a cruel, heartless thing to say. People are being more and more judgmental of those who are overweight.

  • Courtney
    Posted at 09:54h, 09 August

    Could you just talk to every other freaking diet person, author in the world? Even the ones that are vegan/plant-based and especially the women. So many of them post photos that are obviously majorly photo shopped, or pictures of themselves in bikini’s or wearing close to nothing, why? I get being proud of your body and all, but you can do that with your clothes on just the same, and you can be proud of what you actually look like without the photo shopping.

  • healthygirlskitchen
    Posted at 10:03h, 09 August

    This just might be the best article you have ever written Natala!!!! Thank you!

  • Stacey
    Posted at 10:10h, 09 August

    You have no idea how much I needed to read this today. I’ve been so disgusted with myself to the point of feeling like giving up. Thank you for making it about science, and facts, rather than something else. The obsession everyone has over other peoples size really makes me sick. What would our world be like if everyone stopped obsessing over their size all the time, or other peoples size, and just worked on being better people and just made reasonable adjustments rather than trying to fit into some magic mold? Recently vegan chef lost a little bit more weight, they were already beautiful, but I felt sad for them that they thought they were overweight in the first place, and then that they had to make sure everyone knew how skinny they were now, and then on top of it, suggesting a diet plan that was not realistic at all for most people like us who like to actually eat food. We live in a sad world, women have unrealistic body image problems, and I’ve found that to be in every healthy ‘movement’ out there.

  • Miranda from Jersey
    Posted at 14:06h, 09 August

    If you were speaking at the events for E2 I would actually go to them. It’s sad to me that people like yourself aren’t invited to speak, I’m guessing because you don’t look like an athlete or super model. Every single vegan event I go to its all the same, skinny people, who are pretty clueless, maybe they mean well, but they come off as clueless. I hope one day that you’ll be speaking at some events, I’d love to meet you and hear you in person.

    • Engine2Team
      Posted at 14:09h, 09 August

      Miranda! I do speak at E2 events 🙂 Spoke in Atlanta and I’ll be at plant-stock and then our week long event in Sedona. This is one of the reasons I love E2 – and I think it should tell people a lot about who E2/Rip and the team are. – Natala

      • Miranda
        Posted at 15:02h, 10 August

        That is good, I don’t see you on the page for events. I hope that is not because they have a problem with your size.

  • T1Sherry
    Posted at 17:13h, 09 August

    Thank you! I can’t tell you how sick I am of so many people who just focus on weight and make it their only thing. Who cares? I love how you said that it’s about the overall journey, not the day to day numbers as much as.

    Also, you are right about the smoothie advice, as a diabetic (T1) they are poison for me, people get all upset about them, I tell them if they can’t figure out how to get food in without drinking it, they need to examine a few things 🙂

  • Caroline Pain
    Posted at 19:52h, 09 August

    Fantastic article! Thank you so much! X

  • Jan Deutsch
    Posted at 08:11h, 10 August

    Thank you, Thank you – you decribe my journey to a T – 25 yrs of psychotherapy to fix me – whole food plant based did it in months – 137lbs. lost so far – I feel great and psychologically unburdened from guilt and failure.

  • Autumnseer
    Posted at 08:41h, 10 August

    Wow, excellent article for “folks like us”!

  • innerspacegirl
    Posted at 09:01h, 10 August

    #12 is my favorite on your list. So important to take the longest possible view.

  • Laura
    Posted at 09:56h, 10 August

    This had me tossing and turning all night. Thank you!!!

    • Laura
      Posted at 09:57h, 10 August

      In the best kind of way. Truly grateful.

    • Laura
      Posted at 09:59h, 10 August

      I tell people “I am a Prius.” Truly grateful for the article, thank you!

  • FatVegan
    Posted at 15:06h, 10 August

    I printed this out so I could read it all the time. I really like when you write, you make a lot of sense of things, and you are also on the same journey, unlike a lot of the other experts in the field, you are actually living it. I hope that you are working on a book, you would help to change a lot of lives, not just help people lose weight, but help people reverse a lot of years of being treated like a second class citizen because of how much they weight. I made the mistake of going to a vegan event in my city, I have never been treated so poorly. I’ve been vegan for a very long time, but because I am fat, everyone assumed I wasn’t vegan. It’s not that simple, and people shouldn’t look down on others because of something they don’t understand. Thank you for being the one sane voice in this community.

  • Heather
    Posted at 15:16h, 10 August

    Why isn’t this taught in every diet book out there? For real. This message could have saved me years of thinking there was something wrong with me, and a lot of depression that came along with that!!!

  • Elaine O'Connell
    Posted at 19:54h, 10 August

    I have read many articles about emotional eating and yours is the only one that made sense to me. Thank you.

  • KatieLoss
    Posted at 15:57h, 11 August

    You have put all the pieces together in an engaging, common sense way. Terrific and very helpful article. A book on “emotional” eating from you & the E2 team should be the next E2 offering. Titled, of course: There is Nothing Wrong with You! Punchy, short chapters like My Beef With Meat elaborating on the points you’ve made so well in this post. Filled with recipes and easy ideas that concentrate on low calorie density. It would be a bestseller from Day 1!

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