What's Eating You?

What's Eating You? Chad Buck, Ph.D., Psychologist and Work/Life Connections Counselor, discusses our relationship with food, the underlying emotions that can fuel our eating habits, and how to engage in more mindful eating.

Begin Transcript

Janet McCutchen:    Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt University Health and Wellness Wellcast.  I am Janet McCutchen with Work/Life Connections.  I am here today with Chad Buck who is a clinical psychologist and also my colleague here at Work/Life Connections, and we are going to talk about what’s eating you: emotional eating.  You know, Chad, this is the time of year when it is midwinter, and we have made those New Year’s resolutions around the first of the year often to do with changing our eating habits, but it is usually cold outside, and we tend to crave those comfort foods.  Talk a little bit about our relationship between comfort and food.

Chad Buck:    We developed a relationship with food as one of our earliest experiences.  We have the instinct for hunger and our connection with our mothers and being fed or being nourished, and so our very first needs are met through food, and that continues as we get older.  Every birthday has a cake.  Every celebration has a dinner.  When we feel sad, someone is going to maybe want to give us some ice cream.  There are all sorts of different emotional connections with food.

Janet McCutchen:    And almost a reward isn’t it?

Chad Buck:    I know.  For myself, when I grew up, in our school system, if you made straight A’s, you got cheese burgers at McDonald’s.  So, early on, that was sort of our reward system, and it can be hard when you make straight A’s, and I think that hopefully has changed, but I think early on food was considered a reward for sure.

Janet McCutchen:    It starts very early obviously from our very early years.  What is the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger?

Chad Buck:    Physical hunger tends to come on gradually and you can usually put it off.  It is not as imperative that you eat right then.  An emotional hunger is more sudden or urgent, and when you do get to eat, you will eat probably faster than you normally would because it is more about filling a void or filling some sort of emotional need than it is about the physical sensation of hunger.  With physical hunger, you can be satisfied by a number of different foods, but when you are emotionally hungry, you tend to crave certain foods.  There are studies that show that people who are bored tend to want salty foods.  People who are angry want crunchy foods because you sort of get to break up something and break it down.  People who need excitement want spicy foods, and then people who want more joy or contentment tend to want sweets in those moments.

Janet McCutchen:    And making that distinction, we can actually postpone if it is physical hunger.  The emotional hunger that is where the word I guess craving comes in, doesn’t it?

Chad Buck:    And we all have cravings.  We all have emotional times that we want to eat, but it becomes more problematic when it becomes more of a focus or the eating is not mindful or it is just about eating as much as possible.  Now, physical hunger, you typically do not feel guilty, but with emotional hunger, you are much more likely to feel guilty afterwards or to feel ashamed.  A lot of people even hide that they have been eating or they’ll eat with their families and maybe eat very little and then they have to go get more and drive through drive-thrus or have hidden stashes of candy.

Janet McCutchen:    So, I would imagine then that guilt then turns into sort of blaming yourself, why did I eat that, I should not have done that.  Does that in and of itself almost feed so to speak the tendency to eat emotionally?

Chad Buck:    Well, it is definitely a cycle because you start to feel down on yourself, and so you need to comfort yourself, and so what do you do?  You probably eat in order to do that or you feel like, “Well, I have already ruined everything, so I might as well just eat whatever and who cares what ends up happening,” and so it becomes more about punishment as much as it is about reward in some ways.

Janet McCutchen:     Well, knowing that the people that are listening to this Wellcast and making that distinction, what are some cues?  What are some ways that people can begin to distinguish between emotional eating and typical hunger?  What might be their next steps?

Susan Romano:    Well, when a person is very aware of feeling down or sad, the chances that they are going to eat out of emotion are much higher of course.  When there is a lot of stress going on in your life, transitions, loss, starting new activities, if you are in social situations where the demand is there for you to eat more, you can be likely to eat less mindfully, and it is sort of like the idea is like with the Super Bowl we are supposed to go and eat tons of different kinds of junk food.  So, it is almost like we have a hall pass and can just do whatever we want, and then you end up feeling badly about it, and then you think you cannot eat anymore.  So, there are definitely social situations that kind of contribute to trigger that as well.

Janet McCutchen:    What might be someone’s next step so if they find that they tend to eat emotionally?

Chad Buck:    There are lots of things that people can do since stress is one of the primary triggers.  If you do stress reduction exercises, that can often help people slow down the process.  If you put a few steps in between the thought of the feeling and the actual behavior of eating, then you have more of a chance to stop that cycle.  So, deep breathing exercises where you focus on basically just inhaling and exhaling breath and doing it four to five times but very slowly and very purposefully can help. Journaling so you can kind of actually figure out what the triggers are.  Writing about what is going on in the moment can delay.  Basically, what you want to do is delay and then distract and then make a decision.  So, if you delay through one of these techniques and then you choose something else to do, then you can make a decision, “Do I want to eat now really or am I more eating out of hunger or am I eating more out of emotion?”

Janet McCutchen:    Well, we know that there are resources available obviously through Work/Life Connections.  Someone can come in and see one of the clinicians here individually.  What are some other resources, Chad, that you recommend?

Chad Buck:    The Integrative Health Center has a lot of professionals who help with mindfulness which that relaxation and strategy or technique can be a really good intervention like I was just mentioning.  There are also different groups around town that you can be aware of through the Eating Disorders Coalition of Tennessee’s website which is edct.org, and basically if you can go and consult a nutritionist, they may be able to help you identify some of these patterns and help you identify ways to maybe have other healthier options for foods and help you acknowledge some of that, and then there are therapists in the community that we can recommend through Work/Life Connections.

Janet McCutchen:    Well, thank you so much for your time today.  I appreciate that information, and we look forward to reading more about it and contacting those resources.

Chad Buck:    Thank you.

Janet McCutchen:    Thank you.  Thanks for listening.  Please feel free to leave us any comments on this Wellcast by clicking the “Add New Comment” link at the bottom this page.  If you have a story or suggestion, please email it to us at health.wellness@vanderbilt.edu or you can use the “Contact Us” link on our website at healthandwellness.vanderbilt.edu. Thanks for listening.