Originally appeared in Sixty and Me.
If you’ve ever reached for food for reasons other than satisfying your hunger, it’s likely you’ve struggled with emotional eating. And if you’ve been on this planet long enough, you’re bound to hear some terrible advice about how to manage it:
- Stop doing that
- Eat a healthy snack instead
- Have more self-control and/or willpower
- Create a meal-plan and stick to it (AKA dieting)
And even if you’ve had these experiences and hear this (bad) advice, you may still be wondering if emotional eating is a problem for you.
How to tell if you’re an emotional eater
Simply put, emotional eating is eating to care for your emotions, rather than for physical nourishment.
Here are some examples of emotional eating:
- Eating because you just like the taste of food (for pleasure)
- Eating to reward yourself
- Boredom eating
- Eating to stay awake
- Eating when stressed or angry
- Sneaking or hiding food
- Feel guilt or shame after eating
- Eating at the end of a loooong day because you’ve put everyone else’s needs ahead of your own all day and indulging is how you spend “me” time.
And it really isn’t a problem… until it becomes a problem. It’s normal for everyone to emotionally eat now and then.
But when you begin to feel out of control around food and can’t make nourishing and healthful choices because you are using food for emotional reasons… it’s time to get help.
Maybe you can relate with Michelle, who didn’t realize she was an emotional eater until after menopause?
“I am indeed an emotional eater and have been for most of my life. Emotions don’t have to be negative. I found that I not only ate when I was upset, stressed, angry, mad, overworked etc but also ate when I was happy, excited, on vacation or used food to celebrate with – lose a pound? let’s eat! get a new job? Eat! and the list goes on… I was also a closet eater or a secret car eater and we know calories eaten in secret just don’t count! Food ruled my life! I was either thinking about food – what I was going to eat or I was trying to figure out how to lose weight and get food under control! It was a vicious cycle.”
Top causes of emotional eating
To understand how to heal emotional eating over 60, and why diets aren’t the answer, you need to understand why you may resort to using food to numb, avoid, or comfort your emotions.
1. Activated Nervous System / Stress Hormone Imbalance
The stress hormone cortisol can result in an activated nervous system that leads to more food cravings and feeling out of control around food. Besides psychological stress, your nervous system can be activated by a history of trauma, inflammation, sleep deprivation, blood sugar imbalance, and restrictive dieting.
There are many reasons why you may avoid feeling your emotions.
Many women are so busy caring for the needs of others that they don’t take time to reflect on and care for their own emotions.
Furthermore, dieting and modern food culture can make you feel disconnected from your body, so you may not be aware of how you are feeling. A history of trauma may also make emotions feel unsafe.
3. Not connected to what gives you pleasure in life
Not knowing or pursuing what you desire, what gives you please in life is another cause of emotional eating. When you eat, you get a hit of the neurotransmitter dopamine, activating the reward and pleasure pathways in your brain.
Eating allows you to feel good and rewarded, so not having other outlets to feel this way can lead to emotional eating.
Why women over 60 struggle with emotional eating
In addition to the top causes I’ve mentioned above, women over 60 may be particularly at risk of emotional eating for the following reasons:
- Life transitions… like retirement, moving, losing loved ones, are often very emotional events. There is a lot to sort and process through, including pressure about how you “should” be feeling (for example, happy and satisfied in retirement), compared to how you are actually feeling.
- Lasting menopausal symptoms – hormonal imbalances can trigger the stress hormone cortisol which can lead to more cravings and feelings of anxiety around food.
- “Human Giver Syndrome” – the philosopher Kate Mann coined this term to describe the way women are frequently socialized to put the needs of others before them exclusively, to the point that women may feel guilty when prioritizing their own needs and health.
This may be especially troublesome if emotional health wasn’t valued in your family or community. If you were expected to have a “stiff upper lip” or told “don’t cry”, “others have it worse”, you may be used to sweeping your feelings under the rug.
Unfortunately, emotional repression comes with real physical consequences. Problems can arise like decreased immune function, heart conditions, IBS, general pain, and fibromyalgia.
How self-love can cure emotional eating for women over 60
If emotional eating is caused by not feeling your emotions (both negative and pleasurable) and your nervous systems inability to cope with life’s stressors on top of the repressed emotion… then by now I hope you can see why dieting, supplements, and detoxes don’t help (and in many cases make things worse!).
When you truly love yourself and feel connected to your body, you will be able to honor your hunger and fullness cues. You will make food, movement and wellness choices that are the very best for you, so you don’t have to worry you’re not doing everything you can for your health.
You will think self-compassionate thoughts that shut-down self-criticism, so it’s safe to feel your emotions.
You can work towards body acceptance so your fears about what others think about you don’t hold you back from showing up fully and living the life you want to live.
If you’re struggling right now with emotional eating, you’ve probably been here for a long time, and I know it doesn’t seem like self-love or healing will ever be possible for you.
But I want you to know there is hope.
One last story to inspire:
Annette had struggled with emotional eating on and off throughout her life, but started binging at night before she retired, where she said “food was my comfort most days”.
After leaning into self-love she no longer struggles with binge-eating or emotional eating and says this:
“Now I can look at myself in the mirror, with or without clothes, and not feel any self hatred, shame, or disgust. I can accept me for who I am in the moment. I am beautiful and I matter. I smile more and cry less.”
If you’d like my guide that lays out the step-by-step approach to heal emotional eating, plus helps you get over the most common barriers women over 60 face to healing, grab my free guide now.