Emotional Eating

By Marcie Bower, Lic.Ac.

This post is copied from our older, original blog. Original post date 8/20/2015.


Do you eat when you are stressed, angry, upset, or bored?

Do you sometimes find yourself grazing through your kitchen, only to realize that you aren’t in fact hungry?

Almost all of us have been susceptible to emotional eating at one time or another. Food provides nourishment when we are feeling down – even if that isn’t the kind of nourishment we need at that moment. Food is a comfort, eating can be something to do to fill a void, and the act can be mindless or tied to hundreds of emotions and identities and stories we tell ourselves about who we are.

Emotional eating can become a problem when it leads to weight gain, when someone feels like they have no control over their eating habits, or when it leads them to make poor food choices again and again. It is a problem on a physical level because being overweight increases the risk of numerous health ailments, including diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. It is a problem on an emotional level because it usually is masking an emotional struggle or imbalance but not addressing the root cause of the problem. Also, emotional eating can lead to a difficult spiral of emotions, as many people have lots of negative emotions tied to body image, weight gain, and being out of control. So the act of emotional eating for many, while comforting in the moment, can actually lead to more negative emotions on top of whatever they are trying to medicate with food.

As an acupuncturist, why I am talking about emotional eating?

Because it is a very common coping mechanism for many, and we see it as a struggle patients are dealing with every day. Plus, there are many things that we can do with Chinese Medicine (acupuncture, herbal medicine, tuina, Chinese nutritional therapy) to help curb emotional eating and get people back on track, both with their physical bodies and their mental/emotional selves.

One reason that Chinese Medicine is such a good treatment for emotional eating is because it inherently works on both the physical and the mental/emotional at the same time. Every acupuncture point, for instance, exerts an effect both on our physical bodies and on our spirit. Each acupuncture system acts in multiple levels, and there is an understanding among acupuncturists that problems or imbalances in one level (such as the mind) can manifest as problems or imbalances in another level (such as the physical body.)

Emotional eating is an imbalance in multiple levels – physical, mental/emotional, sometimes spiritual. Numerous different acupuncture systems can be involved in emotional eating, depending on how the condition is manifesting for someone, what foods they tend to binge on, and what emotions they are running away from. Each emotional imbalance is tied to a particular acupuncture energy system – so, for instance, if fear is a driving force in the patient’s actions, we will treat a certain system that we call the Kidney, or Water energy. If anger is more of a driving force for the emotional eating, we will treat the system related to anger imbalance, which we call the Liver, or Wood energy. Each emotion is associated with an acupuncture system, and delving into the patient’s emotional health and emotional motivations for the eating patterns help us to tune in to the source of the imbalance.

Most of the time when treating emotional eating issues, we also include points or herbs to balance a system called the Spleen, or Earth energy. The Spleen energy system is in charge of digestion – on a physical level, this means digesting the food we eat. On a mental/emotional level, this means digesting information, emotions, thoughts, and feelings effectively. When the Spleen is out of balance, we may see symptoms of poor digestion, or we may see patterns of overthinking, fixating on certain ideas or behaviors, or excessive worry.

We will also look at the actual patterns of eating – does the patient eat just when bored? Or do they have a tendency to binge just at night? Or do they crave certain foods? For instance, if someone is always drawn towards salty food when they are upset, this gives us clues about the location of the imbalance in the body. Just as each acupuncture energy system is associated with a certain emotional imbalance, each is also associated with a certain taste. When a patient reports consistently craving a certain taste or a certain type of food, we can work this into our picture of what is going on and what is driving the patient to eat in an unhealthy way.

All of this is to say, Chinese Medicine can be a useful therapy for patients who are struggling with emotional eating. Depending on the situation, we frequently collaborate with nutritionists, psychotherapists, and primary care physicians to ensure patients are getting the support they need to overcome their emotional eating issues. If you feel that you are losing control of your eating habits, or are eating to suppress certain emotions, give us a call. We can help get you back on track, in mind, body, and spirit.