Emotional Eating Redefined: Stressed About Your Weight? That May Be the Problem…

By Guest Blogger Michelle Leath

If there was ever a reason to stop worrying about your weight, it’s thisThe worry in and of itself may be what’s keeping the weight on!

Here’s what I mean: If you haven’t been able to attain or maintain the weight you want, it may not be about WHAT you eat, but about HOW you eat.

See, what you eat is only half of the story. The field of dynamic eating psychology has shown that metabolism is impacted not only by the quantity or quality of food we eat, but by our thoughts and emotions about that food and during the process of eating.1 You’ve heard of “emotional eating” in the context of eating to calm or deal with feelings. But what about the emotions you experience about eating in general?

The subjective experience of eating has as much to do with nutrition as the food itself. And for so many women in our culture, that experience is laden with struggle.

Let’s begin by looking at how we label food (and ourselves for eating it). Yes, certain foods have a more or less healthful impact on the body, but no food is inherently good or bad. Yet we are taught that the only way to lose weight is to eat “good” food, avoid “bad” food, or eat “less” food in general. However, you can be the cleanest eater on the planet and still have difficulty losing weight. Or have you ever noticed that you settled into a comfortable weight effortlessly at a time in your life when you ate more but weren’t worrying so much about what you ate? When you were more relaxed about eating?

Here’s a little science to explain this: Every negative, judgmental or anxious thought we have is registered as stress in the brain and creates stress chemistry in the body.2 It’s the same thing as the “fight or flight” response, and the results include digestive and metabolic shut-down, as well as an increase in cortisol levels. As you may know, cortisol is great for getting your butt in gear when being chased by a bear or gearing up for the latest crisis at the PTC meeting. But it’s also responsible for telling the body to store more fat (particularly belly fat) and stop building muscle.

So when our meals are accompanied by guilt, judgement or anxiety about our food or our bodies (for example, when you’re telling yourself, “I shouldn’t be eating this,” or “I’m blowing it again,”) that physiologic stress response is activated. And if those anxious thoughts become obsession… well, you can imagine. Let’s just say at the very least it may be creating the opposite effect of what you want. Add the collective stress of being a woman in our culture where the media bombards us with unattainable ideals for the feminine form, we are multitasking maniacs, and racing against the clock is the norm, and you’ve got yourself a major metabolic handicap.

Beyond cortisol, the metabolic effects of stress also include increased insulin and decreased thyroid hormone (also triggering fat storage); decreased calorie-burning capacity; and increased secretion of calcium (not doing the bones any favors, ladies!) It can also lead to digestive upset, bloating, fatigue, and discomfort after meals.

All in all, this guilt and obsession is turning out to be a raw deal.

What can you do to shift this now?

  • Take 5 slow, deep breaths before meals to short-circuit the stress response.
  • Eat slowly, paying attention to tastes, sensations and textures & feelings.
  • Give yourself permission to experiment with and enjoy food, and just notice what makes you feel the most nourished.
  • There’s a saying “How you do food is how you do life.” How might your relationship with food be a metaphor for other areas of your life?
  • Get support!

It’s time to release the self-judgment around what we eat and how we look. It’s time to refocus on nourishment rather than just nutrition; to have a healthy concern for what we choose to nourish our bodies, but cultivate a relaxed attitude toward eating. As women we are masterful at building relationships. Let’s give our relationships with food and our bodies the loving attention they deserve.

1,2   David, Marc, The Slow Down Diet, Rochester, VT, Healing Arts Press, 2005


Michelle Leath is a Food Psychology and Life Coach and the founder of www.unlockyourpossibility.com. She helps women find freedom from unwanted food habits so they can create a life and body they love, without dieting or depriving themselves. 


  1. Emotional Eating Redefined | on October 7, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    […] Guest Post for Dr. Sara […]

  2. Marty Vondrell on October 8, 2011 at 1:28 am

    Love it! Good Job Michelle!

  3. Brenda @healingsinger on October 8, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    Thoughtful article, Michelle!

  4. jenny hill on October 12, 2011 at 2:49 am

    Thank you Michelle for this wisdom…It is such a good reminder for all of us!

  5. Yvette on October 12, 2011 at 3:01 am

    Great words of wisdom. This is so right. Thanks for the eye opener.