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Tackling Emotional Eating by Shifting Out of “Autopilot”

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Tackling Emotional Eating by Shifting Out of “Autopilot”

Perhaps no topic in the area of weight loss and weight loss surgery receives as much attention as “emotional eating.” Hundreds of articles and books are written on this topic every year appearing in magazines, newspapers, websites and other media sources. But what exactly is emotional eating and why does it receive so much attention?

Emotional Eating Defined

The term “emotional eating” is in many respects a “garbage-pail term” that is often used to refer to any form of eating that is not purely hunger-based. Most discussions on emotional eating also explain it as a behavior that one should make every effort to minimize, if not terminate completely. However, the irony is that everyone is an emotional eater to some degree and life would be quite joyless if all forms of emotional eating were to be eliminated. Fortunately, this is not necessary.

Most folks seem to make a distinction between two types of emotional eating: eating in response to positive emotions and eating in response to negative emotions. Positive emotions are desirable or pleasant such as happiness. This form of emotional eating often relates to celebrations or accomplishments. In this way, holiday meals are a form of positive emotional eating as is going out to dinner to celebrate a promotion at work. Negative emotions are unpleasant and are generally seen as undesirable. Eating in response to negative emotions is often a way of attempting to provide oneself with comfort. Eating when you are depressed or lonely or nervous are examples of eating in response to negative emotions. In general, eating in response to negative emotions is the type of emotional eating most folks view as being more problematic as the former seems to be almost an inherent part of every culture on the face of the earth. As an example, one of my former patients, a rabbi, jokingly describes the three characteristics of a Jewish holiday as: “they tried to wipe us out, God saved us, let’s eat!” I’m not suggesting that there is no benefit in addressing eating in response to positive emotions; however this is not the focus of the current discussion. So let’s focus on eating in response to negative emotions and to simplify our discussion, simply refer to this as “emotional eating.”

One interesting aspect about folks who describe themselves as “emotional eaters” is that in my experience the behavior is often described as being non-conscious or out of their awareness. I refer this state as being on “autopilot,” similar to a plane that is flying itself without a pilot making active decisions as to where the plane should be going. Here’s why. Very rarely do patients describe incidents when they would feel an unpleasant emotion and then consciously decide to immediately march to the refrigerator or corner Quick-mart for a snack. Emotional eating is far more subtle than that. Much more common is that the person recalls a situation when they were surveying the contents of their cabinets or refrigerator and doesn’t even know why they’re there. Some folks go so far as to recall times when they were halfway through eating a bag of corn chips and they don’t even recall eating the first half. They were on autopilot. How does this happen and what can you do to stop it?

The Evolution of Eating on Autopilot

Consider that eating is almost an automated behavior in that you can do it without paying attention. Walking is much the same way. Initially, when you first learn to eat or walk as an infant, you need to pay attention to learn the skill. Watch any infant taking her first few steps and you will see the focus and determination she has to stay upright and not to fall. She’s really concentrating on what she’s doing. Similarly, when feeding babies with solid food for the first time, we cut up the food very small and feed the baby very small bites because we recognize that eating solid food is a skill that babies do not yet have. We make the decisions on food types and sizes at this stage because we don’t want them to choke. However, in very little time, both eating and walking become activities humans can do with almost no effort. Think about this for a moment. Now, as an adult, when you walk, do you actually think about which leg to move next or do you just seem to go? You can walk a mile without once thinking about your legs or feet for even one second. There’s no thought at all…you’re on autopilot. When you eat it’s the same story. Most adults don’t think about chewing. They can hold a conversation with five people and wipe out an entire plate of food without ever paying attention to their chewing at all.

If you’ve had weight loss surgery, you know just how powerful this “eating autopilot” can be because you’ve had to relearn a lifetime of eating behavior that no longer works. After surgery, you had to learn to pay attention and chew more, eat slower, avoid drinking while you eat, etc. These behavior changes probably took awhile to master. In fact, many of my patients who’ve had gastric banding, for example, commented that relearning how to eat was the most difficult part following their surgery. Now let’s turn back to emotional eating.

Many of you can recall experiences from childhood where food was given to you as a reward for good behavior or withheld from you for unwanted behavior. Similarly, you may have been offered food to make you feel better when you were disappointed, sad or experiencing some other unpleasant emotion. Almost immediately food and eating was linked to emotions. My grandmother was convinced that chicken soup could cure anything! And you know what…she was right! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that you do feel a bit better while you eat chocolate or nacho chips or whatever your favorite food is. Even folks that didn’t have food thrust upon them to help them cope with negative emotions as children can often recall picking it up themselves later as adults. It seems very easy for humans to learn to eat as a means of coping with emotional upset. Let’s face it…for most of us, eating feels good. Whether it’s the taste or the emotional associations we make with certain foods (comfort foods) or certain people (grandma) or purely a neurochemical affect (serotonin, etc) eating feels good.

Unfortunately, what you also probably know is that if you are eating ice cream at night because you are feeling lonely and sad, while you might feel a little sense of pleasure from the ice cream, it does nothing to address the loneliness and sadness and it does wreak havoc on your waistline. Even though it doesn’t really help us cope with emotional upset in the long run, we keep on doing it because it feels good immediately and the consequences of emotional eating are generally delayed, if only by a few minutes. What happened is that over a period of many years, you “learned,” that food has, or is believed to have, the ability to minimize or eliminate your emotional distress. Now, when those feelings arise, you feel compelled to eat as if you’re automatically programmed to do so without even being aware. You’re now running on autopilot. When asked to describe the feelings they have just before eating, many of my patients describe feeling bored or calling it “blaaaaah” referring to some vague, negative emotional state. So if you’re an emotional eater as I’ve described, and you’ve put on a lot of weight as a result, you are not stupid, you are not lazy, you are not pathetic…you are human. Most important for you to understand, you are most certainly not helpless. You need to fix your hard drive and get you out of autopilot by unlearning some ingrained, overlearned maladaptive behaviors in favor of some new more adaptive ones.

Shifting out of Autopilot

“Recognizing that you have a problem is half the battle!” No it isn’t. That sounds good when people say it but if it were true then being aware that you were 100 pounds overweight would immediately result in a 50 pound weight loss! Not so simple. What this expression means is that if you don’t become aware that you have a problem you can’t possibly do anything to remedy the problem. You must first be aware that this pattern exists in order for you to change it.

There is a simple process that you can follow to help make changes in your behavior:


Let’s go through this one step at a time:


When you’re about to put food in your mouth, stop what you’re doing. It may sound easy but this is clearly the most difficult step. It’s hard to stop engaging in a behavior that you can do without a single thought. Eating is a mindless behavior. As I said earlier, you don’t have to think in order to eat any more than you have to think in order to walk. Hence the autopilot problem.

The trick is to develop an improved awareness of your behavior. How can you learn to be more aware? One of my favorite techniques is to put written reminders all over the place. Putting them where you eat is a good idea but other places are great as well. You’re trying to bake this awareness into your brain and knock your brain out of autopilot. Stick those colorful sticky square notes on your bathroom mirror to remind you first thing in the morning to change how you eat. They can say “Be aware of your eating” or even just “STOP!” You’ll remember what it means. Put another note on your rearview mirror in your car. Put another one on your computer screen. Put another one on your refrigerator. Sounds a bit nutty, but if you are truly committed to change you need to remind yourself to do it, otherwise autopilot will rule the day! Just like a computer that has default, automatic settings, so does your brain. Unfortunately, for many of us eating has become the default setting, so without the reminder NOT to eat, eating occurs almost automatically.

Another recommendation is that you write down what you eat by keeping a food diary. I know, you’re sighing because you’ve heard this before and you hate this. However, the truth is that when you get into the habit of writing down what you eat, it definitely affects what you choose to put in your mouth. This is why you probably hate writing it down…because it works! After a few weeks of monitoring what you eat your eating habits will change. You will become more “mindful” of the entire practice of eating and will therefore be in a much greater position to change your behavior and CHOOSE to eat differently.

Another idea is to put a message of some kind reminding you to eat differently in your schedule book or on your screen saver or on your PDA devise or anywhere that you look numerous times per day. On many occasions, I have written a phrase such as “focus on food” in my schedule book because I look at this book at least 25 times per day. With all of these tactics, and I encourage you to think of your own, the effort is to force your brain to focus on what is going on at this very moment rather than reverting back to old habits we are calling autopilot.


The idea here is to create a natural pause and to gather yourself and your thoughts. Take a minute and stop what you’re doing and be mindful that you are about to make a change. Breathing helps us relax and makes it easier to focus on your thoughts and block out the world around you. When you find yourself holding open the doors of your cabinet searching for a snack…STOP! and then take a few breaths to gather your thoughts so that you can better decide what you really want to do. The breathing and the few second pause give you a space to slow the wheels down and make small but meaningful changes in your behavior.


Reflect is a nice way of saying “think.” Now that you’ve stopped and taken a few breaths, think about what you’re about to do. You’re about to eat. Ask yourself a few questions and write them down because they’re going to be the same questions every time and it would be helpful for you to become familiar with the answers:

  • Am I really hungry?
  • Do I really want to eat this?
  • Why am I choosing to eat at this particular moment…what’s going on?
  • What is the purpose of my eating?
  • Will eating help my problem beyond making me feel good for 37 seconds?
  • If I do eat, how am I going to feel after those first 37 seconds?
  • What is the real issue that I’m using food to try and medicate away?
  • What is (are) the particular emotion that I’m feeling?
  • What else can I do other than eat that actually may address the real problem?

This step is very important because it can help you understand the reason(s) that you are eating. As we said, eating is your autopilot or your default behavior. If you can learn to stop and think about what’s going on, there will be times that you recognize that your decision to eat was not random. At other times it will be simply because you were truly in the mood for a chocolate bar…and that’s ok from time to time.


The last bullet point above asks “What else can I do other than eat that actually may address the real problem.” This is the key to the whole process. This involves choosing alternative behaviors rather than eating that actually addresses the emotional distress that is leading you to eat. This is where actual change occurs. By choosing an alternative behavior you are actively shifting out of autopilot and proving to yourself that you are capable of making change and that you are not a drone who must obey the urge to eat. I strongly recommend that one of your alternative behaviors be contemplation and journaling. It’s great to develop alternatives to eating, but even better to gain a more thorough understanding of WHY you feel the need to do anything at all.

One could make the argument that simply choosing an alternative to eating without becoming aware of why you need to do anything at all is just running away from your discomfort. For example, exercising instead of eating might be good for your health, but it doesn’t go any further in terms of helping you understand what’s causing your emotional upset and how to address it. I’m not suggesting that you need to make yourself miserable, but it is important that you learn what is creating your discomfort. It is also essential to learn that you can tolerate emotional discomfort which I discussed in my previous article on willpower.

Seeking professional help or group support is definitely worth consideration if you are struggling on your own. Whatever new strategies you employ, you must practice your strategies every day. Your emotional eating autopilot evolved over a series of years and is quite ingrained. New strategies are going to take a while to take hold and become second nature. Keep the log of your eating long after you think it’s necessary. Keep the sticky square notes around for awhile. It’s important to know that you are going to have setbacks when you resort to emotional eating. Every battle will not be a victory. When these setbacks occur, don’t “catastrophize.” As I said in a previous article, it’s important that you not categorize everything into good or bad, pass or fail. Stop being critical and demeaning of your shortcomings and missteps. If you have a bad day at the Chinese buffet, it’s just one high-calorie meal. It doesn’t mean a thing…unless you tell yourself it does. If you tell yourself it’s a bad day, it becomes a bad day. Tell yourself that your Chinese meal ruined the weekend and you’ve ruined the weekend. Suddenly you’re telling yourself that Friday is a wash and that you might as well give yourself the weekend to have some fun promising that you’ll get back on track on Monday, only Monday never comes. How you think is everything.


Did your choice of strategy help? Were you able to close the cabinet and go back to the couch without a snack? Were you able to diminish your emotional upset some other way with some effectiveness? These are the questions you need to ask to implement the new changes. It is very unlikely that you’ll find one strategy that works all the time. Calling a friend might help some times, while taking a walk might help at others. Keep track of which strategies are helpful and under which circumstances so you can develop a whole toolbox of ways to combat emotional eating and better take care of yourself.

Going Forward

Most of the people that I have known who seem to have won the battle with emotional eating will admit that they’re still fighting the fight even years later. Although their new habits are strong and the old pattern of emotional eating seems to be gone, they still show up from time to time. I think about all of the people who told me how well they were doing on their diets and on their eating behavior change plans prior to 9/11/01 who recalled the whole thing seeming to unwind overnight in the face of such an incredibly stressful event.

So many people tell me their goal is to be cured from the pull of emotional eating. They want the urges to eat in response to these negative feelings to stop occurring in the first place. While this is an understandable goal, it is not necessary one. If you really do your homework and learn new behaviors, learn to tolerate some discomfort and hopefully get at some of the other issues affecting your eating, through time, your new habits will become stronger and stronger and it will become far easier to resist the urge to eat. Even if the day when you no longer even consider eating never comes, it won't need to. You'll be able to handle it. Best Wishes!


Warren L. Huberman, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist licensed in NY & NJ

Clinical Instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Medical Center and also affiliated with Lenox Hill Hospital.

Maintains a private practice in Manhattan.

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