Confessions of a Late Night Emotional Eater


You do not become obese overnight. But I can asure you, you can become obese over nights -as in many nights of unabated eating. Of course it’s a little more complicated than that. I’ve always had one of those metabolisms which slow-burns the calories and a classically endomorph body type. So nature has pitched me two strikes to start. But strike three – my propensity to eat more than I should,  particularly when I’m stressed out or upset, is on me.


I love food. Without drifting into “TMI” there are very few things that I derive more pleasure from than something delicious to eat. I spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about what to cook and what to eat. A primary factor in selecting vacation spots is the quality of the local cuisine. Mediocre food is profoundly disappointing to me, and a bad meal can make me positively surly. Fortunately, both Naomi and I are excellent cooks. But as good as the food we make is, I’m also pretty happy to eat ‘snax from bags that go poof when you open them’.


When things were really bad – BJLHW (Before Jamie Lost His Weight), eating truly gave me instant gratification. If I was stressed about the files I was working on, I’d leave the office to get an ice cream. Giving yourself a treat every now and then is relatively benign. But, it became an escalating pattern. I recall that at my nadir, when I weighed 242 lbs. I once replaced lunch with two ice cream sandwiches and a nutty-buddy cone. I’m sure that everyone is guilty of sneaking a few animal crackers from their kids’ supply every now and then. But who downs a full box in order to stay awake late at night, so that you don’t experience nightmares? Not many, I think. As you can imagine, once the immediate gratification wore off, the guilt and self-loathing crept in. And the cycle perpetuated. 


After I began the work of getting healthy and transitioning from a career in law to health and wellness publishing, I learned that I was (and still am) an emotional eater. And if I’m not careful, and in particular, if I’m feeling particularly stressed, I can still fall into the same patterns – particularly eating late at night when everyone else is asleep. 


But, why do I eat when I’m stressed? Mindfulness expert Tracey Soghrati thinks that emotional eating may be a form of avoidance – avoiding uncomfortable or intolerable feelings like emptiness, fear, worry or shame. She says; “When feelings are construed as overwhelming or intolerable (because we currently lack the skills to deal with them) we try to soothe ourselves in other ways. Food is readily accessible, and “fills” a void that’s created by pushing the feelings away, while also causing neurochemical changes in the body in relation to what we eat.”


Weight loss expert, Dr. Sher Bovay DC, agrees that when people experience strong emotions or stress, they can condition themselves to use food to self-soothe and this behaviour is reinforced every time they repeat it. According to Dr. Bovay; “This behaviour could have started in childhood or be something that developed later in life.  With repetition it becomes a hard-wired neural pathway in the brain over time, that is powerful and is automatic.”  


But emotional eating isn’t necessarily just a behavioural issue. One’s genetic makeup could be a factor. Certain DNA variants can dramatically affect behaviours such as bingeing or nonstop grazing patterns. This is why some people naturally gravitate towards chocolate if they’re stressed while others can maintain control. Dr. Bovay thinks it’s important for those struggling with emotional eating to know their genetic markers, so as to avoid the guilt and shame, avoid negative self-talk and perhaps more importantly, develop personalized strategies to help manage, “…whether it has to do with balancing serotonin levels, increasing the pleasure response or decreasing the pleasure response.  The strategies to manage behaviour incorporate dietary changes along with supplements that impact these neurotransmitters in the brain affecting behaviour along with lifestyle and stress management strategies including mindfulness training, stress reduction strategies and behavioural modification based on cognitive therapy.”


The problem may be compounded by the very snack foods I eat. In episode #238 of TheTonic Talk Show Dr. Joan Ifland, founder of Food Addiction Reset, discussed the highly addictive nature of processed foods and the dangers they pose to our health. And in an upcoming episode, Dr. David Nelson ND, will discuss a recent study that found that processed foods are both less satiating and actually cause people to consume more calories as compared to natural whole foods.


Can supplements help? According to Dr. Ludovic Brunel ND, several supplements can reduce the cravings associated with emotional eating. He says; “To support overall brain function omega-3 oils have been shown to be effective at improving mood. 5-HTP, a natural precursor to serotonin, can also help to stabilize mood and decrease cravings. It also makes sense to consider a fiber supplement to help prevent swings in blood sugar levels. Lastly, poor sleep has been shown to worsen emotional eating. For this reason, sleep aids such as theanine and magnesium should also be considered.”


Mindfulness expert Tracey Soghrati recommends a multifaceted mindfulness approach to those dealing with emotional eating. She says; “To start, I get them to keep a food diary where they record what they eat, along with events and emotions that occurred prior to, during or after eating. This helps to discern the cycle of trigger – feeling – interpretation of the feeling – action impulse. Then I work to develop the client’s emotional literacy (promoting granularity of emotional awareness) and mindfulness (to pause before eating), as well as mindful eating practices. This means that eating is an intentional action where no other activities occur (i.e.: watching TV). 


Holistic Nutritionist, Megan Horsley has created an ‘Emotional Eating Freedom Guide’, in which she outlines a multi-step process to overcome emotional eating.  According to Megan; “The first and most important step is to become more aware of our own conditioning and habits. We need to practice self-awareness and self-reflection to acknowledge why we have certain thoughts, what habits are embedded in us and how we manage our stress levels. Of course, being aware of these things is easier said than done. Working with a therapist, whether that is a social worker, psychotherapist or other mental health professional is the best way to dig into these aspects of ourselves and learn why we have been conditioned a certain way and how to release those habits to instil better ones.”


Plenty of food for thought on how to cut out the food for soothing. From supplements to mindfulness, the tools for overcoming emotional eating are accessible and affordable for those trying not to consume their feelings. Perhaps next issue, I’ll tackle some of my underlying behaviours which feed my stress.


Jamie Bussin is the Publisher of The Tonic Magazine and Host of The Tonic Talk Show and Podcast. He is also, most obviously, a work in progress.