For many years, therapists, coaches, and self-help authors have tried to help emotional eaters stop overeating in response to emotions. And unfortunately all of them have failed overeating sufferers.


Because they didn’t fully understand the true cause of most emotional eating.

bigstock-Bathroom-scale-with-the-word-h-021914After 25 years and about 13,000 clients, I finally figured out what causes emotional eating. Although beliefs are, in fact, responsible for most of the problems that plague us—such as anxiety, the fear of rejection, worrying what others think of us, anger, lack of confidence, and most relationship issues—they are not the primary cause of emotional eating.

Over the years I tried to help some people with emotional eating by helping them eliminate the beliefs that seemed to cause the problem.  Unfortunately, the results weren’t great. We worked on belief after belief and many aspects of their lives improved significantly. But one thing didn’t change: their eating habits.

But because I knew from years of experience that change can be easy and lasting, when presented with a behavior I couldn’t help people change by eliminating beliefs (like eating), I didn’t conclude it couldn’t be done. Instead, I decided there must be a way to help people who suffer from overeating, and I just hadn’t figured it out yet.

The Turning Point

I started figuring out a solution to emotional eating in August 2009, when a close friend of mine asked me to help him with his emotional eating problem.

Because I had realized that beliefs have little to do with emotional eating in most cases, I looked elsewhere. Here’s what I discovered in the process of working with my friend and other emotional eating clients since then.

Emotional eating has just one primary cause: a unique type of conditioning that appears to only apply to eating and other addictions. In addition to this conditioning, some emotional eating can also be traced to a few beliefs.

Behavioral conditioning

Conditioning of eating happens in one of two ways. The first and most common is when you have some negative feeling or experience and then just happen to eat and experience a “pleasurable distraction.” In other words, when you eat you experience a pleasurable feeling instead of a negative feeling and you also have a distraction from the negative feeling.

After (unconsciously) noticing many times that eating provides a pleasurable distraction in that situation, you get conditioned to eat whenever that situation occurs in the future.

The second way conditioning happens is when you want a “reward,” such as wanting to feel good or comfortable, or to celebrate. You eat and then discover that you are experiencing the reward you want; after numerous connections between eating and the “reward,” eating gets conditioned to occur whenever you desire one of the rewards.

In a blog post I wrote about eating in October 2009, I pointed out:

… if your parents continually rewarded you for special things you

did as a child by giving you a special meal with the food you really

liked, you could get conditioned to eat whenever you wanted to feel

acknowledged for something you did.

I call this process “conditioning” because the behavior (eating) is experienced as compulsive, as driven.  Someone who is conditioned like this feels compelled to eat, with the need to eat having nothing to do with hunger.  In other words, the eating happens automatically and requires considerable will power to stop.

This conditioning is the emotional equivalent of a belief: You have the emotional sense that the behavior in question is the best way to get what you want. In the case of emotional eating, it feels as if eating is the best way to give yourself pleasure, to reward yourself, to provide a pleasurable distraction from something negative, etc. It’s like an emotional, rather than a cognitive, conclusion.

At that point I realized that one way to describe emotional eating is that, for the most part, it’s “set off” both by “triggers” and “rewards.”  Eating to achieve a reward is when you eat when you want to get a positive feeling or to celebrate. Triggered eating is eating that provides a pleasurable distraction from negative feelings or events. So the eating is “triggered” by these negative experiences.

Why eating and not some other distracting behavior?

Why do so many people condition eating and not some other behavior?

The answer is simple. There are no other “pleasurable distractions” that naturally occur three times a day.

Imagine that one of your triggers occurs frequently in your life, such as negative feelings, boredom, loneliness, or feeling unlovable. Imagine further that you had gone to a movie several times a day earlier in your life and you had noticed over and over that the movie almost always provided a pleasurable distraction from the negative experience. Can you see that going to the movies would eventually become a conditioned response to your negative triggers?

In other words, eating is the most common response to our triggers only because we normally eat more often than anything else that provides a pleasurable distraction, a sense of comfort, immediate gratification, or a calming down.

Emotional eating can be stopped.  Decondition the unpleasant emotions that have been conditioned to result in compulsive eating, and the emotional eating will stop.  It really does work.


Thanks for reading my blog.  Please post your questions or comments about how emotional eating gets started and how it can be stopped for good.  Disagreement is as welcome as agreement. Your comments add value for thousands of readers.  I love to read them all and I will respond to as many as I can.

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See my eBook, The Secret to Ending Overeating For Good, for more details.

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Copyright © 2014 Morty Lefkoe