Weight Loss: The Emotional Element

EmotionsIn a recent survey, psychologists named emotions as their clients’ “top obstacle” to weight loss. The 1300+ licensed psychologists, to fill in the picture, also cited emotional eating as well as food selection and exercise commitment among the common challenges their clients faced. Sure, it’s maybe little surprise that psychologists would emphasize the role emotional issues play in weight loss. It’s their profession after all, and their clients comprise a self-selected group of people who are interested in delving into the emotional dimensions of their weight management struggles. That said, I know plenty of trainers (myself included), doctors, and dietitians (Primally focused or otherwise) who would suggest psychology has figured prominently into many of their clients’ situations as well.

From my own perspective, I’ve worked with many people who honestly felt they didn’t deserve to be healthy, to be beautiful, to be happy. Every effort they’d made in the past to lose weight and improve their wellbeing had been sabotaged by psychological ghosts. Negative self-talk got the better of them even after they’d experienced substantial success in losing weight and/or achieving other health and fitness goals. When a number of these folks combined emotional work with their lifestyle changes, it was like the air cleared. Not overnight, but over time.

As much as I believe giving people accurate information (about diet, fitness, and other key lifestyle areas) can empower them to live healthier lives, there’s that more complex dimension. The body, after all, is pretty simple. Our metabolic functioning, for example, is fairly straightforward once you understand the basics of hormonal responses.

For many people, however, the physical side isn’t the issue. They get it – and they do it. It’s the psychological baggage that acts as the obstacle at some point (or points) along the way toward a healthier life. Maybe it’s a background of abuse, neglect, bullying, or depression. For some, food dulled some pretty harsh emotions in their histories, and the associations are hard to break. For others, there was something to the image of themselves itself that was protective: being overweight or sick was part of how they had defined their lives. For many, it could even be negative self-talk related to current stresses and circumstances.

By all means, if you feel emotional issues significantly affect your daily functioning or progress toward reasonable health goals, the expertise of a professional counselor is advisable. For anyone who’s interested in fostering the emotional side of their health journey or break past what might be a mental as opposed to a physical block, let me throw out a few suggestions. I hope you’ll add yours as well.

Cultivate Self-Awareness

The journey toward better health – under any circumstances – offers plenty of fodder for great journaling. Use a journal or other tool to explore or record realizations, stumbling blocks, self-doubt, accomplishments, and motivational ideas. Reflect on the history you bring to your current health endeavor (previous weight loss attempts, disordered eating, etc.) as well as your day-to-day journey in the here and now.

Try to identify the roots of emotional issues at play and the current triggers that send you down the road of negative self-talk. Use your developing awareness to continually “catch” yourself earlier in the self-talk cycle and redirect your thoughts and activities before it even starts. Record what works in that redirecting.

Seek Support

Use whatever works for you: inspirational books, affirmations, close and supportive relationships, online forums, formal support groups, life coaching, and/or personal counseling. Social support is key to any life change, and it can be incredibly motivating whether or not you feel emotional issues figure into your health journey.

Differentiate Between Self-Soothing and Self-Care

Even if you indulged in your share of self-soothing at the refrigerator, you may have denied yourself any meaningful self-care. Commit to self-care and consider what activities and choices have the power to really nourish your physical and mental health. Make a list of healthy indulgences that can take the place overeating or other unhealthy habits once held in your life. What other practices or activities can offer comfort? Research, for example, suggests relaxation training helps people avoid emotional eating and reduces feelings of depression and anxiety.

Revise Your Life Script

After a major weight loss or health change, some people continue to live with a distorted view of themselves. Even if you’re loving the transformation, it can be worth the effort to envision the future. Certain routines or even social connections might not play as big a part as they once did. Certain opportunities you never considered might seem worth pursuing.

The road to health and weight loss obliges a degree of striving. (Although a Primal life of bacon and leisurely bike rides isn’t such a hard existence really…) However, the process sometimes calls us to shed other things along the way – the self-talk as well as habits, the self-image as well as diet that just don’t work for us anymore (and in truth never did). In this sense, it’s about surrender as well as striving. We strive for a better, healthier life, but it’s important to ask ourselves what we need to let go of in the journey.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. I hope you’ll share your thoughts, perspectives, and experiences related to weight loss and health changes. Have a great weekend, everyone!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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169 thoughts on “Weight Loss: The Emotional Element”

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  1. I find every time I get an unexpected stress (daughter calls from school 5 hours away with a broken pipe, fight with spouse, etc.) I go for sweet things as soon as I can. Always admonish myself afterwards, but MAN is it hard to control.

    1. have you ever tried popping a B-complex vitamin when stressors do this to you? i’ve found them helpful.

      1. I’ll try that. Thanks. (Do they come extra sweet? 🙂 )

      1. +1. Chocolate for an instant hit of comfort and calm. Stress re-set.

    2. Here’s something you might try. It’s worked wonders for me. Go completely sugar free, as in no sugar or sweets of any kind, not even Stevia. The idea is to get sugar out of your system and lose the taste for sweets, to get the whole dimension out of your life.

      I did this for 7 days straight, and by then, I’d adapted. That was a long time ago, and I’ve stuck with it, because I like the feeling it gives me: a sense of equilibrium and no cravings. When I feel hungry, it’s for the right reason, namely that my body needs nourishment. What I want to eat are the foods I’ve learned are most beneficial to me.

      Here’s the problem. Sweets make you want more sweets (unless you’re one of those rare outliers for whom this isn’t the case). As I once heard on NPR, “You can never get enough of what you don’t need.” It’s very true.

      I’m suppose the day will come when I have something sweet again. But I’m in no hurry. I really like not wanting them.

      Hope this helps.

        1. I have the same problem. Emergency bacon in the freezer helps. Also, tea with lots of heavy cream. I do find that completely eliminating all sweet things, including stevia, helps after a few days.

      1. Getting rid of sweets (and grains) for me made a huge difference. For 9 months I had little craving for sweets. Then I had one roll with butter for my birthday, and little by little it came back. The cravings are so hard! Working on it, though!

    3. I read this and pictured your daughter smoking an old school corn cob pipe. I enjoyed this image.

    4. Listen to your body. If you want a hit of dark chocolate every night I highly doubt that’s going to cause an issue. Everyone should be concerned about sustainability rather than adhering to a dogmatic set of principles that may be at odds with the current state of your body or your personal genetic variation. I think Mark has done a good job of pressing that point with the 80/20 rule. If your body wants to you to feed it peaches all day one day then do it. Even in the bad old days when people lived on the plains I’m sure they ran across a treasure trove of fruit now and then and gorged themselves all day. I fail to see why we can’t do the same when it feels right.

    5. use pre-cooked microwaveable bacon instead! It can be eaten “raw”

  2. Having coached people on this, I recon being aware that certain emotions can trigger food related responses is half the battle… anchoring a different response is the other half. NLP can help regain control of yourself at a deeper level.

    1. +1 just been reading up on NLP you mentioned and wow that resonates man

      Cool Paleo App by the way, will download now

    2. I am a hypnotist, I have had success using EFT to deal with cravings. But it’s also the case that I have found for me that binging is a result of dietary macro imbalance.

      If I don’t eat enough protein, I crave protein madly. But the protein source I craved during much of my overweight life was cheese, which was too low in protein to bring me up where I needed to be. I ate enormous amounts of cheese, yet was never satisfied.

      Now I know if I crave cheese I eat meat and the craving goes away.

      The same way with fat: if I tried to eat a low fat diet I would go crazy, crave fatty foods, and binge madly. I have heard others say the exact same thing about low fat and/or low protein diets, although they were not realizing what it was they were describing. They were thinking they had set a reasonable goal of eating a very low fat diet, and blaming themselves for losing control.

      I see too many money-making sites trying to convince women that these exact symptoms I was having are proof they are emotional eaters who need to pay psychologists, psychiatrists or other mental health professionals to start to understand their mental health issues.

      I won’t deny that there are people who have such issues. But I think for the most part counterproductive emotional attachments to food are caused by dieting itself. Most overweight is a result of low nutrition high carbohydrate diet in combination with bad habits that were learned during our formative years and can be unlearned.

      I simply can’t accept that the majority of Americans have mental health issues keeping them from losing weight, given all the other factors that are clearly involved.

      1. Katherine, I think you are 100% right! Low fat diet leads to cravings and “emotional eating” leads to diagnosis of mental health problems. And finally, fat people are crazy/lack self-discipline. It’s a nasty set of associations. I am so glad I found a way out.

        1. I too think you’re right Katherine. I am in a Masters program for Clinical Mental Health Counseling and please believe me when I say I want to incorporate what people are fueling their bodies with into my practice. You can’t expect to get to great mental health without fueling your body with great food!

      2. Gary Taubes in G.C.B.C. & his blog or articles (?) talks about the kind of calories-in/calories-out starvation model of obesity treatment leading to “experts” assuming obesity is a psychological willpower/emotional eating problem.
        Due to overspecialization most psychologists will not think to treat obesity using the low-carb/hormone-control model (why would they? even most medical doctors don’t).
        So, these psychologists can only treat obesity as if it were a moral failing on your part because that’s the only tools they have

        1. to add to my comment… even in cases of emotional eating it’s hard to ignore the effects of reactive hypoglycaemia – even at subclinical/sub-diabetic levels – and the negative effects of carb withdrawal which are physiological in nature and which will often have an effect on people’s choice to eat emotionally – kind of like how a cokehead might use cocaine to have fun/party and to forget their troubles, but also because of the withdrawal symptoms

      3. +1
        Well said!
        The emotional-eating theory is very woman-based and falls in line with a long history of pathologizing female behaviors that actually have normal, physiological explanations. It may be that what is often described as “emotional eating” really has more to do with an insulin-response “addiction” to carbs/grains/sugars than it has to do with an out-of-control emotional response to life. (Not saying that emotions don’t have anything to do with our eating choices, just that there may be a large physiological component being ignored here!)

  3. This is exactly the challenge I’m facing right now. Emotion-based eating habits have been the hardest thing for me to address so far on my primal journey.

  4. I used food to numb out most of my life, and probably do a little. It is a vicious cycle. Being numbed out led to many poor decisions and poor relationships. Following Primal has dramatically changed my emotional state for the better, leading to better health and relationships. The opposite of a vicious cycle, whatever that’s called.

    1. I think it’s called a ‘broken cycle’

      Great to see a change your nutrition and health lead to positive effects everywhere else in your life!

    2. That would be a “virtuous cycle”. Gotta love it!

      I was already in a better head-space (compared to my 20s and 30s) before going primal, but I am definitely riding that primal virtuous cycle for all it’s worth!

        1. Thanks, i needed to “positive” injection after just getting a bunch of “Paleo is crap” talk from people on a blog (mostly pushing vegan/vegetarianism as more evolved/evidence of a kinder, better human, etc). I was starting to have doubts that I’d “fallen” for something, but then I thought about how much weight I’d lost and how much better I feel – the evidence is in each of us; ignore the doubters.

        2. KitC-I was a vegetarian for 2 years. I’m over it now. 😉 More seriously, new vegetarians who are still running off of the nutrition gathered in their meat eating days and those who are up to their eyeballs in the dogma are the vocal ones. Us ex-vegetarians are much quieter about their experiences. There are more “recovering vegetarians” out there than you might think.

          The science – biochemical, anthropological, and biological is behind Paleo/low carb. The only thing you’ve “fallen” for is good sense backed up by good science. 😉

        3. Another recovering vegetarian here. 15 years being near Vegan brought me all the health benefits of obesity, insulin resistance, PCOS, mood disorders, and B12 deficiency. Yay!

  5. I am a HUGE emotional eater – for pretty much any emotion. Also, if I am really on-track with my eating and being strict, it’s so hard for me to see progress in my body. So then I get into the whole “F it. I’m not getting any skinnier anyway, I might as well eat the whole pie”. A couple things I’ve found that really help with this is to 1) TRY TRY TRY to remove my attachment to body image, and instead focus on health. and 2) Limit sugar intake. My uncontrolled, emotional binges are so much worse when I’m eating sugar regularly. Even fruit. When I started eating very low carb (30g/day) with a focus on protein and fat, my tendency to binge and emotionally eat decreased IMMENSELY. I know this very low level of carbs might not be the right thing for everyone, but for me it has provided a huge level of freedom.

    1. I’m the same with sugar – I only get cravings if I’ve been eating sweet stuff(I gave in to Christmas pudding a few weeks back).

      Thankfully I can eat baked apples and cream without getting the cravings though! (my go-to sweet treat)

      1. Ummm… YUM! I’ll have to try that. Yes! And it’s not just normal cravings, it’s the “I’m stressed out/sad/tired so I need to eat something to make me feel better”. When I went low-carb my life didn’t get less stressful, but my response to stress changed and no longer includes over-eating. I think we set ourselves up for failure with emotional eating by eating the foods that perpetuate it.

        1. I agree, for me it’s the mindset when low carbing that I can avoid binging on sugary foods, but when I am not low carbing, binging is easy to do because its just a few extra pounds of sugar to shove into my face. Its certainly easier to keep on the straight and narrow when low carbing.

        2. I think I know what your talking about. For my wife, it happens about once a month.

        3. I don’t think eating those foods “perpetuate” emotional eating. I think they cause the emotions through biochemical actions in your brain, as directly as if you were taking a medication that had that effect.

      2. Funny you mention apples and cream. I use non baked granny apples, cut into pieces, and dip them into fresh whipped lard. The fresh lard is sweet. Mmmm, sweet and fatty. And good luck trying to eat too much as this combo is extremely filling.

        1. I’ll have to try that. This place is the best for suggestions like this.

        2. Such a hidden fan of you and your comments!! I am always gleeful when you provide your savvy insights and wry-dry wit. Also..simply MUST try your granny idea with whipped canard/duck lard here in France!

        3. Thank you for the kind words. Whipped duck fat sounds tasty!

          I do not use grocery store lard. I prefer to use fresh leaf lard from a non industrial raised pig. A good butcher will know what leaf lard.

          Leaf lard traditionally was used in baked goods. Whipped lard is extremely versatile. Be sure to always taste it first before adding anything to it. The animal’s diet affects the taste.

          When whipped, the texture should be that of a soft cream cheese.

          Want icing for treats? Add some honey, almond extract, citrus zest, or vanilla bean. Same flavoring fundamentals apply.

          Want to add fresh herbs for a delicious spread or dip? Try shallots and garlic.

          The whipped lard can also be used on a less fatty meat like a pork tenderloin. Follow the techniques to make a rolled, stuffed pork tenderloin and smear a flavored whipped lard on in the side.

        4. Double thanks for the extra info on leaf lard. I’ve suddenly realized (thanks to this blog) that I can stretch our food budget a bit by increasing the amount of fat we eat. Our lipiphobic society tends to make the pure animal fats cheap.

        5. I had never thought of using leaf lard that way. Awesome! Thanks for the idea and useful info. Gonna try duck fat too. Mmm…

    2. One of the best ways to see progress even when it’s not visible in the mirror is to take measurements, especially waist circumference measurements. If you stay on-track with your diet, these WILL go down every week even when the pictures or mirror don’t tell the full story.

      It’s a quick thing you can do with a tape measure but it really helps to reinforce that you stay on track so that you don’t go into the “F this” mindset that you mentioned.

      1. Ah, Frank, it’s clear you inhabit a male body! While I agree that a tape measure definitely beats the scale, monthly fluctuations can affect women’s measurements too, often at the most emotionally vulnerable times. (That’s why I sometimes call my hormones horrible-moans!)

        The only thing that helps me when everything seems to be going backwards is to practice deep breathing, maybe some gentle yoga, & remember, this too shall pass!

        1. Very true. Fluctuations can happen for both men and women. As you mentioned the hormones is one reason, or even eating a meal high in salt can lead to bloating. That’s why it’s important not to get overly fixated on the day-to-day numbers and look at trends over time.

          Personally, I don’t think anyone should take any measurements, whether it be scale weight, waistline measurements, or body fat reading more than ONCE PER WEEK. It’s just counter-productive and will mess with your head.

        2. My approach is to weigh/measure more often, but average the stats over a week & that’s what I compare over time. That seems to give me the clearest picture of where things really stand. But if one is too fixated on the weight-of-the-day this system definitely might backfire.

    3. I used to fall into the whole “F” it thing… and what broke me out of it was doing something like the 4 hour body diet where programmed destruction was part of the diet. You get 1 cheat day per week and go nuts on that cheat day! No guilt no blame no shame.

      1 cheat day can’t offset 6 days of bad eating so at the end of the week you’re still good. The programmed destruction can be a powerful mental tool… instead of eating your ‘treat’ immediately… just put it in the list of things you want to eat on your cheat day and knock yourself out!

      Doing this helped me a lot and I’ve had a lot of success with it… but I’m now at the point where I don’t crave a lot of the things I wanted on cheat days (and I’m trying to stay in ketosis) so I’ve been cutting them out.

      1. I have always shied away from using cheat days, as doing so seems to perpetuate the notion that some outside authority is telling me what I can and cannot do. That privation is a punishment and cheating is a reward. Or that depriving myself is being good and indulging is being good.

        For me, the freeing aspect of PB is that nobody, not even Mark, is telling me what I can and cannot do. It is my genes, inside me, that dictate what works and what doesn’t. I can do whatever the heck I want, but, but, but… my body screams at me when I do something it does not like. If I eat sweets or grain-based anything, my body lets me know pretty darn quick that it was not a good idea. Who am I cheating if I do that? I’m not getting away with anything — I am very directly hurting myself.

        1. You said this so beautifully, Chica! I have always had issues with “outside authority”; just because “everyone” is being told to do it, doesn’t mean it is good for me. When I started listening to and respecting the messages my body gives me, I feel fantastic (e.g. – eating Primally). When I don’t listen to the signals, and eat that wheat/grain/glutenized, sugary, addictive pile of ick, I pay for it dearly! I trust the messages now; my health is the proof!

      2. Put the behavior on cue…then gradually reduce giving yourself the cue. Cheat every 7 then 14 then 30 then birthdays then never cheat with toxins again.. “Don’t shoot the dog” by Karen Pryor. Best behavior book ever.

      3. I’m with bjjcaveman on this. I enjoy a cheat day here and there so I guess it’s all in one’s perspective of the thing. It helps that I am not gluten intolerant. I could eat wheat all day and not have migraines, brain fog, unhappy tummy, etc. If I had to pay for my sins that way, I’d avoid cheat days, too, or at least cheating on the instigator foods. Primal works for me because it removes most of the cravings and I’m not hungry all the time. That said, it’s nice to go gonzo on dessert occasionally and just not worry about it knowing that I’ll get right back up the next day and juice my organic veggies, exercise, and eat clean.

      1. But make sure you peel the banana BEFORE you freeze it! Those things are almost impossible to peel frozen – a mistake I made once.

        1. true, and all these ingredients are blended together it makes like a shake/slurry of goodness. When you don’t eat sugar a frozen banana is sweet.

  6. Good article. The trick is to stop letting your emotions control your eating habits and put your brain back in charge. Your brain will tell you that the comfort you derive from that slice of chocolate cake is going to be a lot shorter lived than the layer of fat it puts on your hips.

    One of the really beautiful features of a paleo diet is that it effectively eliminates the cravings created by a diet full of sugars, sweets, and grain products. I differentiate between sugars and sweets here because, for some of us, simply switching from refined sugar to a healthier sweetener doesn’t eliminate the cravings for more sweets. Total elimination works much better.

    1. I would disagree … or at least say that it depends. Primal/paleo did not eliminate my cravings in the least. If anything, it intensified them because, to my emotional way of thinking, I was “depriving” myself of the food I really wanted, mainly sugar.

      Until I unpacked my emotional baggage and learned that the cravings kicked into highest gear whenever I found myself in a situation I couldn’t control or didn’t know what to do, it didn’t matter what eating plan I was following.

      Rationally, my brain didn’t want to eat junk, but it was no match for my completely illogical emotions.

      1. +1 to this. I find it so hard to not eat something if I tell myself I’m not allowed it. Almost a form of rebellion against myself!

        I find that if I tell myself I have no limitations I automatically make better choices. I am not fixating on the bad things and therefore don’t think about them as much. The idea of telling myself I can have it “later” is a good one as the craving passes fairly quickly and I haven’t felt that I have restricted myself

      2. I have to agree that feeling powerless drives pretty poor decision-making. Happily for me, PB gave me the greatest sense of control that I have ever had — in this case, control over my own well-being. I feel as if, no matter what the world throws at me, I have a blueprint for how to maintain my own well-being. It is almost as if I can now hear a voice in my head saying, “You can’t make me eat that _____ (donut, ice cream, candy, etc.)!! I’m the one who gets to decide what and when I eat!”

      3. “….the cravings kicked into highest gear whenever I found myself in a situation I couldn’t control or didn’t know what to do….”

        You just nailed it for me. The entire psychology of my eating disorders completely brought to light by one sentence. Serious Ah-ha moment. I do exactly this. Now I can be aware of it! Thank you!

    2. I have to completely disagree as well. What are our brains if not a big puddle of cells and…chemicals? The things that cause emotions? Neurotransmitters, gut bacteria, food, and the brain are intimately intertwined. Yes, elimination can go a long way, but deep feedback loops work both ways; an emotional drain can wreak havoc on our logic and judgment regarding food.

  7. There seems to be no end to the balancing act between diet, emotions, sleep, stress, exercise. I would think that most who start to have success would build momentum and greater positive self-image. That’s mostly the case for me, though as Mark C said above, buildup of stresses can lead to some amount of self sabotage. Trying to learn to recognize the early stages of imminent stress and react with self-care (sleep, soup, hugs), not harmful soothing.

  8. +1 sometimes if I’m upset over something I find my self looking for a ‘treat’ food to make myself feel better.

    Since going Primal I’m much more aware that it’s an emotional reaction rather than hunger.

    Better awareness of my food needs (and probably balancing my hunger hormones too) has helped me to identify and stop this emotional eating.

    Thank you Mark!

  9. Mark,

    What a great post, Yesterday I had a discussion with a client and touched on a few very similar points.

    I find people are hesitant or scared not only of change but of growth and moving forward. Really agree with the “surrender as well as striving.”

    Really enjoyed this post Mark!

  10. Mark, are you saying that stress leads to emotional eating which affects heath, or that that the stress itself affects health?

    What if a stressed person is still able to keep up strict primal and DOESN’T eat emotionally? Does his physical body “not know” that he is stressed and move toward weight loss and health despite the stessors?

    1. Mark has often emphasized the importance of reducing stress for weight loss and general health and well being, regardless of how strict you are on your diet. Your body releases lots of cortisol when you are stressed, which is a good thing when you are fighting a saber-tooth tiger to the death, but really unhealthy when it happens all day, every day (see a list of Cushing’s syndrome symptoms for what it can cause). I would personally go so far as to say that it is healthier to eat a lot of crap and be stress-free (including gut-stress) than it is to eat perfectly and be stressed-out constantly.

      1. that is the dumbest generic pseudoscientific advice I’ve heard all month

  11. Don’t forget the all day long messaging from the producers of sweets that it’s OK to treat yourself and that ‘treat’ means their product. If you don’t treat yourself with their patented sweets you’re uptight or a masochist and there must be something wrong with you. A society of well adjusted people who run or lift heavy things or scream (perfectly fine) in order to manage/cope with their built up emotions instead of downing a gallon of ice-cream doesn’t result in very good annual bonuses for food inc. execs. Some food for thought.


    1. In the words of Lisa Simpson’s advertising guy; “Just don’t look”.

  12. I think an important thing to keep in mind is that even if you conquer the emotional eating, you may still be left with the stress that was causing you to emotionally eat, and that in and of itself can be just as harmful. Be aware of those things in your life, and take care of the stress as well as the eating, otherwise you’re not solving the complete problem.

  13. The emotional element is so important, especially the support from others. My mother has problems with her back and had started in the local gym. Then my father said she could doo some more heavy lifting at home. My mother quit the gym after that comment.

    1. that kind of passive-aggressive sabotage just makes my blood boil — i trust you gave her BETTER support! 🙂

      1. Ironically, given the general competence of most personal trainers (especially when it comes to dealing with women) + the time/$cost of going to the gym vs having your own gym, in some circumstances that could have been construed as good advice.
        I’m not sure if it’s passive-aggressive but it sounds possibly like a bad idea – why would your mother quit just from one comment?

  14. Mark, you spoke about cultivating self-awareness and becoming aware of your own triggers. In working with different people, I have found that one of the biggest hurdles is that people don’t have an accurate awareness of the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger. That’s why often “listening to your body” doesn’t work – people misinterpret the signal.

    Basically emotional hunger is an urge to eat the develops rapidly and demands immediate consumption. It is also geared towards specific foods (cravings) and is often associated with guilt. Emotional eating doesn’t really satisfy your hunger (i.e. you’re still hungry after you finish eating even after a huge meal);

    True physical hunger, on the other hand, builds up gradually from a small level of discomfort to full throttle hunger pangs. With true hunger, you have a greater ability to delay food consumption (i.e. it doesn’t demand immediate attention and consumption). True hunger tends to come on several hours after your last meal and it is often non-specific for any type of food. It will leave you feeling satisfied after eating and the feeling of hunger should go away.

    Understanding this difference is the first step in fighting emotional eating patterns and achieving successful weight loss.

    1. Frank – I used to think that I was eating emotionally, because I had those intense cravings that had to be satisfied NOW. But my current thinking is that I was suffering from a sugar cycle and had low blood sugar, hence the urgency.

      This is not to say that emotional eating does not exist – it certainly does! Primal helps a lot with the low-blood-sugar-urgent cravings, and therefore, with a good proportion of overeating.

      1. Violet,

        I absolutely agree that intense cravings are definitely linked to the physical world and what we eat.

        In particular, a food that combines sugar, fat, and salt in the right quantities is usually extremely addictive and intensifies cravings.

        Think fast food…a big mac has a ton of salt and fat from the meat and processed cheese and sauce, with 3 layers of buns that are essentially fast digesting sugars.

        This is the precise reason why I find myself and many others hungry soon after consuming 2-3 slices of pizza (a substantial amount of calories but so high in sugar, fat, and salt that it leads to additional cravings).

        1. Just a warning about giving in to your cravings.
          We have been Primal for about a year and have been losing weight gradually.
          We normally never have chocolate biscuits (cookies) or toffees in the house but because it was Xmas I bought some for the visitors and we were given some as presents.
          BIG MISTAKE!
          The temptation was too much, you know what it’s like, you’ll just have one or two but it does not stop at that and my husband and myself ended up eating most of them between Xmas and New Year.
          My husband is type 2 Diabetic and has been doing great on the Primal eating plan but after the massive sugar shock he had a suspected Transient Ischaemic Attack (a mini stroke). Luckily he is okay although shaken up somewhat and is having lots of medical tests over the next few weeks. I got off lighter with a Migraine.
          That was a wake-up call I can tell you. There will be no more processed carbohydrates in this house; they are pure poison as far as we are concerned.

        2. Frank I believe Violet was referring more specifically to reactive hypoglycaemia which causes an energy crisis every time you eat carbs, giving you a strong urge and preoccupation with eating more carbs.

          Also based on your comment & website you kind of sound like one of those weird people that believes in what I call the “trashcan theory” of obesity… read Gary Taubes’ GCBC to see how idiotic this way of thinking is. Also, wiki or find the study for the Dunning-Krueger Effect.

        3. …when I say “reactive hypoglycaemia causes an energy crisis” of course the severity of this varies from people to people.

          Also I’m serious about the Dunning-Krueger effect – not just putting it out there as an insult – since you seem to have only half of the picture – the inferior half. Then again I suspect you’re being willfully ignorant to see your book.

          Your over-eating theory sounds great but makes no sense. See pages 246-248 of Gary Taubes’ GCBC in paperback. Even the old joke about the ranger/wildlife tour guide who says not to worry about bears as you only have to run faster than the slowest person destroys that whole thrifty gene hypothesis

    2. In It Starts With Food, the authors write “If you don’t want to eat eggs, you’re not really hungry. That’s just a craving.”

      I’ve actually found this a great barometer for whether or not I’m really hungry. If I think “Yeah, I could totally eat some eggs right now,” I do. (Or meat, macadamias, etc.) If I think about eggs and don’t want them, herbal tea it is.

      1. That’s a good one Violette. I don’t do cravings anymore, but that’s a great comment IMHO.

    3. I have read this, and I know in my case it is untrue.

      Cravings for protein or fat result from not eating enough protein or fat and come on strongly and quickly. Sudden binging is not in itself evidence of emotional eating!

  15. Excellent post! It still amazes me how powerful the mind body connection can be and how dysfunction in one can so profoundly affect the other… but it also works the other way in that taking positive steps and making good choices in one can spill over into the other.

    It also touches on the psychological effects the scale has on someone… if they make big efforts to change but don’t see the numbers of the scale move it can be extremely discouraging despite the fact that their body is simply transitioning and recomposing.

    1. I so agree– after two very stressful years when I succumbed all too often to self-comfort in the form of goodies, I’m regaining my self-confidence & self-respect as I lose the physical baggage & the bad habits.

      I think the term is “virtuous cycle!”

  16. Great article Mark. I really noticed a difference when I stopped using Splenda… my “cravings” ceased and I am in much better control of my choices 🙂

  17. I just ate 3 mini peppermint patty hearts. Let the self-loathing begin!

    1. LOL! I just ate 3 tbsps of dark chocolate chips. However, it’s less emotional today then “I’m tired hungry after a workout.” I need to work on having better foods around for workout days.

  18. I had to go to Overeaters Anonymous meetings to loose weight and keep it off. I ate anytime I was angry, depressed or afraid and had no control over food. OA has kept me out of emotional eating. I have been at a normal weight now for over 20 years. Going primal has helped the blood sugar swings but without OA I’d still be in a diet mentality, waiting to reward myself with “bad” food.

    For normal people just going primal is enough, some of us need more and I am one of those people.


    1. I, too, needed Overeaters Anonymous. I started 6 years ago and lost 55 pounds the first year. I have kept that weight off and still attend meetings regularly.

      If I didn’t have OA, I don’t think there’s anyway I would be able to eat primal/paleo. My compulsive overeating would have sabotaged it. Because of OA, I can eat in a way that I believe is best for my health!

  19. i started a ‘booze-free january’ in solidarity with a friend of mine. also because i was drinking a little too much than what i was comfortable with…not a lot of volume, but consistently, almost every night, 2 glasses of red wine. it was shockingly easy to stop…now i notice how i definitely ate unconsciously a lot after a drink or 2. now after dinner, i make a decaf coffee or tea and find the evening a lot more peaceful and restful. it’s almost like the booze (then the ‘treats’) distracted me from my circumstance or something (middle age, single, live with my awesome cat…yes, i’m a cat lady!). i find i read more, look up stuff that interests me online, relax and watch a few episodes of something good, have REALLY good sleeps.
    i will drink again, but i think i’ll make a conscious choice to really limit drinking home, when i’m alone. and also, just being generally more aware and present of what i’m putting in my body.

    lastly, i do find that i have to cut back on dried fruit cause that is my new crack. it used to be sour licorice and any other candy so it’s an obvious substitue. if i stick to a whole fruit, i get more water, feel more full. i also realized that primal worked better for me because the honey/maple syrup allowance in paleo was too easy a ‘go to’. i remember in December making an amazing “paleo” toffee…WTF!?! what is the difference? for me, i am all about the candy factor, so it’s something for me to be aware.

  20. I’m so glad to read all these posts. Sometimes I think paleo/primal types are super-human, totally balanced and craving-free. It’s reassuring to know that I am not alone when I commit Neolithy, i.e. eating something that is in no way primal.

    1. “commit Neolithy”….

      BRILLIANT! 🙂 i’ll be borrowing that.

    2. Ruth I think after a while as primal they/we *do* become craving free. But it does take a little while. Maybe six months to a year. Unless the memory of a fresh soft chewy sourdough bap with lashings of butter sneaks in.. (gurgling..)

  21. I belong to Overeaters Anonymous, a 12 step group (like AA, but replace the booze with the food). Using this program, I have found that I am able to deal with life on life’s terms, and not go to food. I have been abstinant from overeating for 23 months, and have lost 253 lbs. Try the program, it’s free.

    1. Heartfelt bravo….I am going to join OA asap…I’ve been considering it for quite a time, but have never made “the jump”. I have heard wonderful things about it, and believe at the very least it encourages social interaction, and those who would use food as a “balm” for isolation and loneliness can certainly obtain benefits.

    2. 253 Pounds? Congratulations!
      That’s one absolutely fantastic feat!

  22. I went Primal in July, and have since gone from 250+ lbs and a 40″ waist to 169 lbs and a 30″ waist. But quite honestly, more times than not I still think of myself as the out-of-shape fat guy.

    I guess you can lose weight, but you can’t lose crazy.

    1. ha, I was the opposite when I packed on 50 pounds…in my mind, I still saw myself like I was before I gained the weight, until I looked in the mirror! Yikes. Talk about denial. Now that I’ve lost that weight I can’t believe I let myself get to that point, but if that’s what it took to find a primal life, then so be it! I still have 40 pounds I want to lose, and I don’t remember being that small ever, so once I get there I’m sure I’ll still see myself as the “big girl.”

  23. I’ve done weight watchers, made it to goal weight and kept it off for 8 months. My mom had surgery and complications and I ate to comfort myself and gained back 20 of the 45 I had lost. So last year I found this site, started my primal journey and have not lost any weight. I feel better, I sleep better but I am still the same weight. So this year I am really tracking my food, exercising slowly every day and just started adding in lifting heavy things. I am disappointed that the weight hasn’t fallen off of me like it seems to every one else. I didn’t eat processed food so the only thing I have done is give up potatoes, pasta, rice quinoa, oats and dairy. I added the fats and grassfed meat and upped my veggies. It is very frustrating.

    1. Hang in there! I know it’s hard, but even if the weight loss is not coming easy (yet), know that you are giving yourself the best chance at a healthy, long life by eating whole foods and avoiding “poisonous” things.

      I was feeling the same as you over the last month. I felt I had been relatively primal but I’ve been stuck weight-wise for 2 months. I took a hard look at what I was doing to prevent the weight from coming off and have decided to change 2 things: absolutely NO alcohol for 2 weeks (to start) and to begin heavy lifting. I’d say it’s my first personal n=1. The lifting might help you, or try intermittent fasting (read Mark’s posts about it).

      In the end, you’ve got a whole community of people here to support you, so grok on! =)

    2. the solution is actually fairly simple in this case (although not easy to implement). If you’re not losing weight, you have to eat less. So remove some of those added fats (not all of them) and the weight will begin to slip off.

      Intuitively you already know that you have to eat less to lose weight. A calorie isn’t a calorie BUT calories still count.

    3. Patty, I have had a similar experience, after doing WW and achieving Lifetime status, maintaining that for over a year. Then my mom was diagnosed with brain cancer and died fairly soon afterwards, 2+ years ago. I kind of fell apart (people brought all kinds of “goodies” to the house and I ate them), and gained back about 10 pounds. I couldn’t shake the weight, even with a guided diet plan from a nutritionist (a SAD plan on which I only lost about 5 of those pounds over a whole year, despite lots of exercise). I dabbled in going Primal last July and committed to it not long after, including increasing my strength workouts and lowering my running mileage. From July to November, I only lost about 1 pound, but the nurse at my gym told me I’d lost 6 pounds of fat and gained 5 pounds of lean! People think I’ve lost a LOT more weight than I have! (I’ve now lost those remaining 4 pounds.)

      I have found that I don’t like how I feel after “treating” myself to typical desserts/snacks – that sugar rush makes me feel ill – so that helps me avoid them these days. However, I have to really watch the amount of dried fruit I eat. Last night I was tired and totally stressed out from work and gave in to a ton of raisins and a bit of chocolate. So emotional eating is something that I’m still working on!

    4. I totally understand your frustration, Patty. I started Primal in December 2011 and I didn’t lose ANY weight in all of 2012. I decided to join Weight Watchers in December 2012. I’m still following PB, just keeping track of things using the WW points model. I’ve lost about 7 pounds in a month, which is huge for me.

      I’ve found PB great for maintenance; my weight didn’t fluctuate by more than 5 pounds in 2012, which is actually amazing for me. However, I need a big loss first (like 50 pounds) before maintenance is my concern.

      You’re not alone!

  24. The emotional changes I’ve seen since going Primal have been HUGE, and I’m completely convinced that, for me, PB is the main reason I am no longer an emotional eater. I don’t get those sugar cravings or cravings for specific foods anymore when I’m stressed or bored or happy (or whatever emotion I’m feeling). Going Primal was a lifestyle change, so aside from changing what was going into my body physically, I was simultaneously changing what was in my mind. PB finally released me from the stigma that *I* had no self control, that *I* was a failure, that *I* was doing everything wrong if I ate something “bad.”

    Before going primal, I was a college athlete that struggled to keep my weight down, despite doing major workouts nearly every day. I couldn’t lose the weight I needed, so I ate less, but then I would have no energy for my workouts (SO frustrating). Then I would be upset that I had failed, that I wasn’t doing something right (despite eating a relatively healthy CW diet). It was always my fault. Then, like some athletes, I packed on about 50 pounds over 2 years after my collegiate career finished. I’m now back to my playing weight but have more weight to lose and strength to gain, and am so looking forward to doing that over the next 6 months and beyond.

    I wish I would have found PB during those years, because I would have been such a better athlete, but I’m so thankful for having made the change now at 24, and being able to do the things I love now without problems. PB gave me freedom from the awful cycle of diet and exercise that came with the worst emotional roller coaster in the world. That’s a bigger benefit to me than the weight loss (that’s like a bonus!).

    1. Exactly! Freedom from the roller coaster, control over your own well-being, that’s what it’s all about!

      I think you speak for many of us here when you say: PB finally released me from the stigma that *I* had no self control, that *I* was a failure, that *I* was doing everything wrong if I ate something “bad.”

  25. Great post! When people ask me how I lost weight I start out by saying “years of therapy” and follow that up with talk about diet and exercise.

  26. I started Primal last April. I have lost about 30 lbs — which on a small person like me is A LOT. I still struggle to see myself accurately in my new body (still have about 15 – 20 lbs to go). I continually experience the wonderful realization/feeling/KNOWLEDGE that I am returning to the athletic body of my 20’s and 30’s (but so much healthier than then, in a lot of ways!). I still deal with cravings for sweets — though eliminating wheat and other grains helped ENORMOUSLY. I find when I eat enough fat (mainly avocados, fatty fish and some nuts) my cravings for sugar are way less. But… the emotional component is DEFINITELY still there! I struggle with developing consistent healthy routines and “self soothing”. And this is all at the age of … OK, let’s just say the “other” side of 50! All the thoughts here are good ones, I’ve just re-committed to journaling and improving my sleep (both quality & quantity). For me, it’s helpful if I keep reminding myself that all of this — learning to take care of myself, honor my body, and my feelings — is a process and a journey and that there is no “perfect” and no point of arrival….

    As an aside, this is only my 2nd comment though I’ve been “here” for nearly a year. Just want to say this is an AMAZING community and I so admire Mark’s approach, which is intellectually curious and non-dogmatic and holistic (and HUMOROUS!) — cheers, All!

    1. Just to say that your article on negative beliefs is very good. Thanks for sharing the link.

  27. For me, finally learning that I couldn’t starve myself for a few weeks and be done with it was crucial. I lost about 50 pounds, then plateaued for years until I adopted the “marathon, not sprint” mindset and finally lost another 20.

    I’m at a healthy BMI now but want to lose another 10-20 pounds for vanity. What’s holding me back is twofold: 1) Delaying gratification. That’s a long term problem that affects many aspects of my life, including my finances; 2) extreme social isolation. I’ve got no supportive relationships in my life – food is the only thing there to soothe and comfort. Anything else is a sorry substitute.

    1. Violette, some things that have helped me on the social isolation: volunteering, getting involved in a hobby (joining a club); on the physical side: interacting with pets, getting a massage or even things like a manicure, pedicure or haircut (the pleasant interactions as well as the touch/care aspects). There are ways to do/make these types of things happen for no or low cost, too — even taking a warm bath (by candlelight, with a few drops of a pleasant essential oil in the water) can be an act of self-love and very soothing and comforting. And sometimes I say this mantra to myself when I crave sweets or those “comforting” foods that do me harm in the long (or shorter) run: “my life is sweet (enough), I don’t need to fill up on sugar”, or “my life is full, I don’t need to fill myself physically with food [to not feel empty]” — these have all helped me. My tendency at times can be to avoid social events, but I find that that once I go/participate, my mood is lifted, and that tends to start a, shall we say “virtuous cycle” instead of a vicious one.

  28. Is it just me, or are words like “strict” and “diet” and “cheating” emotional stop signs when it comes to actually doing something healthy for yourself?

    I hate telling myself to be “stricter” on my “diet” after a weekend of “cheating.” My own mental dialog has so much to do with how I feel and act. Rather than trying to guilt myself into health and fitness, I try to phrase things in a way that help me toward my goals. It helps that I actively enjoy the majority of eating according to the primal plan. If someone brings cookies, donuts, or bagels to work, I only have to think about how lousy I’ll feel in the afternoon if I fill up on carbs in the morning. And if I absolutely want that doughnut no matter what, I try not to feel bad about it. The doughnut is usually tasty and I can get back to my salad and salmon (which I love!) without inflicting much damage.

  29. I don’t necessarily buy into “emotional eating.”

    Rather than walking around thinking, “Oh, good, my stomach is growling…that means I’m getting thinner…” I recognize true hunger and EAT. That equates to taking care of one’s self at a most basic level. Since doing the paleo diet, I feel “allowed” to eat. So, instead of walking around starving and patting myself on the back for it, then having a complete meltdown and a potato-chip-chocolate-cookie-hot-fudge-ice-cream-sundae binge, I actually recognize the hunger and put something good in my mouth. And sometimes, a carrot stick is not good. If you’re physical self is telling you it needs something, then it needs what it needs – whether it be something greasy or a nap.

    The caveat to that is – no one needs white sugar, white flour, or any of its equivalents. The body needs natural foods. So, part of the trouble is recognizing precisely the true need and not the need disguised and clothed in one of the white substances.

    1. You might have been lucky enough generally not have emotional eating be part of your life. That’s a very good thing.

      However, I absolute do know that it exists. I’ve had issues with it but thankfully have generally wrangled it to something under control. Both my parents and my aunt still struggle with it and are all varying degrees overweight because of it.

      The absolute hardest part as an emotional eater is actually separating real hunger from the emotional urge to eat. It’s not as easy as it sounds, even after eliminating 95% of the sugar/starch triggers. I have been known to overeat eggs and mayo. (Really!) The difference is (thank goodness) that at some point your body screams ENOUGH!!! when the emotional eating is mostly fat. (No so much with a bag of cookies.) It’s much harder to gain weight that way, although it does seriously impede weight loss.

      1. I understand where you’re coming from. I guess what I take issue with is the idea that someone is fat entirely of their own doing and calling it “emotional eating” is just another way of saying it’s your fault. Instead of saying you’re weak, now it’s that you’re incapable of handling emotions. But what is the real problem? Your body is overweight. That’s a physical problem according to the “lookist” society we live in, not an emotional one. If you were 115 pounds, and ate every hour, no one would question your emotional stability. If you were to embrace your hunger, your cravings, and eat forgivingly, accept your inner beauty, and take care of yourself by listening to your body, the emotional side will also improve. Maslow’s heirarchy of needs comes to mind…with the physical needs the largest first block. If you can’t fulfill those most basic needs, then how can you move upwards toward self-actualization? Basically, what I’m saying is that it’s ok to forgive yourself for being larger than others, just like being taller or shorter.

    2. I don’t buy into your logic that it has anything to do with need. Sugar has a powerful effect on a lot of people and some not all form addictions to it. Using your logic nobody would ever form addictions, and things like alcohol and cigarettes are all misguided needs related behaviors. I can tell you that Sugar does effect your insulin and very real brain patterns can be associated to all sorts of things that you physiologically don’t need and don’t relate to need. People exist that eat 100 % Paleo and listening to there bodies needs and still crave sweets, crave alcohol, crave drugs, crave exercise it is they have become addicted to for whatever reason in there lives, and its emotional not a physiological need masked.

      1. Not sure if you’re just looking at it from a different angle, but we essentially agree. Sugar is an addictive substance. I often call it crack. When I feel a “craving” for sugar, I listen closely to the craving and often realize I’m either thirsty or need to eat fat. It works for me. I was addicted to sugar. Maybe it wouldn’t work for everyone.

  30. I think there’s also an emotional impact on others around us as we lose weight or become more fit that gets reflected back and can cause issues.

    Since August of 2011, I’ve lost 65 lbs (From 255 to 190) and my wife has has a number of deeply emotional reactions.

    I do almost all of the cooking, and at first she interpreted the shift in what was on the table as selfishness on my part. Then she was jealous of my ability to simply stop eating things and told me that my weight loss was damaging her own self-image.

    It was hard to deal with, and I had to work it out with a therapist. I also got her to go to her own therapist to try to figure out what was going on.

    When I started exercising regularly about 6 months ago (boxing and cross-fit) we went through a similar journey.

    About three months ago, she started doing Pilates and is taking baby-steps towards fixing her diet – no more Starbucks pastries, fewer sweet things in general.

    All of this has made it harder for me, as I’ve felt guilty for causing her so much distress. These days, it’s become a lot easier.

    I guess I’m lucky – I really didn’t have a hard time changing my diet, and I understand that it will be harder for her. In fact, she may never do it. It’s her choice.

    1. The weight loos probably will be harder for her. Women physically tend to have a hard time losing body fat.

      On the other hand, the idea that your weight loss was damaging her self image is..well an idea that belongs in the compost heap. There’s no reason to feel guilty about it (hopefully you’ve worked through that with your therapist).

      *sigh* My MIL has a very similar attitude — that actions of others control her happiness. It’s not an easy to deal with because it’s simply not true. The only person responsible for her happiness is her.

      Anyway, good luck to the both of you.

  31. Every body here seems to eat with stress. I do not. When stress in present I can’t seem to eat much of anything or it comes up. So I have learned to eat when its all over.

  32. Sheesh, this post is definitely for me. I lost a fair bit of weight last year and then suddenly developed Alopecia Areata and lost 75% of my hair. *Cue emotional eating* I was just starting to get a handle on things when my grandmother passed away. *Cue emotional gluten binge* Months later I’m still working on getting back on track, getting the bad habits under control, and giving myself permission to just eat well, exercise sensibly and enjoy a healthy body.

  33. Great piece and thought provoking..

    To a surgeon..every problem ends with an operation..so some say the issue fixed with bariatric banding, or removal of 3/4 of the stomach..etc etc..
    to a psych the issue is all in the mind…etc etc..

    I think there is a lot of cross over..reading up on the effects of leptin, the consequense of over eating leads to a need to overeat for emotional relief..and some get the same reward from over exercise, so many feedback loops to look at, it is often hard to nail exactly which one is the issue for which condition..

    Hence so many solutions are available and people will swear that their answer is the one true path to success..eat less move more for example is popular among the ignorant masses..

    Sorry folks there is no simple solution but there are plenty of complicated ones..and yes it does start in the mind..as does all human endeavour.

  34. I am a big emotional eater as well. I never ever ate out of hunger it was always some emotion or another. I am trying to learn to love myself as I am now. Not to be so hard on myself and focus on non physical positive attributes.

  35. I used to struggle with a weight problem, against myself.

    Now I struggle against a weight problem, with myself.

    That has made all the difference.

  36. I “hated & ated” myself up to 450 pounds. It wasn’t until I finally started working on the emotional crap that I could lose more than 10 pounds before reverting. I’m now 90 lbs down since August 1 and I’m not nearly as excited about that as I am about just being in better head space.

  37. I have been living the Primal lifestyle for a couple of months now and have been experimenting with different levels of daily carb intake.

    I’m finding my body often responds better if I have between 75-100 max grams of carbs. Originally I was having 30-50g max per day but have found my body felt stressed out and more adrenalised.

    Including more vegetables, maybe a sweet potato and one piece of fruit is making my body feel much calmer! Has anyone else had similar experiences? Having slightly more carbs each day also makes me feel more emotionally stronger and calmer. I had really thought 30g carbs would be my daily ideal!

    1. yup, i had the same experience. i was ok for a few weeks low carb but there was a ‘freak out’ tipping point. i also exercise regularly and vigorously so definitely needed some glycogen stores! i’ve up-ed my carbs to about 115 or so, unless i’m not exercising that day, in which case i’ll decrease it a bit and add some fat/protein. this primal/paleo thing is certainly FAR from a single prescription one size fits all. i’ve only been into this for a few months but find the psychology of it (the writers/bloggers AND the followers) to be really interesting. at the end of the day, you really have to take ownership over your life and lifestyle and not let anyone dictate what works for you!

  38. I wanted to reply to this because it is EXACTLY where I am. I am not an emotional eater. I can “not eat” in amazing ways. So that’s not my issue. But letting me see myself as something healthy, fit and attractive? Now that’s some crazy talk right there! With primal I’ve put the focus on healthy, and I can except that – but when people’s response to my changes has been commenting on my appearance, it makes me really uncomfortable! Great post reminding us to allow the for the things we want to come!

  39. “I used to think that I was eating emotionally, because I had those intense cravings that had to be satisfied NOW. But my current thinking is that I was suffering from a sugar cycle and had low blood sugar, hence the urgency.”

    Violet wrote on January 24th, 2013

    I am exactly like Violet, since becoming Primal (and even more right now on Whole30) emotional eating isn’t an issue, any urges to are so mild I can disregard them with ease. Getting off almost all fructose and excess glucose has been startlingly helpful.

  40. I’m breaking my posting virginity here, and much like that situation in real life I wasn’t looking for the information mark provided just here but man did it feel good to read it! I made the switch to primal at the beginning of the year after almost a decade (since early teens) of binging/restricting/losing weight/gaining/ never feeling satisfied happy or in control of my eating and body. I’ve been struggling the past week because on seeing results mentally/physically of a much more natural and healing lifestyle I started to fall into my old trap of ‘feeling good so should restrict more to feel ever better’ and linking punishment/deprivation to happiness. This post is like a jolt awake out of a negative thought pattern. I’m going to post this and go write a list of how to recognise ‘feeling better’ without the self flagellation. First stop, read the comics in the paper, second, go for a stroll in the sunlight with my gorgeous strong groklkin’ lady legs!

  41. I work with a lot of emotional eaters, and I agree that it’s a complex issue. There are simple supportive things that can be done however. A good quality magnesium supplement calms the nervous system, helps sleep and can dramatically reduce cravings.

  42. I cannot agree more about pursuing emotional eating as an important process in primal (for those of us for which it applies). I came to primal while seeking treatment for emotional eating. As it turns out, eating primally has eliminated my cravings that I had when I was having and so I’m not emotionally eating anymore. Primal has opened a whole new world for me—Now I am available to actually address the underlying issues that I ate over because I am not distracted by zoning out on carbs anymore. I am only 25 days primal and have a long road ahead of me; but at least I’m ON the road now! I am in therapy with a good therapist (after cycling through a couple of really bad ones). Things are looking up. I look forward to being a healthy weight and emotionally healthy as well:0) GROK ON!!!

  43. There are loads of different approaches to deal with emotions and other unconscious patterns. Just as certain people can benefit enormously from coaching on fitness and primal diet, some people need to work with professionals for psychological issues assuming their cause is psychogenic. As for the rest, i.e., the DIY crowd, so many simple and inexpensive techniques exist. Someone mentioned NLP. These is also EFT. See https://www.lightsoflove.us/EFTmanual.pdf, for example. Dr. Mercola found some good success with that. You can find a lot of the information free online.

  44. If you think you have disordered eating you will benefit from reading Jane Hirschmann and Carol Munter Overcoming Overeating. I used to think that going primal is the way to go to cure myself out of my emotional eating and although paleo eating may be the answer for many, I found that first I have to get rid of my compulsion to eat. It took me a while to admit this. I also believe that different things work for different people so whatever great idea/eating plan you read about that rings true for you, embrace it but also be ready to fine tune it to your own needs. For example I agreed with most of what I read in the above mentioned book although I started sugar quitting at the same time. I do believe sugar really messes me up, although I try not to demonize it. I found it useful to read David Gillespie Sweet Poison and check out Sarah Wilson website for sugar quitting support, her 8 week guide and cookbook is brilliant.

  45. Susan Alberts books are the best I have found to help with untangling the psychology of mindless eating, dieting and many things beyond. She cuts out all the fluff and has things broken down in a precise manner. True, she is a devotee of a CW eating style, but the psychology is universal. I resisted badly on the first reading, but I have made myself to go through her books numerous times, and every time it helps me.

    That’s said, I don’t believe the body and metabolism is at all simple. There is such a warped connection between the foods, timing of food, individual response to food, it’s insane. Things that work for a whole bunch of people do not work at all for another bunch… and stuff.

    1. Gosh, I had the same attitude when I started reading the Hirschmann/Munter book on overeating. I think the reason while these authors encourage CW style eating is to free you from your demons. I only realized a couple of months ago that for me no eating plans work until I sort out my overeating/binge eating/emotional eating issues. Even tho I believe paleo/primal style eating is the best way to nourish oneself, I know I cannot follow that lifestyle until my disordered eating is fixed. I think however to accept this and be open to ideas discussed in those books, you have to have your fair share of suffering first. But then it might be just me. Ridiculous as it may sound but it took me 8 months to accept that I can no longer fit in to a size 10 jeans. During that time, I avoided clothes shopping which was good for my wallet but not so good for my body and soul. Wearing too small/tight clothing is not your passport to Happyland. Anyway, thanks for your insight and I’ll be looking out for Susan Alberts books. The more informed I am the better choices I make (or so I hope:-)). (English is not my first language so sorry for my simple ways of explaining myself).

  46. Do any of you struggle with eating ‘at’ yourself or someone else?

    Whilst I totally have all the ‘angry, stressed, sad, no control or tired’ eating issue, I find that if I can just get started on controlling that (magnesium is a great help – thanks MDA! – & a cuppa distracts me), I can get on a roll & gain more & more distance from that kind of eating.

    But where I struggle is eating as a form of anger at myself (or someone else). I’ll a Rialto eat too much of something bad because somewhere deep down I believe I deserve it. Not as a treat, as a punishment.

    How on earth do you approach this? All the usual advice, such as thinking about what you’re doing to your health or knowing the Primal alternatives, don’t work, because they would be self-care & this type if eating is precisely, deliberately the opposite of that.

    (PS. Please don’t say counselling. Please? Tell me there’s another way! 🙂

  47. This is the key for me. Always has been. I get it, for sure. Eating healthy…makes total and utter sense to me. Being Primal is right for me.

    Its my emotions that have always gotten in the way. That’s why Weight Watchers was actually good for me (not in the food category) but the support, other people struggle with similar issues, weekly meetings to talk and support each other, cheer for each other. I miss that!

    Maybe someday I will create a Primal Blueprint Weight Watchers….LOL 😉

  48. I, and perhaps more immediately my fiance, notice that I am very grumpy if I don’t eat chocolate every day. I know that this sounds crazy, but I have cut it out before and really am grumpy for as long as I don’t eat chocolate (several weeks and it doesn’t get better). Fortunately dark chocolate has a lot of health benefits, so I don’t feel like it’s cheating to have a square of dark chocolate every morning. However, I am fascinated, and somewhat disappointed, that my emotional well-being is so closely tied to one food. To clarify, I don’t crave the chocolate (or sweets), and often I even have to purposely remember to “take my chocolate” in the morning. But I will soon notice if I forget because of my bad mood!

  49. It took me decades to address and deal with the emotional aspect of my eating. At 58, I now have a completely different problem, which is dealing with the aftermath of decades of bad eating, which includes the damage of having undiagnosed celiac, which has done permanant damage to my immune system and metabolism. Despite being primal/paleo for 3 years, my body is just plain broken and I can only compensate for the damage. I am lighter and healther than when I was still eating the garbage, but my health problems will be with me until my dying day.

    SO! If you recognize yourself when you read this column and you are any younger than 50, please, please, please deal with your issues BEFORE the permanent damage of bad eating takes you beyond the point of being able to fix yourself physically.
    Thanks Mark!

  50. For the emotional part of the journey, I recommend two books: The Happiness Trap, by Steven Hays, and Living Like You Mean It, by Ronald Frederick. They’re quite different from each other but both are excellent. Can anyone suggest other books? I find the emotional/psychological change absolutely necessary for other changes to stick, and extremely rewarding on their own.

  51. I really appreciate the question of the emotional side of weight gain and weight loss. Too often people try to ignore that they need to deal with more than just food and exercise, because if it’s emotional it is hard to engage with those emotions in an honest way. Many people fall into blaming themselves when they try to see that they do have control of their bodies and their choices. It can be a slippery slope for sure.
    A journal is a great way to engage with those thoughts and emotions, but also a way to monitor behaviors and hold yourself accountable.
    Enjoying the blog, thanks!

  52. I have fallen off the paleo bandwagon lately but I really think this could be applied to anyone.

  53. YES! Totally agree that the emotional side of things needs addressing and I’m glad that the Primal Connection covers this too.. some research done by Harvard has shown that up to 85% of illness and disease is rooted in thoughts and feelings that are not conducive to good health..

  54. How about fighting the fear of home cooking – I cook healthy and my youngest picky eater then needs to be talked into it so it’s a horrible struggle and now the kids just eat out a lot (granted it’s still juiced veggie drinks and salads, but it’s still from out and god knows what they do to it). Fearless cooking dinner at home is my huge struggle… along w all the other food noise.

  55. If I want to eat something I know I shouldn’t (cupcakes, cake, cookies, etc…) I eat a meal or something healthy first, allowing myself the treat after I’ve had the healthy food first, and have found my desire for the terrible thing I’d been thinking about eating all day goes away. It also helps that I cultivated an acute awareness of when I’m full and a dislike for feeling over-full, so adding extra, poisonous food after eating a healthy meal is not as exciting an idea as it once was.

  56. “You have to realize the difference between self-soothing and self-care.” Thank you for being such an amazing writer, and synthesizing these issues into concepts that make so much sense. That is the heart of it – you can either “soothe” yourself with things that you know make you sick later, or truly care for yourself. Once I realized the soothing was so fleeting, it was easy to remind myself that I wanted to care for myself long-term instead. No food feels better than good health, energy and being at the right weight for your body. Great article.

  57. As a psychiatrist, and as a woman who has struggled with her weight and with “emotional eating” all my life, I have learned a few things about this very important topic.

    1. Emotions come from brain chemistry and brain chemicals come from food.
    2. The only two food groups that I or any of my patients have ever “emotionally” eaten are carbohydrates and dairy products.
    3. Paleo diets do not cure emotional eating in many people because they contain too much carbohydrate. Low-carbohydrate or even ketogenic diets are required in many of us, especially women, and especially those over 40.
    4. Carbohydrates cause blood sugar and insulin spikes, which, in turn, trigger swings in hormone and neurotransmitter levels. This roller coaster results in a wide variety of emotional responses, from depression to anxiety to fatigue to insomnia to ravenous hunger, to difficulty concentrating. Several times per day.
    5. Dairy products contain factors which trigger insulin spikes just like carbohydrates do, and contain growth hormones which make people hungry.

    I’m not saying that there are no psychological factors (childhood or trauma issues) involved in overeating, but in my personal and clinical experience, almost all emotional overeating can be addressed with dietary modifications. There is hope:)

  58. Thank you for this article Mark, it really spoke to me (and as I can see from the comments, to lots of other people as well!). I have huge struggles with negative self-talk and self-image, as well as emotional eating and other negative self-soothing behaviours. To give a context, I was sexually abused and emotionally neglected as a child then sexually assaulted in my teens/early twenties and involved in several abusive relationships. All of this led to depression, anxiety, an eating disorder (anorexia then bulimia) and negative self-soothing behaviours through abusing food, alcohol and prescription medications.

    It is INCREDIBLY hard for me to break the negative patterns and ways of coping that I’ve set up for myself! With the help of an excellent psychiatrist, a supportive partner and the positive influences of CrossFit and Primal/Paleo eating, I’m getting there.

    I’ve loved the suggestions from everyone, and I’ll definitely be taking note of them all, and following up on a few of those books people mentioned. I’d also like to add my own tips:

    – If your issues have arisen from a background of trauma like mine, professional assistance is hugely helpful. A psychiatrist is your best bet (higher qualifications than a counseller). Its pretty hard to work through these kinds of things on your own.
    – Keep a journal. I don’t write in mine every day, I just note down any emotional eating and write what I was feeling during/before/after, so I can look at it and go “OK I emotionally eat when I feel lonely” etc
    – Write a list of self-CARE behaviours (rather than self-soothing). Its different for everyone but mine include taking a bath, reading a good book, looking at photos of loved ones. Then use them 🙂
    – Avoid triggers for bad habits. Eg. I would emotionally eat on coming home from work and finding myself home alone. Now I’m going straight from work to a well-populated park to watch the puppies and kids play, enjoy the sunshine and practice my pullups!
    – I’ve also found that avoiding sugar and ensuring I get adequate sleep makes a HUGE difference for me. I do take anti-depressants but my aim is to get off them one day.

    Thanks again for a fantastic article Mark 🙂

  59. Thank you so much Mark for addressing this topic.I had emotional eating issues from the time I was old enough to choose my own foods. I struggled with bingeing and purging through my teenage years. As a result of my own issues I became a holistic nutritionist, then a personal trainer, then a sports nutritionist and now I use something called EFT (someone mentioned it earlier..hooray!). EFT was the missing piece for me. Knowing more about exercise and diet didn’t do anything to change my emotional drive for food. I now specialize in teaching people how to overcome emotional eating with a combination of diet, supplementation, proper exercise (MDA is a vital source of info for me in that regard so thank-you SOOO much) and the emotional blocks that prevent us from being able to change. I have a free slideshare presentation here that goes into this in depth, offers solutions and even teaches you EFT so you can begin to try it on your own…

  60. I have been dabling with Paleo for the last couple of years off and on. When I need to drop some weight I am much more strict. I have to be really careful with carbs because I will easily over indulge for days and weeks if Im not careful. I have been pretty Paleo strict for the last 4 weeks with a cumulative calorie deficit of about 23000 calories but havent dropped a singe pound!! I am running 30-40 miles per week and weight training 1-2 times per week. I have recently been trying to up my protein to over 100g and lower carbs to below 50g. Not sure what else to do. I am 23% body fat and want to drop 5-10 lbs. HELP PLEASE!!!

  61. Any fitness regimen or exercise plan will deem a failure if you will not eat right. No amount of exercise will help you achieve your weight loss goals that you so desire without taking on the discipline necessary.

  62. Hi,
    I believe emotional release is the key to losing and keeping weight off. I have clients coming to me because things are not going so good for them, as a result of using proven methods of emotional release one of the benifits has been weight loss for clients. After working with clients they find that they have deal with the issues that were hindering any positive progress and the great thing is the change usually is very quick.