Mindful Emotional Eating as a Humanistic Harm Reduction Approach to Overeating

Here’s a question that’s a lot on my clinical mind: “What do clients want and how do I help them get what they want?” This very question is at the core of humanistic harm reduction (HHR).

When my client presents with concerns about “emotional eating,” I ask myself the same question. When you, as a clinician, get in the habit of asking yourself this question, the answer becomes rather self-evident. What emotional eating clients want is obvious: they want to eat when they feel bad and they don’t want to feel bad about eating. They want to feel in control during this coping, self-soothing episode (both during and after emotional eating). But they have come to believe that eating to cope and feeling in control are somehow mutually exclusive.

Not so! We can help our clients have exactly what they want. Yes, they can eat to cope and, yes, they can feel in control (both during and after the emotional eating episode). How? With the help of mindful emotional eating (MEE).

Mindful emotional eating satisfies two self-regulation fantasies: To eat and to feel in control. Mindful emotional eating allows your client to pursue change without sacrificing what they want. To clarify, I am not talking about emotional eating. I’m talking about mindful emotional eating.

Principles of Mindful Emotional Eating

Emotional eating is misunderstood and often unnecessarily demonized. However, emotional eating — that is, eating to feel good, often termed "compulsive eating" — isn’t the problem. It’s emotional overeating and mindless emotional eating that can be both psychologically and physically unhealthy. Emotional eating works as a coping strategy and stress reliever if approached with mindfulness and moderation.

Emotional Eating Is Inevitable

Whether you eat or overeat, whether you eat mindfully or mindlessly, one thing is clear: people only eat what they like to eat.  How a particular food tastes is a fundamentally emotional consideration. Let’s face it: your body doesn’t give a hoot whether you eat something that tastes good or not so good, as long as the food isn’t rotten. Tasteis the business of the mind — a matter of pleasure. Bottom line: Everyone eats for pleasure, so emotional eating is inevitable.

Emotional Eating Is Coping

Aside from emotional eating to feel good, some of us also eat to cope — that is, to reduce emotional distress.  Eating for pleasure or eating to reduce daily stresses are two sides of the same coin but our all-or-nothing minds divide this indivisible coin in half.  On one hand, we are encouraged to slow down and enjoy the food we eat.  On the other hand, we are told by popular culture to never eat for emotional reasons.  If this sounds like hypocrisy, it is. Any pursuit of well-being is simultaneously a reduction of distress.

Why Emotional Eating Works

There are several good reasons why emotional eating is so appealing as a coping strategy.

  • Eating is oral coping: From day one, feeding has been a default parenting intervention and the pacifier has been our first coping tool. Eating to relieve oral tensions — for example, after quitting smoking — is an intuitive soothing choice.
  • Feeding is caring:Many cultures explicitly equate feeding with caring.  Remember grandma’s home-baked chocolate cookies after a hard day at school?
  • Meal time is support time. Family meals are a family ritual, and at their best are a time of togetherness, an opportunity for social relating and belonging and as a means to emotional well-being.
  • Eating is grounding. Eating is a ritual, and as such, it’s comforting in its predictability.  Eating is a sensation-rich, unambiguously physical activity.  As such, eating is an effective reality check at a time of uncertainty or confusion, a behavior that grounds and centers a busy or overworked mind.
  • Eating is relaxing. From the physiological perspective, a choice to eat can be seen as an attempt to directly manipulate the nervous system, by switching on the part of our wiring that is associated with relaxation and rest.

Leveraging More Coping Per Calorie

Given the fact that we all eat emotionally on some level or another, here are a few suggestions for making your meals more mindful, effective, grounding, relaxing and nutritionally beneficial:

  1. Accept emotional eating as a legitimate coping choice, not a coping failure.
  2. When eating to cope, have an appetizer of relaxation first. Take a few moments to notice your breath and smell your food. Preload on the fullness of the moment.
  3. Follow a predictable eating ritual, with clear starting and ending points. Begin with breathing, focus on your food throughout your meal and end with a healthy dose of self-acceptance.
  4. Use pattern-interruption techniques (such as eating with a non-dominant hand or using the wrong utensils) to keep your mind aware, guessing, present and focused during the mindful emotional eating episode.
  5. If you want to binge or "veg out," to regress into a bit of mindless "hand-to-mouth" trance then consider a harm-reduction strategy: mindfully choose what you will mindlessly eat. Instead of "inhaling" a bag of M&Ms, fill up on carrot sticks. The objection that carrot sticks don’t taste as good as M&Ms is irrelevant here. Remember, this "hand-to-mouth" trance isn’t about taste after all, but about the soothing activity of self-feeding.
  6. Know your comfort foods. Mindful emotional eating is an attempt at self-care. So, if you are going to try to self-medicate with food, you might as well use the right "medicine." Allow yourself to have exactly the experience of pleasure that you seek. Or risk filling up on what you don’t want to eat and then feeling doubly disappointed.
  7. Indulge on quality, not quantity. Mindful emotional eating is not about meeting your caloric quota or about how much you eat but about how much you enjoy this moment of eating. So, as you purchase your comfort foods, pay the premium price, get the top-shelf foodstuffs. This additional financial investment will likely intrigue your tongue and help you slow down to mindfully notice this moment of self-care.
  8. When you eat to cope, just eat. The suggestion of "eating when you eat" is the backbone of all mindful eating know how. It is particularly important when it comes to mindful emotional eating. When you sit down to eat to cope, turn off the TV, put the reading aside. Or risk missing out on the very self-care moment you have so courageously allowed yourself to have. So, when you eat to cope, then just cope. If food is your therapist at this moment, then you have to show up for this session with yourself.

Building a new habit is a process. Give mindful emotional eating a try. Fine tune this self-care strategy until you find the sweet spot of moderation. As with most life-modification plans, self-acceptance is a healthy place to start. Remember: emotional eating doesn’t have to lead to emotional overeating.

Mindful Emotional Eating: Reviews

Here are some early reviews of my new book on Mindful Emotional Eating.

"Don t be fooled by the seeming contradiction in the title of Mindful Emotional Eating. The book makes the case to troubled eaters and their treaters that if we re going to turn to food when we re stressed or distressed, we best do it not with guilt, shame, self-hatred, or detachment from our bodies and their cravings, but with a keen mindfulness that will satisfy our appetites and foster emotional well-being." --Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed., psychotherapist, eating coach, and author of Outsmarting Overeating.

"This wonderfully creative book teaches us that we don't need willpower to overcome our unruly eating habits, but mindfulness skill power. It shows that freedom doesn't come from stopping emotional eating, but when we learn how to eat emotionally in moderation, more effectively and without self-judgement or self-loafing. Pavel Somov has put together a fun mindfulness toolbox for not only healthcare professionals, but anyone who struggles with emotional eating." --Alexa Frey, Co-Founder, The Mindfulness Project, London

Pavel's Mindful Emotional Eating is a gem of a toolkit that will be invaluable both to individuals seeking a mindful eating self-help option and to practitioners looking to infuse more mindfulness into their work..." --foreword by Linda Craighead, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology & Director of Clinical training, Emory University, author of The Appetite Awareness Workbook.

"Dr. Pavel Somov's newest book, Mindful Emotional Eating, offers individuals struggling with eating concerns a revolutionary guidebook for developing a satisfying, enjoyable relationship to food. The book challenges prevailing notions by de-pathologizing emotional eating and affirms that emotional eating is one among many ways that we can care for ourselves. His humanistic harm reduction approach helps people shift from demonizing emotional eating to affirming that we all eat for emotional reasons. The positive change we seek is from mindless to mindful moderate emotional eating. His mindful emotional eating (MEE) process is the antidote to the shame, blame, self-attacks and rebellious over-eating that characterize mindless emotional eating. MEE empathizes with people s need to self-soothe and empowers people to choose how they want to do it. His Jumpstart is filled with inspiring ideas and practical strategies for developing moderate emotional eating. Ultimately this book helps us become aware, self-compassionate and empowered with the confidence and skills to choose how to best care for ourselves in each moment. Quite a lot to get from one small book! I highly recommend it to practitioners and people with eating concerns." --Andrew Tatarsky, PhD, leading expert in Integrative Harm Reduction Psychotherapy

"Pavel G. Somov provides an ingenious, non-judgmental, mindful approach to emotional eating (this includes ALL eating) that is based on skillpower, not willpower. In this guide for clinicians, he gives specific step-by-step instructions for how to eat mindfully that fully empowers clients to feel good about eating and changes the paradigm from deprivation and guilt to self-acceptance and self-control. He breaks down this process into tasks, language, narratives and homework to use in each clinical session with clients. This book gives you everything you need to help clients change their mindset about eating and to apply effective mindfulness skills to the realm of cravings, over eating, binge eating, nighttime eating, weight management and eating driven by specific emotions. This might be the last book on helping with emotional eating that you need to buy." ----Debra Burdick, LCSWR, BCN, #1 best-selling author of Mindfulness Skills Workbook for Clinicians and Clients and Mindfulness Skills for Kids & Teens

"Let s be honest. We all eat with emotions involved in the process. We eat for survival, for comfort, for energy, for relief and for pleasure and all those motivations include an emotional component. The path to health is not to deny the role of emotion in eating. Rather, the task is to make intentional decisions about our eating patterns. In this accessible and compassionate book, Pavel Somov shows you path to breaking unhealthy eating patterns. He offers clear insights, skills and practices you need to be a more mindful eater. By following his guidance, you will not only make eating decisions that better support your health; you will also feel better about yourself and your relationship to food. As an added bonus, you will develop mindfulness skills that will be so helpful in many other areas of your life." ----Terry Fralich, LCPC, JD, author of Cultivating Lasting Happiness, 2nd Edition and The Five Core Skills of Mindfulness

Let me know if you are interested in reviewing this book on Amazon.

Mindful Eating is Skillpower, Not Willpower

There is more to mindful eating know-how than just paying attention and chewing ten times.  As I see it, there are at least 10 different skill sets that constitute fully conscious, mindful eating.  These are: craving control, trigger control, hunger recognition, fullness recognition, mindful emotional eating, mindful social eating, philosophy of eating, process focus, satiety extension, and appetite control skills.  Note: each skill is really a skill-set consisting of sub-skills.  For example, craving control consists of such specific craving control skills as distraction, relaxation, self-talk, mindfulness and several combinations thereof.

Metabolize This!

We tend to think of metabolism in purely physiological terms.  I’d like to help you broaden your view of metabolism a bit.  I invite you to think of metabolism as information processing.  Let’s take the act of eating, for example.  We can think of eating in purely physiological, metabolic terms… or we can think of eating as an informational process in which an act of tasting is an act of knowing.

I describe this Info-Experiential view of eating in my book, Reinventing the Meal, but here’s a similar perspective from Dr. Hari Sharma, MD, a Western trained proponent of ancient Vedic approaches to healing:

“When the taste receptors first experience the different taste and textural properties of a meal, an enormous amount of information is delivered through the body (primarily through the limbic system), triggering basic metabolic processes.”

“The body eventually metabolizes the molecular constituents of the food, but it first metabolizes the sensory experience of taste.”

“Long before the food is digested, its influence has spread throughout the body.  A delicious meal is more than a treat; the taste can be nourishing in itself.”

“The body metabolizes the emotional content of every experience that it has,” writes Dr. Sharma.  And that includes the experience of taste.

In sum, to taste is to experience, to experience is to feel, and to feel is to know.

Metabolize this!

A Namaste of Metabolic Independence

All life distinguishes “inside” from “outside,” or “self” from “nonself.”  This is the fundamental duality of existence.  This dichotomy, this distinction, this bias, this sapience is the software of living.  Life (in order to begin, in order to continue) is self-preserving and, therefore, self-serving.  Life is partial to itself: it views its own self as the Subject and everything else as “other,” “environment,” or “objects.” All life objectifies other life as “environment,” to use and to eat, to flee from so as to not be used or eaten by it, or both. All life is fundamentally unfair to other life—until it understands its inevitable interdependence and, on a higher level, its essential sameness.

Early in our development—both as individuals and as cultures—we adopt an adaptively intense dualism of self and nonself. We are highly self-centered (egocentric). It makes sense. Being helpless and scared, we have to think in a highly conservative manner. This developmentally early dualism is there to protect us. “You’re either with me or against me” is the mentality that underlies our socializing. We socialize not for fun but for protection. We group into cliques and circle the wagons. We are busy surviving.

As we learn more about life, we begin to tame our fears and distinguish between physical and symbolic threats. If we’re fortunate, we eventually conquer our innermost fear: the fear of dying. As we progress from fear to nonfear, we become increasingly less invested in all of these us-versus-them distinctions. The lens of our perception is recalibrated to notice similarity, perhaps even the oneness of our shared essence, rather than superficial differences in form. We become kinder and more compassionate. We even begin to feel for the life that we consume each time we sit down to eat—not just the animals that died so we might mindlessly eat another meal while zoned out in front of the TV, but even the plant-based life we consume. We begin to understand that anything that is alive wants to stay alive, regardless of its level of complexity.

A sense of tender intimacy emerges as we eat—not guilt that we have to consume something living in order to live, but a sense of interconnectedness, a realization that as we eat this Earth, we become this Earth, that as we eat this food, we become future food. This creates a kind of camaraderie of existence: a baseline sympathy, a gradual but never complete dissolution of subject-object duality, a universal willingness to relate, to feel for the other—kindness, if you will.

Eating is a reunion of self and nonself, of me and not-me, of you and not-you, of eater and food through the enmeshment of eating. Eating is twofold yoga: a yoga that unifies your body with your mind, and, at a higher level, a yoga that unifies you with your environment.

An eating moment is a bittersweet moment of connection—a namaste of metabolic interdependence.

Weight Management Motivation Booster

What is inoculation?  Inoculation introduces an organism to a nominal threat with the purpose of hardening the organism.  Motivational inoculation is a series of challenges (in the form of questions) that help crystallize intrinsic, fail-proof motivation.  Here’s some motivational inoculation for weight management.

Inoculation 1:   What is my stated motivation for this weight management attempt?

Inoculation 2:   Have I tried to lose weight for this reason before?  If yes, then on what basis do I believe that a reason that wasn’t strong enough for me to stick to the plan before would be sufficient this time?

Inoculation 3:  is my reason to lose weight for me or for somebody else?  If for somebody else, then what reason will I have to keep on track if my relationship were to change with this other person?  What if my relationship ends?  What if my relationship stabilizes and he/she no longer cares how I look, how much I weigh? What reason will I use then to stay on track weight-wise?  And why am I not using that reason now?!

Inoculation 4:  Is my reason for this weight management project situational in nature?  Am I trying to lose weight so that I look good at somebody else’s wedding?  Shine at a school reunion?  Get a date?  Competitively snub somebody else?  Am I trying to impress random minds on a spring break beach?  Is my weight management attempt part of my seasonal body-transformation as I get out of the “weight camo” winter clothes into a more revealing wardrobe?  If so, what will help me stay on weight management track when the situation changes?  And why am I not using that reason now?

Inoculation 5:  Is my motivation for weight management in line with my definition of psychological health?  Is my motivation for weight management in line with my life-values, my priorities, my spiritual/existential compass?  If not, why am I misguiding myself?  What would be a motivation for weight management that would express and extend the rest of my life-values and life-priorities?

Inoculation 6:  Would I be comfortable making my motivation for weight management public?  Would I feel at all embarrassed or ashamed if I had to acknowledge my true reason for weight management?  What would be the motivation/reason for change that would help me feel psychologically healthy?

Inoculation 7:  Will my reason/motivation last a life-time?  If not, what is such reason?  What would be an open-ended motivation for weight management? What would be the motivation that would withstand any change in circumstance?   List such reasons.  Use them.

Ask, ponder, inoculate.  Or run the risk of running out of motivational gas…

Mindfulness-Based Craving Control

I've been offering mindfulness-training as a form of impulse control and craving control to my clients for years.  Here's one way to introduce mindfulness as a craving control strategy for overeating:

See the Dissatisfaction (of the Desire) as It Passes (Rather Than Looking for Satisfaction)

A craving is a desire.  Desire - as strange as it sounds - is a state of frustration.  To want is to feel incomplete, to feel agitated and thwarted until a given desire is satisfied.  Wanting is restlessness.  Wanting is dissatisfaction.

Mindfulness involves two essential mechanisms: applying a certain kind of attention and practicing dis-identification. Attention can be active or passive: that of an active observer or that of an uninvolved witness. This distinction is easy to understand through contrasting such verbs as “to look” versus “to see.” “To look” implies an active visual scanning, a kind of goal-oriented visual activity. “To see” implies nothing other than a fact of visual registration. Say I lost my house keys. I would have to look for them. But in the process of looking for my house keys, I might also happen to see an old concert ticket.

Mindfulness is about seeing, not looking. It's about noticing or witnessing without attachment to or identification with what is being noticed and witnessed. This is where dis-identification comes in.

Cravings (for dessert or something specific to eat, or just to keep eating) come and go. Mindfulness—as a meditative stance—allows you to recognize that craving as a transient, fleeting state of mind, and just one part of your overall experience. Mindfulness teaches you to realize that this impulse to keep on eating is but a thought inside the mind. Yes, it’s part of you, but it isn’t all of you—which is exactly why you can notice it and see it without having to stare at it. In sum, mindfulness—as a form of impulse control—is a strategy of controlling by letting go of control.

In sum, mindfulness allows you to see through the fleeting moment of dissatisfaction (to experience this momentary mind-tantrum of "I want this and I won't be okay without it") instead of looking for a rationalization to justify the attempt to satisfy this fleeting desire.  Practice the following dis-identification attitude: "I am noticing this craving, I see it, I see that I am not this craving, I see this craving coming and going, I know this craving is but a fleeting state of mind, I don't need to look for a satisfaction, for a way to act upon this, I am already full in the calmness of my mind."

Counting Experiential Calories

Conscious eating isn't just about being calorie-conscious.  Conscious eating is about being conscious.  It's about counting moments, not just calories. So, put aside this tedious business of counting nutritional calories for a moment and ask yourself: What else am I getting out of this eating moment? How is my mind being enriched?

A Nutritional Calorie is a unit of energy. The job of a Nutritional Calorie is to fuel your Body. An Experiential Calorie -- to coin a term -- is a unit of awareness, a unit of conscious presence, a unit of meaning. The job of an Experiential Calorie is to enrich your Mind. Take a moment to count the latter...

Ask yourself:

What are the Meditational Calories of this moment? Indeed, as you eat, pause to consider the interdependence of people, places and events that converged into one seamless process in time to finally reach your lips. Of course, the Sun didn't shine for you and the grapes didn't grow for you and the farmer didn't collect the grapes for you and the canner didn't can the grape jelly for you in particular... And yet, somehow, as you are spreading grape jelly on your toast, you are now the beneficiary of this endless process of transmutation. Or, as you focus on the automaticity of your hand-to-mouth motions, on this smooth machinery of your habits, perhaps, you will awaken the eating zombie for just a moment, to both marvel and fear this ease of mindlessness with which our lives run. Or, perhaps, as you watch this food and this moment come and go, you will consider the impermanence and transience of things, and of yourself.

Ask yourself:

What are the Spiritual and Ethical Calories of this moment? How am I expressing my life values in this moment? Are my eating choices an accurate reflection of what I stand for -- ethically and spiritually? Is my eating kind? Is my eating graceful? Is my eating meaningful? Is my eating grateful?

Ask yourself:

What are the Aesthetic and Hedonic Calories of this moment? Am I enjoying this eating moment, this moment of living? Am I allowing myself to notice the humble, unpretentious beauty of what I am about to eat? Am I sensing, tasting, savoring or just shoveling that which a moment ago I so carefully and meticulously selected off the lunch menu? Am I noticing the dynamic art of food, the poly-sensory drama of the flavor as the taste and the aroma and the texture come into one experiential focus?


Ask yourself:

What are the Existential Calories of this moment? Am I... here? Am I... present? Am I... consciously present to feel that I am alive? What is this "I" that is eating? What is this "I" that is pondering its existence? Will I remember myself having this moment or will it go unnoticed?

Ask yourself:

What are the Social Calories of this moment? Who am I with and why? Am I eating because they are hungry? Are they eating because I am hungry? Are we eating because we are hungry for food or because we are hungry for connection? Or are we just -- randomly -- in this moment with the food in front of us -- perhaps -- being the only common social denominator?

Just ask yourself.

Mindful Eating is Yoga

Yoga is union. Mindful eating is also yoga -- in the sense that eating unites your body and mind's intention through a moment of eating presence. Create an eating mindfulness placemat that you could carry with you like a yoga mat, from table to table, from setting to setting, whether you are eating in or eating out, as a kind of portable eating mindfulness space of your own.

Sketch out a placemat that includes a visual diagram of mindful eating. For example, draw a picture of the eyes to denote the mindfulness of the appearance of food, with an arrow pointing to a nose for the mindfulness of smell, with an arrow pointing to a picture of the tongue for the mindfulness of taste, with an arrow pointing back to your mind (to remember to "open your mind before you open your mouth").

Or, to awaken the eating zombie, include mindfulness call-outs to get your own attention, such as:

  • Eating is Movement, Pause the Flow!
  • Redefine "Enough" - Mindful, not Mouthful!
  • Mindful Eating is Self-Synchronization.
  • Eating is physiologically inevitable, but mindfulness isn't - wake up!
  • Who's eating?
  • Open Your Mind Before You Open Your Mouth.
  • Made of Earth, I am eating Earth and becoming Earth.

You can also include various pointers on craving control, fullness, process of eating. If you have already formulated your Philosophy of Eating, you can summarize it on the placemat as well:

  • Eat to live, not live to eat!
  • Eating changes both body and mind, the total of who I am. What I eat and how much I eat changes who I am physiologically. Why I eat and how I eat changes who I am psychologically.

Your mindful eating placemat can also include mindful emotional eating harm-reduction tips on how to shift from mindless emotional overeating to responsible emotional eating such as:

  • When eating to cope, remember that emotional eating does not have to mean emotional overeating. Emotional eating is not a problem.  Mindless emotional eating is.
  • Whenever I eat to cope I begin with a course of relaxation!