Episode 191:
Show Notes 


In this episode, we embark on a journey through the intricate landscape of emotional eating, delving into the underlying triggers and behaviours that shape our relationship with food. With a focus on understanding the complexities of emotional well-being and dietary habits, we explore various critical aspects of emotional eating, each offering valuable insights and tools for navigating this multifaceted terrain.

Analogy of Outdated Tools: Just as tools we once relied on may become obsolete over time, behaviours like emotional eating may have served a purpose in the past but no longer align with our current needs and goals.

PHALT Framework: The PHALT acronym—Pain, Hunger, Anger, Loneliness, and Tiredness—serves as a powerful tool for identifying triggers for emotional eating, helping individuals recognise and address underlying emotional states that may drive unhealthy eating habits.

Emotional Hunger vs. Physical Hunger: Distinguishing between emotional hunger, driven by the desire to soothe or suppress emotions, and physical hunger, which arises from the body's genuine need for nourishment, is essential for developing mindful eating habits.

Comfort Food: Exploring the allure of comfort foods and their association with emotional solace, as individuals often seek out familiar and indulgent foods to cope with stress, sadness, or other challenging emotions.

Impact of Sleep Deprivation: Understanding how sleep deprivation can exacerbate emotional eating behaviours by disrupting hormonal balance, increasing stress levels, and impairing cognitive function, underscores the importance of adequate rest for emotional well-being and dietary control.

Perfectionism: Examining the role of perfectionism in driving emotional eating tendencies, as individuals may turn to food for comfort or as a coping mechanism in response to perceived failures or shortcomings, highlighting the need for self-compassion and resilience-building strategies.

Cultivating a Toolbox of Strategies: Encouraging listeners to develop a diverse range of tools, such as grounding techniques, deep breathing, journaling, and making helpful choices easier, to effectively navigate emotional eating and foster a healthier relationship with food and emotions.

In conclusion, the hosts encourage listeners to cultivate a toolbox of strategies to navigate emotional eating and break free from the cycle of guilt and shame. They emphasise that overcoming emotional eating is a learnable skill that requires patience, self-awareness, and a willingness to explore different coping mechanisms. Ultimately, by reframing their relationship with food and emotions, individuals can reclaim their health and well-being.

For more information about Real Life Medicine and our programs and special offers: https://www.rlmedicine.com/

Episode 191: 


Dr Mary Barson (0:04) Hello, my lovely friends. I'm Dr Mary Barson.

Dr Lucy Burns (0:09) And I'm Dr Lucy Burns. We are doctors and weight management and metabolic health experts.

Both (0:16) And this is the Real Health and Weight Loss podcast!

Dr Lucy Burns (0:23)  Hello, my friend, Dr Mary here and joined as ever by my fabulous colleague, Dr Lucy. Dr Lucy, tell us what's happening in your life right now. 

Dr Lucy Burns (0:32)  Oh, good morning lovelies. I am well, you know what, I'm fabulous. It's the middle of Feb when we're recording this. And honestly, like, I know, I know, a lot of my conversation revolves either around the quality of my sleep or the weather, and partly because they determined how I feel in the day. But the thing is, so the last couple of days, I've had great sleep, and the weather has been beautiful. So, therefore, I've got nothing to complain about in life. So no, I'm super.

Dr Mary Barson  (1:05)  Oh, love it. That's good. I'm happy for you. Yeah, I'm pretty good, too. I'm feeling grateful to have power and internet right now. Because much of Victoria is currently not having much power internet. So feeling, feeling grateful, have gratitude.

Dr Lucy Burns (1:21)  Indeed. So gratitude, gratitude and emotion. Which sort of leads us into our segue for this week, where last week, we talked about how this week, we're going to talk about emotional eating. So we locked ourselves in. Yeah, but it's a topic close to our hearts. And I think it's a cracker.

Dr Mary Barson  (1:41)  Yeah, I think that emotional eating is the biggest block to people being able to reclaim their health and lose weight healthily, and to be able to forge the life they want for themselves. I think our tendency, our human tendency to use food to manage emotions, is rough. Like it is one of the most common problems that we see out there. And no health program, no weight loss program, no health journey. weight loss journey really can be complete without learning how to reframe all those stories that make us emotionally eat, how to break up with emotional eating, I would say, and this is your genius, Dr Lucy among other genius zones. Absolutely. And could you illustrate sort of the types of emotional eating or tell us about other people who have emotionally eaten and what it has been like for them?

Dr Lucy Burns (2:47)  Yeah, absolutely. So I think there are two things you know, that we love teaching about in Real Life Medicine, and one is, what to eat for health and why that is helpful, or why you should eat that for health. But none of that matters if you don't know why you eat in the first place. So what you eat, it's important, but why you eat is equally important. Because for a lot of us, we do soothe numb and negate difficult emotions with food. And this in itself is not terrible, like honestly, and most people will know that I love saying you know, you haven't murdered anyone you, haven't ripped off old ladies, you haven't come up with some Ponzi internet scheme to scam people out of their life savings. So you don't need to feel terrible about this. Although we do, I recognise that. This eating to soothe or numb or negate a negative emotion is a tool that at one stage served you well and may no longer serve you well. And that's the critical bit so there are other people out there who probably do emotionally eat every now and then for which they have no long-term health outcomes. And that's okay. But if you're finding that you eat to manage your emotions consistently and it's resulting in health problems, well then we need to work out tools and work out ways to manage the emotional eating.

Dr Mary Barson  (4:34)  We have seen all kinds of emotional eating in and all types in all types of guises for all kinds of reasons in our, in our work, in our life as helping people lose weight, helping people reclaim their health. Could we illustrate this with a few stories? Do you reckon Lucy? 

Dr Lucy Burns (4:52) Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So you know, one of my beautiful, beautiful patients who's an old woman, maybe in her 70s, told me a story about when she was a child and she lived in a house where there was a lot of conflict. It was noisy, there was a lot of yelling between her parents, and she was five or six years old. And the noise and conflict would come and she was frightened. And as a scared little girl, she had no, you've got no power, you've got no autonomy, you've got no way to manage this fear easily, you know, so one of the things that she used to do was she ran into her pantry and grabbed out these, they had these little tins of peaches. So she'd grabbed this tin of peaches. And then she'd run outside and climb up a tree and hide in the tree and open the tin of peaches and sort of scuffed them. And it was like this little thing that she would do that made her feel better, and made her feel safe and made her feel calm. And interestingly, she then used that same behaviour, that same thing every time throughout her whole adult life, there was conflict, she would run somewhere, grab something, and hide by herself somewhere, you know, maybe in a bedroom, might be in the car, depending on where she was, it might have been in the, you know, the office at work, or might have been in the bathroom or wherever. And she just sort of scoffed in. And then she'd just feel and she didn't, she hadn't linked to them. So she didn't know, this is why she was doing and she just felt so terrible. Like, why am I doing this, this is terrible. It's such a terrible thing to do. And so we spent a lot of time just unpacking that. And recognising that as a beautiful little six-year-old girl, she had no options. That was the only tool she had to calm herself to soothe herself to feel better. And so she learnt it, and it stayed with her until she learned some new ways. 

Dr Mary Barson  (6:59)  Yes. And I love it, it was a tool that was really helpful to her. Like it helped her feel safe when she was a little six-year-old girl. Maybe he also even helped her be safe. Like if she was sort of out of the way of the conflict. Maybe that meant that you knew that she wasn't a target, I'm guessing here. So not only did it help her feel safe, it actually helped her be safe and her brain has learned, right– this is a good tactic, our brains just want to keep us safe, our brains going to help us feel good. So these works. So it was helpful for her as a kid but as she grew into a beautiful adult, it was no longer helpful for her. But that doesn't mean that she felt guilt and shame around this. But of course, she should not because it's just a tool. And I like this analogy with those tools that we learn as children to help us navigate our childhood, adolescence or any part of our lives that is difficult. We learn these tools that are useful then. But they're no longer serving us. It doesn't mean we should hate ourselves or berate ourselves for these tools. Instead, we could look at it like a pair of shoes. And it was a pair of shoes that we needed when we were kids. And we put it on and it really did help protect, you know, our metaphorical feet. And it was useful. Right now those shoes are harmful though they are squishing us. They are not helpful. They're preventing us from growing. They're holding us back. So don't have to hate the shoes or hate ourselves for wearing them. We can thank the shoes, take them off, put them on the shelves and say great, I no longer need that tool. I no longer need those shoes. Now it's time for me to learn something else. 

Dr Lucy Burns (8:40)  Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And I love that. That's a beautiful analogy, Miss because honestly, there is nothing wrong with this tool. It just no longer serves you. Because I mean, one of these is, you know complexity of humans. One of the things that happens when we start then beating ourselves up operating ourselves or hating ourselves for using this tool. We're stuck then back with a really uncomfortable emotion which we then want to settle and what's our best tool? The only tool that some of us know is food. So then we're in this terrible kind of quagmire of going well. I feel so awful. I feel shame I feel guilty. How do I get rid of this? The only tool I know is food. I don't want to eat food. It's gonna make me terrible. It's gonna and you're kind of stuck in this no-win situation. And so then you end up eating the food because that's your tool. And then if just feel bad again.

Dr Mary Barson  (9:34)  Yeah, it's like a cage, you get locked in a cage, which can unlock yourself but it is emotional eating can be an absolute trap that just keeps you trapped. Yeah.

Dr Lucy Burns (9:44)  So again, step one is to recognise that all diseases are a tool, nothing else and the tool served you well and in fact was extremely helpful you feel you at one point in your life. So there is no need to head on yourself for you using it now. But what we need to recognise is that we need a different tool. So one of the things I think, is that sometimes we don't even know why we're doing the behaviour that we're doing, like so many people come to us and go– I don't know why I ate that packet of TimTams. I promised myself I wasn't going to do it and then I just went and did it anyway.

Dr Mary Barson  (10:22)  Yes. And I think also, there is a lack of awareness for many people about the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger. So there is this desire to eat. And people may not be aware if it's coming from a desire to soothe your inner turmoil or inner emotions or is because they're physically hungry, and spending a bit of time. Just learning how to recognise the difference between those two is helpful to awareness is key. You just you need awareness, you need awareness to how you're feeling physically and emotionally. And that may differences Lucy's got, you got a fabulous way of describing the difference. If you're not egg hungry or chop hungry, you're probably not physically hungry. So you're like– I need to eat! and be like– would I eat a delicious pork chop, if someone gave this to me, no. That is probably not physical hunger, super helpful. But also emotional hunger tends to come on really quickly. And it's often for comfort foods, like it's often for a specific food, often a high dopamine food, or a particular taste or a texture. Whereas if you're physically hungry, it usually comes on a bit slower, sort of in a sort of pangs that come and go, it's not generally incessant, and you'd be happy to eat any, you know, palatable food, like a pork chop. So that's kind of how you can tune in if it's emotional, or physical hunger.

Dr Lucy Burns (11:48)  Yes, one of the interesting phrases that you just used is comfort food. And that in itself is an interesting discussion, because it's a phrase that is used a lot in society about comfort foods and people will identify particular foods as comfort food, and what might what one person might think of his comfort food, a different person, that won't be their comfort foods. So, you know, again, something that can be really helpful is to have a list of what foods I think of is comfort food. And you know, if you're thinking, you know, warm puddings, or pasta or block of chocolate, or packet of lollies, whatever they might be, you know, they're the things that you describe as comfort food, well, then I think that's really telling in what your brain actually thinks or uses for.

Dr Mary Barson  (12:37)  Yeah. All food is comforting to an extent, like the idea that you know, being hungry, and then not being hungry. It's comforting. All food gives us a bit of a dopamine rush, but it's, it's the intensity of the dopamine. And also, whether or not these foods are the type of food that you're eating, or the frequency that you're eating it whether or not it's helpful, whether it's, it's serving you or not serving you. 

Dr Lucy Burns (13:03)  Absolutely, absolutely. So, again, one of the things we like to talk to people about is certainly not all, like all or nothing. This is where people, I think diet culture has forged this pattern where you are either perfect, or you have cheated, you're in the perfect, or you've broken it, you're either perfect, or you've wrecked it, and you're not gonna lose any weight, females will go the whole hog and just eat whatever you like. There are all of those sorts of underlying thought processes. But to really identify and then manage emotional eating takes some time, it's not going to be done in a day or a week, because it's really long-standing behaviour that we're trying to identify and then, I guess, reprogram our brains for a different option. And it's funny, I was talking to somebody the other day about their they have binge eating behaviours. And their thoughts are always that as soon as they do it, they've failed. Whereas we talked about the idea of occurrence reduction. So you know, she used to binge every day. Then it went down to twice a week. And then it went down to once a week. And then she had done it for a couple of weeks. And finally, she had done it for a couple of months. And then you know, we're now at that six-month mark, and there's been no, no binging. But initially, the first time she'd sort of stopped it. And then she hadn't been she just her brain told her or she told herself, she's failed, she can't do it. It's hopeless, you'll never get over this. Whereas when we look at the idea of reduction, and I think you can do the same with emotional eating, you look at how often you reduce the occurrence and solve it. And over time, what you'll find is that it becomes less and less of something you do because you cultivate and develop more and stronger tools to manage it.

Dr Mary Barson  (15:11)  Yes, yeah. It's not all or nothing, it's all or something. And perfectionism is another trap. Another one that will keep us trapped without growth and change, because we're not going to do things perfectly. Not humans. Not yet. No, no,

Dr Lucy Burns (15:28)  No. So Miss, one of the things that we like to help people with, apart from, you know, first of all, identifying their emotions, is recognising that, again, as humans, we're dynamic beings, we don't just wake up every day, have the same emotion every day, have had the same sleep every day, face the same weather every day, have the same challenges every day, every day is different. And so there are particular circumstances so that we know that we will make people potentially more vulnerable, so emotional eating. So this is not to say, you're guaranteed to emotionally eat if you experience these, these are like just little signposts to help you identify situations in which you might be more vulnerable. And so therefore, you can develop that awareness and implement some of the skills that you've learned, or some tools that you're developing. So I thought it would be helpful if we go through some of those for our audience.

Dr Mary Barson  (16:32)  Sleep deprivation is certainly going to be one of them. If you're tired, you're going to be more vulnerable to emotional eating. Because your stress hormones are higher, cortisol is higher. So your corticosteroid-releasing hormone is higher, which actually physically makes us go out and seek high dopamine food and activities, where our hunger is going to be increased, our physical hunger will be increased when we're really sleep deprived, increases in ghrelin and changes our leptin. So that tired state, absolutely, you are quite going to be quite vulnerable to emotionally eating. And as a mother of a 19-month-old baby, I have got some recent experiences with significant sleep deprivation, and being aware of that is really helpful. So when I'm sleep-deprived, even just being aware that I'm more vulnerable to this is useful. And one thing that helps me in those times is to make sure that I eat a lovely good amount of nourishing, filling healthy foods with you know, a good amount of protein and fat, and I keep hydrated, that is very helpful. And also just, you know, implementing my other mindset tools during that time. 

Dr Lucy Burns (17:48)  Yeah, there's a lot of advertising that goes on around energy drinks and energy foods. And you know, that the market to that feeling you're tired, you need this to help you plough through the day. And a little hack for me is that if a drink or a muesli bar or anything describes itself as high energy, you just take that word energy and transfer it into calories because energy calories are just a unit of energy. So if something is telling you high energy, it's a high-calorie product. Now, again, that doesn't mean that it's that you're a bad person for eating it. But what I like to do is go– Okay, I'm making this decision, with full knowledge, not with tricks and mirrors. And yeah, swap out anything that's high energy, aka, high calorie.

Dr Mary Barson  (18:41)  And high sugar generally, too. And it's not always possible. But when you're in the throes of emotional eating, and you know that you're doing it or you're grabbing the sugary snack, because you want the energy, just tuning in to how you're feeling can be helpful, as well as how you're feeling before, during, and afterwards. And an hour afterwards and the next day. And this could be helpful just to provide evidence to your brain, that it's actually not helpful. You think that having the big chocolate bars going to provide you with energy actually just makes you feel sick. And also can bring on feelings of guilt and shame. So it's actually not helpful. You think it will be but it's not. 

Dr Lucy Burns (19:22)  Indeed, absolutely. So yeah, certainly tiredness is a trigger for emotional eating or for you to be more vulnerable to emotional eating. And we actually have a little acronym that we use as well that is super helpful, just for people to remember. So the T for tiredness is the last, you know, acronym, and the acronym is PHALT but it's ‘falt’ with a PH. So it's P H A L T.  So the P stands for pain.

Dr Lucy Burns (19:56)  And we know that people who have physical pain or indeed emotional pain are more likely to sue though use food to manage the symptoms. The H is for hunger. And again, this is identifying your physical hunger. So one of the things that diet culture often teaches us is to fear food. And that hunger, and we talked about this last week that hunger is, you know, some sort of terrible character flaw and that if you're hungry, well, you know what's wrong with you, you're, you know, just morally weak person. Whereas hunger is a physiological state. And if you're hungry, and you need the nutrients, then eat some food, like, okay, it's fine. So we've got P and H, then we've got the A, which stands for anger, which is an emotion that is really triggering for people. Because for a lot of us, anger has been an emotion that is unsafe to express.

Dr Mary Barson  (20:59) Especially for women. Mm hmm. Yep.

Dr Lucy Burns (21:04)  And as a kid, often you're told, you know, to not, you know, express your anger. And as a woman, if you express anger, then you're, you know, a coward, you're bossy, or you're mean or you're whatever. And so we internalise it and shovel it down with some food, we don't know what to do with it, it's, you know, we feel bad being angry. And so we just eat something. And anger can also extend out like, it's not just a single emotion, but particularly resentment, which is, again, what does that mean is a tricky emotion, it's when you've said yes to doing something that you wish you said no to. And then you're angry about that often angry at yourself, but may potentially angry at the other person for putting you in a position where you felt that you had to say yes, and so it this complex emotion, and then you feel bad for feeling resentful. And so you know, what's the best way to fix that, just go for a box of chocolates. So that is tricky. So that's the anger bit, and then the L is lonely. And we know that loneliness, loneliness is not good for humans, we're not supposed to be alone or lonely. So it can be that physical loneliness, where you're literally by yourself and you feel isolated. But it can also be loneliness, where, let's say, you feel the burden of responsibility, as an example. So you might feel lonely in this task that you've got all this job you have to do and you feel unsupported. So loneliness can sort of don't have to be just that literally, I'm alone by myself. And then, as Mary's already mentioned, T is the tiredness, both, you know, the physical reasons, all of those hormonal shifts that happen when we're tired. But we also know our, you know, any resolve that we had, will often just disappear. Yeah, we're less resilient.

Dr Mary Barson  (23:08)  Yes, I love that I went, I did that backwards. I started with the T, I think that's probably because I've got a baby right now.

Dr Lucy Burns (23:18)  Again, this is whatever is at the front of your mind is the thing that is, you know, this and you know, what's interesting. So what you've just demonstrated beautifully, then is our is how the reticular activating system. Absolutely, yes. So we talked a lot about that. And that is the filter through which you look at the world and that filter is based on the way you already look at the world. It's a very flawed system to some extent. So whatever you're looking at, you will give higher importance to so as Dr Mary did say, she's tired. She's probably you know, vulnerable, except that she's got excellent mind management skills, but if she didn't, she would be extremely vulnerable to emotional eating and, again, most people when they are emotionally eating are looking for these high dopamine. So usually ultra-processed foods that are easily available and cheap. And you know, every petrol station, milk bar, coffee shop, pharmacy, supermarket, they're everywhere. Most people aren't going– Oh my god, I feel so stressed. I'm gonna have a bowl of broccoli. It's the dopamine-inducing foods that we are looking for.

Dr Mary Barson  (24:34)  You mentioned resolve there too. And I think that willpower comes into that as well. And we were talking about this off here about the groundbreaking 1998 study on willpower by the psychologist Roy Baumeister. What happens when we try to resist a bowl of chocolates versus a bowl of radishes, Lucy, I'd love you to elaborate here about willpower.

Dr Lucy Burns (25:00)  So they did this study where they separated people into two groups and age-matched them and all of those other things. And they in front of them, you know, one group got this big bowl of doughnuts to look at and seat, you know, let have these noodles current, you have to look at them, but you're not having them. And the other group got a bowl of radishes. And they seat the same thing, you know, I'd have them. And then after a while, they put them into to do a puzzle. And the puzzle was, that it didn't have an ending, it was an impossible task. But they were told they had to keep going to get to the end of it. And interestingly, the people that had spent all of their brainpower on the doughnuts really only had a couple of minutes in the puzzle before they gave up. Whereas the people who'd looked at the radishes, which presumably didn't require that much brainpower to resist, when, ah, and they spent a lot longer, like, you know, and the difference was sort of two minutes on the puzzle to 15 minutes before the 15 minutes, people go– Oh, actually, this, I can't do this. So the way I think you can utilise this information is to recognise that if you're using willpower as your only tool, and it is a tool, but if it's your only one, it runs out. So if you have to use that tool to resist doughnuts in the tea room at work, and then resist them Maccas that some work colleague brought in or that you bought for your kids, but not you or whatever, that by the end of the day, by the time you're trying to then do resist something else that your chances of doing that at a much lower. So willpower is, it's not a myth like it's there. We have it all the time. But it's a finite resource. And the amount that you have each day also fluctuates, depending on all those other circumstances.

Dr Mary Barson  (27:05)  Both PHALT. Yes.

Dr Lucy Burns (27:08) Yeah, absolutely. And you most definitely can't rely on that as your only strategy.

Dr Mary Barson  (27:15)   Yeah, cultivating mindset tools to acknowledge, accept, live with, and soothe your feelings is key. And when you do that, you can feel your feelings without needing to reach for the chocolate, the wine, or the doughnuts, or I'm sure in some cases, no, no cases for people reaching for the radishes probably not.

Dr Lucy Burns (27:40)  No, probably not. Probably not but yes, there are certainly plenty of tools that you can do. And learning those tools and recognising that, again, it's learning. It's a skill that you need to learn, you can't do it overnight. You don't just suddenly develop mindset tools overnight, but they are teachable, learnable and cultivatable if that's the word.

Dr Mary Barson  (28:05)  I think one of the most useful tools out there, they're all, there's lots of useful tools, and you need to find the ones that work for you. But being able to just ground yourself in the moment when you feel that overwhelming urge awareness we've talked about is so key. And once you have that awareness, being able to do something that grounds you right then and there is so helpful, just to buy yourself a bit of time, a bit of breathing space. I love breathing to some deep breaths because your breath is always there. It's relaxing. It's our natural tranquilliser, just a few deep breaths can make an enormous difference to how you respond to intense negative emotions. Absolutely.

Dr Lucy Burns (28:45)  And I think you know, you hit the nail on the head there where you said, there's no one tool. It's a box of tools to continue that analogy. And everybody's box will look a little different. We need a range. You know, it includes breathing, journaling, going for walks, making you know, our favourite saying making the helpful thing easy, making the unhelpful thing hard, recognising when you're vulnerable so that you can employ these strategies before you're in the situation. Lots and lots of things are all doable, lovelies. All doable.

Dr Mary Barson  (29:19)  Absolutely. You can break free from that cage. Definitely. Excellent.

Dr Lucy Burns (29:23)  And in fact, we would say for anybody who feels like they're in the cage, you have to break free because if you're just relying on a meal plan and some willpower, you'll find it doesn't work and then you feel hopeless and like a failure. And it's not that you're like a hopeless failure. It's just you haven't got enough tools in your box yet. That's all.

Dr Mary Barson  (29:41)  Absolutely. 

Dr Lucy Burns (29:43)  Alright gorgeous ones, I think that's enough from us this week. We will see you all next week. Take good care.

Dr Mary Barson  (29:49) Bye now. 

Dr Lucy Burns: (29:54) The information shared on the Real Health and Weight Loss podcast, including show notes and links, provides general information only. It is not a substitute, nor is it intended to provide individualised medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, nor can it be construed as such. Please consult your doctor for any medical concerns.

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