Emotional Eating Part 1: Understanding and Applying the SEAL Method

Eating is one the most enjoyable parts of being human. It happens multiple times a day and is a highly social activity.  Simply put, food nourishes your body, feeds your soul, and makes your brain work.

Let’s face it, if you’re human, chances are you eating habits are influenced by emotional cues. Even if you don’t think you’re an emotional eater, research indicates that you are.  The average human experiences more than 41 emotions in a 24 hour period ranging from excitement to frustration, joy to boredom, anticipation to anxiousness.  Given the sheer range of emotional states, it’s no wonder that many emotions often dictate eating patterns. Whether you’re feeling tired, anxious, nervous, frustrated excited or lonely, each unique emotional state can strongly influence when and for what you open your mouth.

Recently I’ve been working with a number of clients wanting to control potentially dangerous emotional eating habits.  Their emotional eating habits have negatively affected their bodies, created volatile mood swings, and impacted their ability to sleep.

There are two truths about emotional eating that often go unmentioned:

  1. Emotional eaters know when they are doing it, but often don’t counteract the process because it takes too much work.

  2. Those who think they are not emotional eaters are often the worst offenders.

Having dealt with a long and difficult self-imposed transition from eating mostly cooked food to a plant-based uncooked diet, I have worked hard to prevent emotions from controlling my eating habits.

When I first transitioned to being a raw foodie, it took me eight months to overcome the desire to want to eat cooked food. When I thought about it, it made perfect sense. Eating cook food was a habit. It was something I was accustomed to. It was a repeated behavior that I had performed for 23 years. It provided me physical satiation and emotional support for my entire life.

Transitioning from eating predominantly cooked food to 100% uncooked food was the single most challenging task I had ever performed. But I knew in the back my mind that it was worth the frustration and difficulty, simply because the abundant health that it provided far outweighed temporary emotional discomfort.

On my walk home from the bus stop after work, I passed by multiple restaurants including a pizza shop that was home to the most incredible smells my brain had ever experienced. Pizza and hamburgers were two of my favorite foods as a child, as an adolescent, and as a college student with a voracious appetite. Walking by this pizzeria on a daily basis brought back positive memories of my childhood, including birthday parties, sports championships, summer camp, and late nights in front of the TV with friends.

The smells that came out of this pizzeria were so intoxicating in fact, I found myself captive to the temptation to eat cheese, dough and sausage. On many occasions, I would stand outside the pizzeria with my eyes closed, taking deep breaths of a food that I was training myself to no longer want.

I felt silly. I felt weird. I felt like a social outcast. But I knew that overcoming the desire to eat familiar foods would result in long-term success and exceptional health.

Why is Emotional Eating Dangerous?

Eating based off of emotional cues short-circuits your body’s physiological requirement for nutrients, and instead re-programs your brain to eat in response to thoughts and experiences.

If you’re an emotional eater and binge eat on foods like celery and carrots, chances are you may actually be getting healthier in the process.  Well done.   But the reality is that most emotional eaters binge eat on less-than-ideal foods like donuts, pastries, brownies, cookies, cakes, tortilla chips, deep fried foods and alcoholic drinks.

Over time, eating based on emotional triggers can lead to depression, anxiety, excess body fat, low energy and a victim mentality.

If you are a diabetic, emotional eating can lead to serious complications that make blood sugar control extremely difficult.

If you fall into any of these categories, then it’s important to understand the emotional cues that initiate this process and develop an action plan to reverse it altogether.  That’s why I’ve worked hard to develop the SEAL method for overcoming emotional eating once and for all.

The Difference Between Physiological Hunger and Emotional Hunger

What is Physiological Hunger?

physiological hungerPhysiological hunger is the type of hunger you experience when your brain, muscles and internal organs are in a low-energy state. This is the type of hunger that you experience following a demanding workout.  It’s the type of hunger you experience when you have exerted significant physical or mental energy, and are in need of fuel.

Physiological hunger is the signal to intake carbohydrates, fats, and protein in order to meet the energy requirements of repairing and growing tissues.

What is Emotional Hunger?

emotional eatingEmotional hunger is the type of hunger you experience when a situation or thought process dictates your desire to eat.

As opposed to physiological hunger, emotional hunger creates a feeling of true hunger even though the biological requirement for fuel is low or nonexistent.

Introducing the SEAL Method

I’ve developed the SEAL method for overcoming emotional eating, and have had great success applying it to myself and my clients.  I designed it with one goal in mind – complete transparency. 

All you need to do is write down four key pieces of information.  It’s that simple.  Writing down these four points helps you easily detect emotion-driven behavioral patterns and prevent them from dictating your desire to eat. 

SEAL method for overcoming emotional eating

Here’s how to do it. On a piece of paper, make four columns, each one corresponding to a different letter.  Do this for a week and watch what patterns arise.  It’s amazing what you’ll discover – patterns that you never recognized until they stared at you in pen and paper.

S is for Situation

In the first column, write down a few words to describe the situation that is creating your emotion.  Are you at a birthday party?  Are you by yourself at home? Are you watching others enjoy an ice cream sundae? Are you at a business meeting?

E is for Emotion

In the second column, write down a few words that describe the emotion that is driving your desire to eat.  Are you feeling nervous?  Tired? Lazy? Excited? Anxious? Vulnerable? Nostalgic? Upset? Overjoyed? Peer pressure?

A is for Action

In the third column, write down the action you decide to take.  Are you going to eat the donut? Did you decide to leave the room?  Did you fake that you had to go to the bathroom?  Did you answer an imaginary phone call?  Did you cry?

L is for Long Term Effect

In the final column, write a few words to describe how you feel 3-6 hours afterwards.  This is by far the most eye opening piece of information.  Are you feeling high energy? Low energy? Nauseous? Guilty? Bloated? Do you regret your decision? Are you unaffected by your decision? Do you have a headache? Do you feel fat?

Write these four pieces of information down every time you consider putting food in your mouth.  Develop this into a habit, and within 1 to 2 weeks you’ll be armed with information that can truly revolutionize your health habits.

Here is a sample SEAL notecard that I wrote down many years ago that proved to be revolutionary in understanding my emotional triggers:

SEAL method for overcoming emotional eating

Using this card (and many others like it), I discovered two important pieces of information:

  1. Giving in to pressure caused severe abdominal pain.  Not worth it at all.

  2. Being hungry is a situation that I experience often.  Very often.

Great, I Recognized My Patterns, Now What?

In the second article in the Emotional Eating series, I’ll share some tips for overcoming emotional eating that changed my life forever.  I’ll share with you the single most important exercise that helped me overcome the desire to crave pizza and hamburgers, and give you concrete tips on ending this process once and for all.

For now, find a pen and a piece of paper and apply the SEAL method liberally.  Prepare to be intrigued by what you discover.

In the comment section below, share your emotional triggers if you know what they are.  I’ll give you a 100% guarantee that others can relate.

Photo credits


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About The Author

Cyrus Khambatta

Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 22, I have spent over a decade learning the fundamentals of nutrition at the doctorate level. My goal is to share my knowledge of practical nutrition and fitness with people with prediabetes, type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is an OPPORTUNITY to attain excellent health. Reversing the effects of insulin resistance can be a fun and enjoyable process if the right system is in place. That's why I've spent over 10 years developing a rock solid system that can minimize blood glucose variability and insulin resistance.

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