Is food your happy pill?

Yesterday morning, I was doing a writing exercise that asked me to think about painful places I don’t want to return to (oh, yay), and how that relates to my current writing. As I mulled over possibilities, one that came back to me was late 2009, when my dad was dying. At the same time, my mom was slipping deeper into the grip of Alzheimer’s, and our kids were either away at college or soon to be there.

So many exits, all at once. All that loss brought out something in me I hadn’t experienced since my teenage years: eating because I just wanted to stop hurting — even if it was just for 30 minutes.

In my teen years, I raided the pantry. Now, I found myself “just happening” to run errands every afternoon, so I could go by a convenience store and pick up something I wouldn’t normally keep in the house. And then eating three-fourths of the bag, in the next five minutes.

And it was a party-sized bag.

I’ve since learned that repeatedly going to food-as-anesthesia impedes the emotional healing process. Using food to numb or avoid keeps us from dealing with things. As I was thinking through my writing exercise yesterday, this image popped into my head:

emotional eating cycle

One approach keeps us going in circles. One approach moves us forward.

Why is that?

Scientists know that alcohol and substance abuse can keep a person stuck, unable to heal from painful feelings.

“Anyone who abuses drugs or alcohol is at risk for stunting their emotional growth…. You may have spent years working hard to block out reality…. Every single problem that has been brushed aside is still there, waiting to be dealt with once you become sober.”

– Nikki Seay, Clearview Treatment Programs

There’s also reason to believe that if we’re using food in a dependent way — whether or not it’s an actual addiction — it may have similar stunting effects. Especially if we’re using it as a source of emotional comfort, anesthesia, or “happy pill.” Or if we’re using food to compensate or reward ourselves for whatever difficulty we’re going through.

Karly Randolph Pitman, a veteran of over 30 years of both overeating and emotional eating, lists these possible symptoms of emotional eating:

  • “You may… have strong emotions – you either… use food as a buffer… or… use food as a life raft.
  • You may be conscientious. You drive yourself hard with high expectations, internal criticism and perfectionism, and use food for comfort to make up the difference…
  • You may have poor boundaries…
  • Eating healthy foods may bring up intense feelings of deprivation
  • Food is your “mother” – what nurtures you and helps you feel safe. You feel anxious and scared about not having this love.”  (source)

If you think you may have a sugar or food addiction — or your everyday emotional eating is feeling out of control — I encourage you to consider multiple kinds of help. There’s no shame in asking for help! I love this comment I found online:


“Even normal people need help lifting heavy objects. Counseling is no different.”


If your eating has become a burden too heavy for you to lift, please ask for help! The first step might be asking a friend or family member to come alongside you: not to be the one who tells you what to do, but to encourage you as you seek solutions. A second step might be finding a good counselor or support group.

Another source of help: books. I’ve read TONS of books on food, nutrition, and emotional eating. (I mean seriously: I have my own library!) I’ve posted only the ones that I’ve found most helpful on my books page.* A few I would especially recommend:

I Deserve a Donut – uses Bible verses to retrain your thought patterns, with some elements of cognitive behavioral therapy

Freedom from Emotional Eating – a bible study

The Sugar Addict’s Complete Recovery Program – a self-paced 7-step process to help wean you off sugar and/or carbs

Also, I’m not a counselor, but I can be a sounding board and trail guide, if you think a friendly ear might nudge you out of the circle, moving forward. 🙂 Learn more here.


Parts of this post originally published on ohthatstasty.com in 2016.

*Buying through my Amazon links earns me a wee li’l percentage of the cost, without raising yours at all.


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