Why Has It Been So Difficult To Stop Emotional Eating?

So many people with an emotional eating problem have tried so many
diets and pills and eating programs that they are now skeptical that anything
can help them stop emotional eating for good. That conclusion is understandable. They have been disappointed so many times. It would make sense to now believe that anyone’s claims about emotional eating solutions couldn’t possibly be true.

But if you understand the role of conditioning, you understand that
diets—which consist of eating something different and eating less than you
normally would eat—work only to the extent you are using will power to
overcome the compulsion to eat more than the diets permit, whenever
triggers or the desire for rewards are present.

And even though pills can affect your appetite or change how you
process food internally, they cannot stop the compulsion to eat more than
you are hungry for in response to triggers and rewards.

Only de-conditioning can do that permanently.

What Role Do Beliefs Play In Emotional Eating?

Originally I had thought, because getting rid of beliefs never stopped
emotional eating and because de-conditioning did with most clients, beliefs
had nothing to do with emotional eating. That was a logical fallacy on my
part. Just because beliefs are not the sole cause of emotional eating doesn’t
necessarily mean they can’t be a partial cause for some people.

I now think that conditioning is almost always involved in emotional eating, but beliefs also can be involved for some people.

Here’s the way it looks to me now. Most people with an emotional
eating problem have been conditioned to eat in response to various triggers
and rewards. This is true regardless of the client’s environment as a child.

However, if someone has grown up in an environment in which one’s
parents have an eating problem and they talk frequently about dieting, losing
weight, being too heavy, being “good” on days they stay on their diet and
“bad” on days when they do not, and “good” foods and “bad” foods, then
such people are likely to form a bunch of beliefs that result in food and
eating being a constant issue in their lives … in addition to the conditioning.

Here is a list of a few of the beliefs one of my clients identified and
eliminated: If I can’t eat “bad” foods, I’m missing out. “Bad” foods make
you fat. To lose weight you can’t eat anything “bad.” The way to keep food
from running my life (like it did my mom’s) is to eat whatever I want to eat.
Can you see how such beliefs probably would lead to emotional eating?

Beliefs like these would have to be eliminated before one’s emotional eating
would stop completely. I’ve been able to help clients with this type of belief
eliminate their relevant eating beliefs using the Lefkoe Belief Process.

I want to distinguish between beliefs that directly lead to emotional
eating (like those just discussed) and those that lead to triggers that lead
to emotional eating. The beliefs listed above would directly lead to
emotional eating. Beliefs also can lead to negative feelings (such as anxiety,
anger and upset), feeling sorry for oneself (a sense of victimization), feeling
unlovable, etc. These conditions then can become triggers for emotional
eating. But these beliefs do not have to be eliminated before emotional
eating can be totally stopped.

Why Are These Beliefs So Different?

Because if the Lefkoe De-conditioning Process unhooks these triggers
from emotional eating, it becomes possible to deal with the triggers with
behaviors other than emotional eating—such as talking to friends, listening to
music, exercising, reading a book, or any activity one truly enjoys.

Although these activities have always existed as possible ways to deal
with the triggers that emotional eaters have, they are rarely chosen as
alternatives because eating already has been conditioned to occur
immediately (unless stopped by will power) following the presence of the
trigger. Once eating has become de-conditioned and is no longer a
compulsive behavior, you then have the time to calmly find another activity
that will provide a “pleasurable distraction.”

Why Do Most People Fail At Ending Their Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is a problem that keeps many people from enjoying vibrant health and causes anguish and feelings of helplessness for many. As a result, therapists, coaches, and self-help authors have tried to
help emotional eaters stop overeating in response to emotions. And
unfortunately all of them have failed you.


Because they didn’t fully understand the true cause of most
emotional eating.

After 25 years and about 13,000 clients, I finally figured out what causes
emotional eating. Although beliefs are, in fact, responsible for most of the
problems that plague us—such as anxiety, the fear of rejection, worrying
what others think of us, anger, lack of confidence, and most relationship
issues—they are not the primary cause of emotional eating.

Over the years I tried to help some people with emotional eating by
helping them eliminate the beliefs that seemed to cause the problem.
Unfortunately, the results weren’t great. We worked on belief after belief
and many aspects of their lives improved significantly. But one thing didn’t
change—their eating habits.

But because I knew from years of experience that change can be easy
and lasting, when presented with a behavior I couldn’t change by eliminating
beliefs (like eating), I didn’t conclude it couldn’t be done. Instead, I decided
there must be a way to help people like you, and I just hadn’t figured it out

The Turning Point

I started figuring out a solution to emotional eating in August 2009, when
a close friend of mine asked me to help him with his emotional eating

Because I had realized that beliefs have little to do with emotional
eating in most cases, I looked elsewhere. Here’s what I discovered in the
process of working with my friend and other emotional eating clients since

Emotional eating has just one primary cause: a unique type of
conditioning that appears to only apply to eating. In addition to this
conditioning, some emotional eating can also be traced to a few beliefs.

Conditioning of eating happens in one of two ways. The first and most
common is when you have some negative feeling or experience and then just
happen to eat and experience a “pleasurable distraction.” In other words,
when you eat you experience a pleasurable feeling instead of a negative
feeling and you also have a distraction from the negative feeling.

After (unconsciously) noticing many times that eating provides a
pleasurable distraction in that situation, you get conditioned to eat
whenever that situation occurs in the future.

The second way conditioning happens is when you want a “reward,” such
as wanting to feel good or comfortable, or to celebrate. You eat and then
discover that you are experiencing the reward you want; after numerous
connections between eating and the “reward,” eating gets conditioned to
occur whenever you desire one of the rewards.

In a blog post I wrote about eating in October 2009, I pointed out:
…if your parents continually rewarded you for special things you
did as a child by giving you a special meal with the food you really
liked, you could get conditioned to eat whenever you wanted to feel
acknowledged for something you did.

I call this process “conditioning” because the behavior (eating) is
experienced as compulsive, as driven. Eating happens automatically and
requires considerable will power to stop.

This conditioning is the emotional equivalent of a belief: You have the
emotional sense that the behavior in question is the best way to get what you
want. In the case of emotional eating, it feels as if eating is the best way to
give yourself pleasure, to reward yourself, to provide a pleasurable
distraction from something negative, etc. It’s like an emotional, rather than
a cognitive, conclusion.

At that point I realized that one way to describe emotional eating is
that, for the most part, it’s “set off” both by “triggers” and “rewards.”
Eating to achieve a reward is when you eat when you want to get a
positive feeling or to celebrate. Triggered eating is eating that provides a
pleasurable distraction from negative feelings or events. So the eating is
“triggered” by these negative experiences.

Why Does Eating Get Conditioned So Often And Not Other Behaviors?

Emotional eating is extremely common. It seems a lot more common than other conditioned behaviors. Which leads me to the question why do so many people condition eating and not some other behavior?

The answer is simple. There are no other “pleasurable distractions” that
naturally occur three times a day.

Imagine that one of your triggers occurs frequently in your life, such as
negative feelings, boredom, loneliness, or feeling unlovable. Imagine further
that you had gone to a movie several times a day earlier in your life and you had noticed over and over that the movie almost always provided a pleasurable distraction from the negative experience. Can you see that going to the movies would eventually become a
conditioned response to your negative triggers?

In other words, eating is the most common response to our triggers
only because we normally eat more often than anything else that provides
a pleasurable distraction, a sense of comfort, immediate gratification, or a calming down.

Which Of These Eating “Triggers” And “Rewards” Make You Eat When Not Hungry?

Emotional eating is caused by triggers and rewards.

The following is a list of all the triggers and rewards that I have heard from my emotional eating clients. No single client had all of them; most have from 15-20, and different clients have a different combination.


• Eating to reward myself when I feel no one else or nothing else will.
• Eating to feel good, comforted, happy, secure, centered, at home.
• Eating to give myself pleasure.
• Eating to experience being in control, to experience that no one can
stop me.
• Eating to celebrate.


• Eating when I’m nervous.
• Eating when I’m bored.
• Eating when I’m lonely.
• Eating when I want to take a break from work, as a diversion.
• Eating when I want to avoid doing something I don’t want to do.
• Eating when I think there won’t be enough food . (This is a response
to childhood deprivation. If there wasn’t enough food to eat—if you
didn’t eat the food right away it would be gone and you wouldn’t be
able to eat at all—you can get conditioned to eat whenever you see
food whether you are hungry or not.)
• Eating when I’m in social situations where everyone else is eating.
• Eating when I feel deprived of food.
• Eating when tired (to get energy).
• Eating when nauseas (to stop it).
• Eating when not doing anything specific (not necessarily bored).
• Eating when feeling sorry for myself.
• Eating when feeling unloved.
• Eating when emotionally charged.
• Eating when depressed.
• Eating when experiencing intense hurtful emotions.
• Eating when stressed.
• Eating when feeling guilty.
• Eating when feeling unlovable.
• Eating when anxious, angry, upset, sad, etc.
• Eating when feeling needy.
• Eating when feeling rejected.

Some of my clients have suggested to me that they are driven to eat just
because food is in front of them, just before they “start” a diet, when they
think they can eat without gaining weight, or that they just can’t stop eating
once they start. These are not examples of eating triggers. They are just
symptoms of other triggers and rewards.

You eat in these four situations because at least one or more of the
other triggers and rewards are almost always present, so if there is food in
front of you or you’ve already started eating, the other triggers or rewards
have you continue to eat even if you aren’t hungry. But when all the real
triggers and rewards have been de-conditioned, you will no longer eat in
these situations.

From my experience with my clients, I am convinced that most
emotional eating is the result of eating that has been conditioned to occur whenever there is a specific trigger or the desire for a reward present. Also from my experience, when you de-condition eating you’ll stop overeating … for good.

The Five Critical Distinctions You Must Make To De-Condition Emotional Eating Behavior

To stop your emotional eating once and for all you must make five critical distinctions that allow you to de-condition eating so it doesn’t automatically occur whenever one of the triggers or rewards shows up.

The Lefkoe De-conditioning Process helps you make all the necessary distinctions. Specifically the LDP assists you to do the following:

1. You realize that you wanted the “reward” (e.g., feeling loved), not
what got rewarded (e.g., eating). That enables you to find healthier ways to
get the reward than overeating.

2. You recognize that you wanted what eating provided, for example, a
pleasurable distraction from a trigger, not the eating itself. In other words,
you wanted to stop the “trigger” (e.g., having negative feelings), you didn’t
want eating (which was just one arbitrary behavior) that provided you with a
pleasurable distraction.

3. You realize that something you thought was “the truth” because you
thought you ”saw” it in the world, namely, that eating was the best way to
get what you wanted (either a reward or a pleasurable distraction from a
negative trigger), never really was in the world. You never saw it. That was
merely a thought that has existed only in your mind as one possible meaning
to gave to a series of events you were trying to understand earlier in your

4. You realize that eating never really gave you what you wanted. It
provided a momentary reward or relief from a negative feeling, but as soon
as you finished eating, you were right back where you started.

5. When you are conditioned to eat, knowing that there are alternatives
to eating doesn’t stop the eating. But once eating has been de-conditioned,
you are able to identify and use healthier ways to get rewards or a
pleasurable distraction than overeating.

When you use the Lefkoe De-conditioning Process to make these and other distinctions, your eating conditioning gets de-conditioned. And the overeating that had been due to the conditioning stops easily and for good. If beliefs also happen to be involved,
and they aren’t in most cases, once they have been easily eliminated all
emotional eating stops for good.

Once you do that, you are free from the prison emotional eating has
locked you in— free to experience a slimmer body, greater energy and the
peace of mind that comes from an end to your struggle with food.

So How Do You Get Rid Of The Conditioning That Makes You Eat?

Here’s an example of how the Lefkoe De-conditioning Process works to
de-condition eating as a very effective way to deal with emotional eating triggers and rewards, based on my notes from a recent client.

This woman compulsively ate whenever she experienced negative feelings, such as general upset or anxiety—a very common emotional eating pattern.

How was this conditioning formed?

As a child anytime she got upset, her mom gave her a cookie or some
other “sweet.” The food provided her a pleasurable distraction from the
anxiety or upset, which conditioned the eating, so that whenever she felt
anxious or upset from then on, she would compulsively eat in order to attain
the pleasurable distraction.

In other words, because eating gave her the pleasurable distraction from the strong negative feelings that she wanted, eating got conditioned to occur whenever she felt the strong negative feelings.

Here’s how I helped her de-condition eating whenever she felt anxious or

When the session began I asked her why it was important to her to stop
her emotional eating. She told me it made her gain weight, which wasn’t
healthy and made her very dissatisfied with the way she looked. Eating when
she didn’t really want to also made her feel out of control and then guilty
after she finished eating.

I had her imagine a situation in which she felt anxious or upset and then
asked her if in this type of situation she could imagine easily not eating
without using a lot of will power. She said she couldn’t imagine not eating. I
ask this question to make sure that we are dealing with a real trigger and also to provide a benchmark experience, because I ask the same question at the end of the LDP, so the client can experience the difference after the de-conditioning process is

Next I asked her: What value do you get from eating when you are
anxious or upset? She answered: I experience pleasure and I am distracted
from my negative emotional state.

I got her to make a crucial distinction: She realized she never really
wanted to eat; she wanted a pleasurable distraction from her negative
feelings. Eating was only a means to the end, not an end in itself.

I then helped her reach two important realizations: (1) The only reason
eating had been desirable was that it produced a pleasurable distraction
that nothing else had at the time. And (2) if she had found other ways to
get a pleasurable distraction when the conditioning first started, she
wouldn’t have needed to eat.

I then helped her realize that, while eating might have been one way to
get what she wanted, it wasn’t necessarily the only way.

Next I showed her that eating when she was experiencing negative
feelings never really gave her what she wanted. In other words, she had a
momentary pleasurable distraction from her upset or anxiety, but the
unpleasant feelings didn’t go away for good. As soon as she finished eating,
they were still there.

I then asked her to imagine a situation when she had eaten in response
to an experience of negative feelings. She took a moment to do this.
Then I asked: Didn’t it seem as if you could see that eating is the best
way to get a pleasurable distraction. In other words, didn’t you discover that it
was “the truth” as a result of seeing it in the world?

She told me she could really see that.

When I asked her to look closer, to describe what “it” looked like, she
realized she couldn’t really “see” that eating was the best way to get a
pleasurable distraction. It was only a conclusion she had reached in her mind
and wasn’t necessarily true.

Finally she realized that the connection between eating and
experiencing negative feelings had been an accidental connection made in
her childhood, and that there was no inherent connection between the

If her mom had taken her to a movie or played a game with her
whenever she had been upset or anxious, then that behavior would have
gotten conditioned and now she would go to a movie or play a game
whenever she experienced negative feelings.

At this point the “trigger”—namely, negative feelings—had been de-
conditioned and would no longer result in her eating compulsively.
In order to deal with negative feelings in the future, she identified
several things she could do to deal with them in the future,
such as exercising, calling a friend, and reading a book. As long as she was
not compelled to eat, these activities would do the job.

To make sure that de-conditioning really had taken place, I asked her
the same question I had asked earlier in the process: Imagine a situation in
which you are experiencing negative feelings. Can you imaging yourself easily
not eating without having to use a lot of will power?

Her answer this time was, “absolutely.”

Before she left I told her I was convinced that the de-conditioning had
been effective, but that the only way to know for sure would be to test her
behavior in life. I asked her to watch her eating and let me know if she was
eating whenever she felt negative feelings.

Two weeks later she told me that despite having had negative feelings
on several occasions, she hadn’t even been tempted to eat in those

After going through a similar process with all of her triggers and
rewards, she stopped overeating and began to lose weight.
And she’s not alone. Other clients have told me about similar results
after several sessions with me.