The Danger of Emotional Eating in Addiction Recovery

binge eating

Walking away from drug or alcohol addiction has a long list of challenges. Once the substance is removed from the equation, most of us realize that life can be pretty overwhelming. In order to stack the odds in our favor, I believe a holistic approach, one that deals with the whole person (mind, body, and spirit) is critical. Unfortunately, many of us come from ‘old school’ type thinking, where it is believed that a recovering addict should only deal with one thing at a time. As long as we are not picking up a drink or a drug, we should feel free to use whatever other coping mechanisms we can.

I strongly disagree.

On a personal level, I used chocolate…and a lot of it, to feed my cravings during my first two months of sobriety. Did this affect me negatively and make things more difficult than they should have been?


What is Comfort Eating?

Comfort eating is also what we call emotional eating or the act of feeding your feelings. It’s when we eat to fill a longing or a listless feeling that is not actual hunger. It is believed to be the main reason why people overeat and is also one of the main driving forces behind obesity. Psychologists often attribute this behavior to childhood, when food is provided as a reward or a way to deal with negative situations. We train our brains to develop an association between food and comfort, and so we continue this behavior in our adult lives. Comfort eating is pretty easy to recognize vs. physical hunger:

emotional eating

Comfort Foods

When we are eating to feed our emotions instead of using food as fuel, we tend to turn to certain types of food. Everyone has a different preference, but chocolate, salty food, ice cream, bread products and starches (like macaroni and cheese or a heaping mound of mashed potatoes with gravy) are examples of comfort food. If we turn to this food to replace the addiction we just put down we can compound our problems by gaining weight, taxing our organs, and ultimately damaging our health if we continue the cycle.

I happen to work with a medical doctor, ghostwriting for his blog and many of his health related seminars and materials. This is probably God’s way of forcing me to research and understand what I’m doing to my health when I turn to food instead of facing my real problems.

But what are my real problems? What are the triggers for comfort eating? They look a lot like drug relapse triggers:

Triggers for Comfort or Emotional Eating

  • Loneliness
  • Anger
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Relationship problems
  • Hopelessness
  • Disappointment
  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • New, difficult or uncomfortable situations

The Root of Emotional Eating

Although we can look at the list above and shrug our shoulders, because after all, half the world lives this way…it’s really not okay for people in recovery. Switching from one addiction to the next is part of the ‘cunning and baffling’ that the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous talks about.

When we surrendered…when we admitted we were powerless and in desperate need of a power greater than ourselves to restore us to sanity, we agreed to remove ourselves from the act of ‘helping ourselves.’ We were desperate in the beginning and fully agreed that we needed God to intervene, to do His work and to stay out of His way.

Well, think about it…

What does comfort or binge eating do? It puts us right back in the driver’s seat. When we have that ‘moment’ during our day when we just feel like we need SOMETHING…Isn’t it then that we rifle through the file cabinet in our brain and say to ourselves, “Okay, here I am. I’m at a longing, listless crossroad. I need some relief. I can’t choose drugs, so what are my choices?” It’s during this split second crossroad moment that we either choose to sit in God’s presence and allow Him to remove this feeling, or we choose to self-medicate with food, cigarettes, a quick shopping trip for that new pair of jeans we don’t need, that text to the old boyfriend, or maybe we’ll jump online and look up some porn.

“So, it’s all the same? Isn’t that kind of ridiculous?”

No. It’s not ridiculous at all and if you’re reading these words with an open mind and heart you absolutely know 100% that what I’m saying is true. Sitting down in front of the television and eating 10 chocolate chip cookies in the span of an hour is no different than running to the drug of our choice. Do you know how I know this? Because I’ve experienced it, and although a gallon of ice cream has never caused me to lose my job or landed me in a jail cell, the mental and emotional bondage attached to the act are exactly the same.

Have you ever fallen into a full blown eating binge and hid the evidence? Like maybe pushing that bag of cookies further down in the garbage because you know your spouse would realize the bag was just purchased today? How about this scenario…Have you ever eaten a Big Mac and a large fry on the way home just to eat a complete meal at the table with your family as if you hadn’t eaten all day? Okay then, admit it. You’re still operating in addiction. You’ve just chosen a different vice.

Emotional Eating in Recovery

Those of us who have walked away from drug or alcohol addiction are particularly at risk of turning to food as a way of dealing with emotions or emptiness. Add in the fact that our first few months and years of sobriety are often spent facing the wreckage of our past deeds makes it pretty easy to turn to food. We may rationalize and justify our behavior by saying it’s better to turn to food than to return to substance abuse, but I believe it’s much more serious.

This type of behavior is connected to the relapse process because we are still relying on our own choices instead of what God has for us. Our own choices are always temporary band-aids and quick fixes. Only God heals us from the inside out and brings us THROUGH instead of providing a temporary distraction.

Also, did you know that gluttony in the Bible is mentioned right alongside drunkenness? Yep. Gluttony or overeating is a spiritual malady, much like alcoholism or drug addiction. We have a spiritual need…our tanks are low and we start to feel anxious and off-center, overwhelmed or irritated, so what do we do? Well, we turn to Snickers because it’s the cure for ‘HANGRY’, just like the commercial teaches us, right? Except twenty minutes later we’re going to want something else because we didn’t actually fill our spiritual tank. Instead we turned to something earthly to feed our flesh.

So, what’s the solution here?

How to Avoid Emotional Eating

You’ve taken the first step if a light bulb has gone on and you’ve become aware of the problem. Ahhhh, back to the 12-steps. You’ve admitted you have a problem and that you’re powerless. Good job!

Step two is to give up control. Stop relying on your own good ideas to fill the void in your life. Remember, our best efforts end up terribly. Instead, agree with God’s Word which tells us this: “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God. You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”  —1 Corinthians 6:19-20.

Did you get what that verse said? You don’t belong to yourself. You don’t have to run the show or figure things out. You were bought with a price (Jesus’ blood) so just give up, give in, throw in the towel. You don’t have to figure out WHY you’re overeating. All you are required to do is admit it, give it to God and tell Him to take control of your life.
Side note: If you’re afraid to do that just take a few minutes and think about the messes you end up in when you don’t include God.

My first honest and authentic prayer regarding my tendency to try to control my own life happened in the shower before I went to treatment. I said, “God, I surrender everything to you today, and if I’m just saying words and my heart isn’t really in it, I give You permission to override my heart and change it. Do whatever You have to do to keep me from self-sabotage. Make me willing to be willing.”

I prayed this before going to rehab and I’ve prayed it many times since. It’s a good, simple prayer and it pretty much covers everything you need to get you on the right track.

As you practice stillness and start to walk in a higher level of awareness of your decisions and crossroad moments, I believe you’ll begin to practice mindful eating and you’ll gain the power to resist all of the temporary band-aids and quick fixes for your empty spiritual tank. There is nothing that can replace your relationship with your Creator. We were created to love and be loved by Him.

Eat your spiritual food (the Word) every day and you’ll find the desire to turn to other things will become much easier to resist.

I don’t walk in this perfectly every day, but I absolutely do it more than I ever have!

Progress, not perfection.
Happy Sunday! xo


About Robin Bright

Hi. My name is Robin Bright. I'm a mom, author, part of The John Maxwell Team and a recovery advocate who struggled with the torment of addiction for over a decade. I still remember what it was like. I know the desperation and hollowness of addiction. The stories here are about our journey to the light. They are raw, authentic, vulnerable. We talk about getting free, staying free, and loving ourselves through the process. I used to believe I had become the worst version of myself. And then God introduced me to me —as only He can. It is my hope that you will use the resources found here to uncover your own true identity...the vision God had when He formed you. xo


  1. Lesley merrifield

    The light bulb just went off. Thank you, I gave up my addition and became a chocolate eater!!!

  2. Jae

    Thank you for this. I turned (returned?) to food when I got sober. I gave myself permission to eat sweets because I was told that’s what happens when you quit drinking. Two years later I have gained 20 pounds and feel miserable, mentally and physically. I know it’s another addiction yet I let it go on because, as you said, I’m not in jail or lost my job over it, but I know it’s destroying me just as much. Again, thank you for your words, I will read this often. Jae

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