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Love and Licorice: The WHY of Emotional Eating

Woman eating licorice

By Ramani Durvasula, PhD – (Member, APA Committee on Women in Psychology)

I was in fourth grade.  Our teacher challenged each of us to recite a 13 digit number without ever saying the word “and” or “um”.  For example 13,465,924 would be said thirteen million, four hundred sixty five thousand, nine hundred twenty four.  I wasn’t sure the point of the exercise, but I was one of the last ones called up. No child had succeeded before me.

Breaking a sweat, brow furrowed – I did it.  The only one in the class to do so.  I was triumphant.

Instead of a gold star, I was rewarded with 5 strands of red licorice.  The mother-lode! Candy during a school day.  I still remember it like yesterday.  And I am still psychologically a bit vulnerable to red licorice.

Food as reward is often where it begins for us. 

  1. “I love you – have a cookie.”

  2. “You got straight A’s – we’ll get hamburgers.”

  3. “Skinned knee? You get a lollipop.”

Food is used to reward us, to soothe us, and sometimes to punish us (“do that again, and you won’t get dessert”).  Food is celebration – no one celebrates birthdays with broccoli, it’s all about cake.

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is a term that refers to a pattern of using food to manage feelings. Typically manifested by overeating calorie rich foods such as sugars, fats, and salty foods to distract from negative emotional states.

And because these kinds of foods – sweets, fast foods, snack foods – proliferate everywhere and are cheap – they are a quick fix when you are hit with blues, boredom or just a bad day.

Your brain is in on this conspiracy.  You have a bad feeling, then eat junk to manage the feelings, often these foods light up reward centers in the brain, so you eat more, then you feel bad for eating so much, another bad feeling, so you eat more……you get the idea. It’s a cycle.  And it can become a habit.

We live in a confusing food world.  On one billboard we see a skeletal bikini clad model eating a burger, on another – an ad for gastric bypass surgery, and on yet another – a slab of cheesecake.

Food is considered a one stop shop for what ails us, we are told it will satisfy us, make us happy, and even make us moan, while at the same time we are told to be unnaturally thin.  It’s what we call a double bind – and makes us chronically feel like we can’t win.

So often – we just eat. This is particularly pronounced for women, nearly 80% of whom report some level of body dissatisfaction (Katz et al., 2004), and who are socialized to please – often through cooking or eating.

How you can break the cycle

One acronym I have talked about far and wide is something I call FLABS.  These letters indicate the primary emotional states that drive folks to eat when they are not hungry:

F:            Frustrated

L:             Lonely

A:            Angry

B:            Bored

S:            Sad

When we reflect on how many unhealthy calories enter us through these emotional portals – it’s sobering.  Food cannot address these feelings, and after the cookies are eaten, the feeling remains and is magnified by remorse over overeating.

Most people don’t binge on kale, they binge on chips. It’s a process. I learned years ago in a classroom that my mental aptitude would be rewarded with licorice – and even today I have a bag of candy on my university desk.

Trace back the emotional lessons you learned about food, reflect on how they impact you today.

Here’s where you can harness mindfulness – the best tool in our arsenal to manage emotional eating. Start by taking a post-it, write FLABS on it and stick it on your fridge.

Perhaps the next time you are feeling frustrated or sad, instead of leftover pizza, you take a mindful moment, pause, and try something that might actually work – like meditation, a phone call to a friend, or a good book.

Or perhaps a big healthy bunch of birthday broccoli with an extra candle for good luck.

We want to hear from you! Tell us in the comments:

  1. How do you break the cycle of emotional eating in your own life?

  2. How do you use food to manage emotions?

  3. When did you learn to start using food to manage feelings?


Katz, M. L., Gordon-Larsen, P., Bentley, M. E., Kelsey, K., Shields, K., & Ammerman, A. (2004). ‘Does skinny mean healthy?’ Perceived ideal, current, and healthy body sizes among African-American girls and their female caregivers. Ethnicity & Disease, 14, 533-541.

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