How Pharmacists Can End Emotional Eating


Restrictive eating, emotional eating, and binge eating are mental traps that keep us from reaching our goal.

"I know what to do, I just don’t do it.'

How many times have you heard this? I know you have heard this when counseling a patient in giving them their prescription or warning them about the impact diet and exercise have on their medication. Or could it be the pharmacist who had this thought?! With the New Year on the move, focus gets placed on our nutrition, wellness, and overall health, and pharmacists can be faced with answering several questions:

'Are you where you want to be with your eating habits?''Are you comfortable and happy with your lifestyle?''Do you have a healthy relationship with food?'

If the answer to all of the above wasn’t a resounding 'heck, yes,' one thing is for sure: when it come to our health and wellness, we want to change! We want a simple solution for nutrition, so we look for options in improving how and what we eat. As professionals, we feel a moral and ethical duty to lead healthcare by example.

We know there is a need for change, and we want to make it, but we can get stuck. Sometimes, instead of identifying the problem and focusing on the solution, we become overwhelmed and can even become overly critical of ourselves in the process. You know, kind of like when we have 12 people waiting, Mrs. Smith swears she already paid for the Rx you are asking her $1 for, all doctors lines are ringing, and the printer just broke—all daily stuff. We may be used to that in our workplace, but transition that level of chaos into our personal health and things can get really heavy. This can be seen through unhealthy eating behaviors—the exact opposite of what we’re trying to achieve in forming healthy improvements.

Restrictive eating, emotional eating, binge eating—these are mental traps that keep pharmacists from reaching our goals, and it can become a vicious cycle that hold us back from the success we deserve. Believe it or not, 11/10 times our actions we make around food choices are not about food at all- it’s our mindset, the psychology of eating that are the real driving forces behind our food-related decisions. This is important to know, because we make well over 200 food-related decisions every day.

What Eating Behaviors Are Eating Me Up?

  • Restrictive eating—not allowing yourself to have certain foods, or avoiding entire food groups—can lead us to feel extremely deprived, starving, and even socially isolated. Sounds fun, huh—ready to sign up?!?
  • Attempting to stick to rigid meal times and only having limited food choices can stem from limiting beliefs that are thrown around all too frequently in our culture:

'If I want extreme results, it will require extreme behaviors' or 'I have to make these hard sacrifices if I want to look this way'

Especially as pharmacists work the crazy long shifts, adopting this mindset can lead to habits of overwhelming hunger, binge eating, and feeling out of control—imagine that: trying to exert more control will actually leave you ending up feeling like you have none. I know these feelings all too well because I have been there myself. As a fellow pharmacist, I tried these tricks to no avail, and want to share with you what happens to better arm yourself with what the data has to say—the real truth from the world of food psychology.

Using rigidity as a “solution” to control our food intake brings with it both physiological (hunger) and psychological (emotional) discomfort. Feeling out of control is common for those who attempt this practice, stating that 'In the beginning I was on track, but then a few days later…' Now time for the great news: it does not have to be this way. Excessive restriction will never lead to long term results and a healthy relationship with food, or yourself.

For pharmacists to get a handle on this mindset, the magic comes from inside—literally, the thoughts we think. What I mean is this: how we think determines how we feel, which translates to how we act—that is, our food and eating choices.

Counterregulatory Eating

There actually is a scientifically documented phenomenon called the 'What the Hell Effect.' If you want to get more technical, it’s also referred to as 'counterregulatory eating.'

Have you ever gone to a birthday party on those rare full days off from working ClubPharmacy—in the middle of your journey of losing weight—and before you get there you say to yourself, 'Ok, Adam, I’m on a diet, I know there will be cake, so I’m going to have just one piece.' But then, when you are served, it came with a scoop of ice cream side car like magic?! You then feel obligated to eat it, and then you get the feeling that 'I already blew it', so your eyes make their way to the cookie table right after you had this thought. A curious nibble for how the snickerdoodle tastes becomes a few, and then you mentally come to the place of 'Well, I already screwed up, so I might as well…'

What happened? This small shift in mindset at the ice cream incident created a cascade into justification and less than ideal action: 'well, it’s almost the weekend, so I might as well go all in since I already had cake… I’ll restart on Monday', which turns into next week, next month, next year. See how easy it is to fall down that slippery slope?

What the Science Has to Say: Data-Driven Decisions

Comparing dieters with non-dieters, it has been found that there is a marked difference in that those who are on a diet tend to overeat, even after they have consumed a large meal, while those not on a diet can call it quits and make the last bite the last bite. Why? Focusing solely on food and weight, coupled with inflexible and unrealistic eating habits, creates an unhealthy relationship with food. As pharmacists already managing to do 30 things at once, we cannot afford this for the sake of our own health.

Let's get back to pharmacy school for a moment and prove this using real data, as this very phenomenon among people who are on a diet has been replicated in the lab and documented through research. In one study, participants arrived in a semi-fasted state, not having eaten for a few hours prior to their arrival. They were then split up into one of 3 groups: members of group 1 were each given a small milkshake, group 2 were given 2 large milkshakes, and group 3 were given nothing. After some time to allow for the milkshakes to be consumed, all 3 groups were then asked to evaluate a variety of different snacks. Here is where it gets interesting:

In each of the three groups, the members were made up of both dieters and non-dieters. Those who were not on a diet responded in line what you might expect: group 1 who had the small milkshake had some snacks, but not all; group 2 who had the 2 large milkshakes ate almost no snacks, and group 3 who had no milkshake ate all of the snacks. The twist? Those who were on a diet did the exact opposite of those who were not on a diet: the dieters in the group with 2 large milkshakes ate all of the snacks! 'Might as well…'

I Know the Feeling

So what's our Rx for success? Not feel emotions?! When we talk about emotional eating, let’s not dismiss this entirely as a bad thing and throw the baby out with the bathwater. It does have a place, with it serving a protective role to help us cope with emotion. What happens, however, and can become a problem for us, is that after we emotionally eat, the emotion is still there, but the food is gone.

When we feel stress, we first think just that: 'I am stressed!' The issue arises when we automatically interpret that feeling into 'I’ll never finish writing this article on time,' which only augments the anxiety we are feeling, creating yet another vicious cycle of mental sabotage. Sounds like a pattern pharmacists can all too easily get into, am I right?

The solution comes to us when we intentionally reinterpret the core feeling of stress for what it is: a feeling! What we do not want to do is try to suppress it, but instead acknowledge it as a means to bring awareness of it to the forefront on our consciousness. By doing this, we have successfully taken the first step in learning how to effectively manage the emotion, rather than using food as a crutch to cope or pushing the feeling aside to suppress it or cover it up.

Rx for Successful Stress

No one can make you do this—you have to want to come into power over your emotions rather than let them run your life. You must be willing to first and foremost accept yourself as you are, not with conditions (I’ll accept it if I lose 20 pounds, run a mile under 7 minutes, etc). It can be uncomfortable, scary, challenging—but is this not how you felt the very first time you tried to tie your own shoe when you were a young kid? You would watch your parents or siblings do it amidst talking or multitasking, but you would try it with intense focus to no avail. This is a new skill you may be trying for the very first time—do not expect to master it on the first attempt.

One feeling that may immediately come to mind in thinking about making a change is fear. But there is good news. 'Fear' is merely a perception—what if when you get that feeling, you instead labeled it as 'excitement' of a new possibility? You are venturing into the unknown as a means to grow and improve, and yes, that IS exciting!

Action is the antidote to fear—as a pharmacist, I can attest that this is true. If we can justify our action as a means to conquer fear and improve ourselves, this shift in mindset can help us to get a sense of relief from fear that may come up when thinking about time, effort, or obstacles that may be involved with making a change.

If you ‘re stuck debating with yourself whether or not to change NOW, isn’t that very question in itself a cue that change is needed? We won’t take action unless we know and recognize that change is 3 things: needed, realistic, and has meaning. If you put off the “now”, and start to bargain with yourself for Monday, often that “What the Hell Effect” can push that into next Monday, next month, or next year. There is no time like the present.

Rx for Success Action Steps:

1. Write out what areas in your life which you are not happy. Health, job, relationships?

2. In those areas you mentioned, how would you want them each to look? Be as specific with detail as possible.

3. What would your life look like if you had all of those wants fulfilled that you just defined?

4. What action will you take to make that happen? What one thing will you do now to get yourself started?

Holding yourself accountable by someone other than yourself is one of the most powerful assets you can have in helping you stay on track with your goals. When the going gets tough, who will you have in your corner that won’t let you off the hook? Who will push you through the setbacks when you don’t feel like it? I’ve been serving my clients in this role for years, and would love to learn how I can help you succeed in reaching what’s most important to you—I’d love to learn what that is! You can reach me at


Klemczewski, Joe; Propst, Kori. 50 Days to Your Best Life. Wordspank, 2014.

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