Emotional eating can feel like the elephant in the room. It’s there but it’s not something we’re comfortable acknowledging or talking about. Other times, it’s the scape goat. We blame our out-of-control feelings around food on emotional eating. We can even go as far as to internalize the concept of emotional eating and identify with it. Have you ever said “I’m an emotional eater” or “Hey, I’m eating my feelings”? My clients are among them – I’ve heard many of them share their struggle with emotional eating and I wanted to take a closer look.
Before writing this post I did a quick Google search on “emotional eating” and the results were interesting. According to Google Trends, searches for “emotional eating” peak during the week of Valentine’s Day. And the majority of the links in the search results made mention of weight loss. As in, “How to Stop Emotional Eating” or “Powerful Tools to Stop Emotional Eating”. One included a personal story and implied that emotional eating helped this person lose a significant amount of weight.
What can we make of all that? If I didn’t know any better, I’d assume that emotional eating was an inherently negative thing and if I could control it or quit doing it, it could be a solution for weight loss or managing my health. Thankfully, my work with intuitive eating and a Health At Every Size (HAES) approach has taught me otherwise.
Why Is Emotional Eating Even a Thing?
Despite what Google searches and Wikipedia pages might tell you, food is supposed to be comforting. It’s connected to survival – way back when, when food was much more scarce and hard to come by, access to food brought a sense of security that ensured we had what we needed to survive. Food insecurity is still a very real problem – it exists in every community in the United States, not to mention worldwide food insecurity. But for most of us, the availability and easy access to food doesn’t erase the comforting feeling it provides.
So we can acknowledge food is indeed an emotional thing. There’s really no escaping the fact that eating a particular food can result in a physical sensation in our body but also evoke an emotional response. It may be positive, like a fond childhood memory sparked by a nostalgic food you haven’t eaten in a long time. Maybe it’s a little more like comfort. You settle in to enjoy a familiar food and trust that it will be satisfying, filling, and nourishing. Other times, a food can have a more negative connotation, like triggering the memory of a previous binging episode where you ate that particular food until you felt physically ill. Or you’re resentful that the food you’re eating isn’t what you really want.
There’s an entire spectrum of human emotion connected to the eating experience and writing that off or disregarding isn’t doing much to address emotional eating at all.
The question is actually not, “How can I stop emotional eating?” It’s “Do I want to?”
Emotional eating is only problematic if it interferes with the lifestyle you aspire to have and causes friction in your relationship with food. The construct of emotional eating as a negative thing stems from diet culture. We can even point to our distaste of gluttony and the desire to disassociate from behaviors that imply we are emotionally unsteady, weak, or lazy at times. In other words: that we are human.
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What’s Wrong With Emotional Eating?
When clients disclose they are emotional eaters (or another common one is “I’m addicted to food” – perhaps another post on that later) they’re hoping I hold the solution to help them stop that behavior. But the question is not whether they should, but whether they want to. Emotional eating can be a coping strategy. The work we do together helps determine whether it’s a harmful coping strategy or simply something they turn to when they need to feel comforted or distracted.
To answer the question of “What’s wrong with emotional eating?” we really need to ask ourselves whether the frequency or degree to which we turn to food to cope with what we’re feeling is problematic for us as an individual. This could be different than how our diet- and wellness-obsessed culture views things. One simple question to ask yourself is, “If fat phobia didn’t exist and all body sizes were accepted, would my emotional eating cause an issue?” If the answer is no, maybe there’s nothing to be done about emotional eating. But if you decide you’d still like to address it and find alternative coping mechanisms, that’s something we can absolutely work on using a non-diet approach.
So What Can I Do?
Remember that spectrum of human emotion? As uncomfortable as it may be, it can help to split hairs a little bit and identify exactly what it is you’re feeling. With that in mind, you can determine what it is that you actually need, and then pose the question of whether or not a food can provide that for you. Consider:
- If you’re feeling TIRED, are you: burnt out, exhausted, sleepy, overwhelmed?
- If you’re feeling SAD, are you: disappointed, heartbroken, depressed, unhappy, hopeless, discouraged?
- If you’re feeling BORED, are you: disconnected, uninterested, looking for a distraction?
- If you’re feeling ANGRY, are you: frustrated, irritated, cranky, hostile, jealous?
- If you’re feeling WORRIED, are you: stressed, anxious, uncomfortable, scared, tense?
Do any of these feelings trace back to a specific person or event? Could you create the resolution in those situations without relying on food? Of course, that answer may not be obvious so we then ask, “What is it that I really need?” Consider:
- If you need CONNECTION, you might need: care, compassion, acceptance, trust, respect, belonging or a sense of community, love
- If you need PURPOSE, you might need: empowerment, inspiration, creativity, a challenge/to be challenged, awareness, a boost of self-confidence
- If you need HARMONY, you might need: relaxation, predicability, stability, fairness/justice, peace, order
- If you need PHYSICAL WELL BEING, you might need: fresh air, sunshine/daylight, movement or exercise, touch, physical or sexual intimacy, sleep, comfort/warmth
- If you need DISTRACTION, you might need: fun, humor/laughter, adventure, spontaneity, choice or more freedom of choice
Landing on what you really need to address how you’re feeling isn’t easy. It’s even more difficult if we have a long history of disconnecting from the experience of eating or suppressing emotions we feel uncomfortable dealing with. But if you realize that food isn’t going to provide what you really need, it’s just putting a band-aid on the situation – a temporary fix.
Emotional Eating is Not a Bad Thing
I repeat: emotional eating is not a bad thing. As temporary as that fix may be, it might be the most accessible option for us in that moment. It might be the best tool we have or the most reliable or the quickest. And that is OK. We are imperfect beings and part of that means coping with emotions might get messy. We can weigh the pros and cons of turning to food (How will this food make me feel? What are my other options? Can this particular food provide what I really need right now?) and determine our next steps.
Maybe some of your next steps look like self-care practices. Perhaps you change your environment or get up to enjoy some movement. Or you might find a way to distract yourself until the emotion subsides.
But sometimes the answer is right there in front of us all along…just eat the damn food!
Because we know that emotional eating and binge eating are both the response to restriction (in different, nuanced ways) the solution might actually involve eating the food you’re craving. Granted, we can use our hunger/fullness and mindfulness to guide the process of eating. But restricting or avoiding food isn’t the answer.
Offer yourself some grace and compassion. You are not a bad person for soothing your feelings with a food that brings you distraction, pleasure, numbness, satisfaction, or anything else. Emotional eating is an emotionally fraught thing and it gets easy to cast blame on ourselves or feel shame about our actions. But there are no comparisons with intuitive eating. Despite what you’ve done in previous situations you can always learn and continue to build body trust with yourself.
Have your feelings towards emotional eating shifted? Do you think emotional eating has a place in a non-diet approach?
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And if you’re looking for more support for a non diet approach and intuitive eating, be sure to check out my Intuitive Eating Workbook. It’s full of resources and tools to help you kick the dieting mentality and find food freedom!