What comes to mind when you hear the term “emotional eating”?
Is it eating sweets uncontrollably? Eating chips mindlessly from boredom? Having a brownie when you’re sad?
These are all examples of emotional eating, yes.
But is emotional eating bad? No, of course it's not "bad". But it can feel unpleasant.
We’re human. We eat. We feel emotions. They’re bound to overlap. The goal isn’t to put a stop to it. It’s to understand it and address emotional eating from a place of curiosity.
Bella binged on sweets when she was upset. Marisa couldn’t put the chips down while watching TV after dinner. Gabriela snacked on whatever she could find when she was procrastinating in her job. Fran planted herself by the food table at social events to ease her social anxiety.
One thing these women had in common - besides the emotional eating - is that they restricted food in one form of another. And if they weren’t actively restricting food at the moment, they felt the need to do so. Like it was a “next steps” for them.
Restricting and overeating (or out of control eating) go hand in hand.
For myself, I engage in emotional eating (and drinking) sometimes when I feel down or hurt by something or someone. When I'm down, I plan extra nice dinners. Maybe a yummy pasta, or a steak with a glass or two of wine. Now I've distracted myself by having to go out to get the ingredients...and the wine. Now my body has replaced sad feelings with feel-good dopamine in anticipation of a nice meal.
I'm not labeling my response as good or bad. It just is. It makes me feel better in the moment and I'm ok with that. And this doesn't happen often. But I recognize it as a form of emotional eating.
Now, for addressing emotional eating in 1, 2, 3...
One, stop pathologizing it. It’s not a disease or something you need to get better from.
Two, get into a state of curiosity and ask yourself “What’s going on?”. In order to do this you HAVE TO drop the self-judgement, the shoulds, coulds, woulds. They’re NOT productive, don’t give you any answers OR stop the behaviour.
Two continued... If you could step out of yourself for a moment and observe (yourself) in these moments of emotional eating (i.e. binging on cookies, mindless snacking), what would you say is going on? What are the underlying emotions? What emotions or sensations is the food soothing? Where in your body do you feel the discomfort of those particular emotions?
Also, what are your perceptions and general opinions about this food (i.e. cookies or chips or whatever food is involved in the emotional eating behaviour)? What is the opinion you have about yourself when you eat this food?
And three, ask yourself “What do I really need?” While food is, let’s call it, a “band-aid” solution to soothing these uncomfortable feelings, it doesn’t address the root cause. And that’s ok. It’s a quick fix and sometimes quick fixes are needed. But say that food wasn’t available (i.e. the cookies) in this moment of emotional distress, what else would help you address and soothe these emotions?
If emotional eating wasn't about the food, what would it be about? Focusing on the emotions rather than the food - or act of eating - is one way of addressing emotional eating.
Drop the "good" and "bad" food categories
And lastly, some Intuitive Eating advice here (well it’s ALL Intuitive Eating advice), be mindful of categorizing foods into good or bad. The more you create these categories, the worse you will feel when eating the so called “bad” foods. The more forbidden the food becomes. This can lead to want to restrict it more which - as I mentioned earlier- creates a cycle of restrict-binge.
Healing from emotional eating is not even really about healing per se. It's about having greater awareness and understanding the ways you respond to emotional triggers.
And remember, food restriction is directly correlated to out of control eating.
If you want to keep reading up on emotional eating and Intuitive Eating, check out this article by Rachael Hartley, one of my favourite Intuitive Eating dietitians.
For personalized support, head over to my Non-Diet Life Coaching page, or reach out to a nutritionist or dietitian certified in Intuitive Eating.