What is it?
Emotional eating is eating based on feelings, not biology.
In other words, emotional eating is in response to emotions and feelings rather than hunger or physiological needs.
Sometimes we may eat for comfort, and if there is no guilt or negative feelings associated with this, it is not an issue. It is when we are using food to help distract, avoid, or numb ourselves as a way to not deal with feelings that we need to be concerned, or when after eating, we have intense feelings of shame or guilt.
If you recognize that you might be an emotional eater, you are not alone. If you eat when experiencing difficult emotions, it is a signal that you have feelings to deal with. Food won’t fix any of these feelings, even if it may bring comfort for the short term, distract you or numb you for awhile. Eventually, you will have to deal with the source of your emotions. Additionally, when we are upset, our digestive system is not at optimal performance, so it is not the best time to eat, either.
Food represents many things to us. In every culture, food has meaning. Food can represent tradition, comfort, nurturing and love. Food can also have negative feelings associated with it, such as guilt, or shame or thinking foods are “good” or “bad”. Being aware of what food means to you and giving yourself self compassion around eating and food is important. It allows you to truly enjoy the pleasures of food, while also learning to separate your emotional needs from your physical needs, so that you are not trying to satisfy one with the other. While feeling guilty about what we have eaten is not helpful, trying to manage anger through eating is not helpful either.
Emotions can be triggers, so knowing what situations may trigger emotional eating is important. Procrastination, frustration, disappointment, boredom, loneliness, anxiety, stress, depression, and anger are some of the things that can trigger emotional eating. It’s important that we find ways to comfort and nurture ourselves without relying on food to do it for us. Being kind to ourselves-self compassion- is critical in this process.
Paying attention to our self talk when we are struggling with emotions is one way to ensure kindness toward ourselves.
When you are having a rough time, what are you saying to yourself? Are you thinking in black and white terms or looking for the grey? Pay attention to the unhelpful thoughts and beliefs that show up and challenge them with rational thoughts and evidence. Ask yourself these questions:
1. Am I having repetitive and intense feelings? (This is an indicator that you need to challenge these thoughts, as they are becoming stuck.)
2. What am I thinking that is leading me to feel this way? What am I saying to myself?
3. What is true about this belief? What is false? Is there a more rational and reasonable way to think about this? What would a friend say to me if he/she knew I was thinking this way?
4. Is my thinking helping me, or hurting me?
5. Who and what can help me?
Example: “I feel like such a failure” vs. “I am doing better, bit by bit. It’s OK to make mistakes, no one is perfect”
Coping with Emotional Eating- Step by Step
1. Am I biologically hungry? If yes- honour your hunger and eat. If no- explore the questions below.
2. What am I feeling right now? Identify the emotions that you are experiencing, and allow yourself to process them, for example- write them out, talk them out, call someone, sit with your feelings, talk with a counsellor
3. What do I need? For example, do I need rest? Support? Fun? Space? To tell someone what I think/feel?
4. Who or what can help me? Identify a plan for yourself.
5. Ask for what you need. This can be hard to do, especially if you like to manage things for yourself.
6. Seek nurturance for yourself, and from others. Deal with your feelings with kindness. Consider the ways you would like to be nurtured, without food.
7. Find a different distractor. If distraction works for you, seek out something other than food to meet this need. Pursue an interest or hobby, connect with someone, do something that does not have to involve eating.
8. Respect and love your body. Pay attention to your inner voice and what messages you are giving yourself about your own body. Do you see your body as an instrument, or an ornament? Be proud of the things your body can do and how it allows you to experience the world.
9. Movement. Research shows that moving our bodies is good for our mental and our physical health. When we are stuck in a thought or feeling, moving our bodies can help us become “unstuck” and start to process things. Walking, dancing, rocking, swimming, any type of movement that gets your body going is good.
10. Learn. When things do go wrong, and life is hard, take time to process your emotions and learn from what has happened, instead of pushing the feeling down. Recognize that while things are hard, you can also choose to focus on what you may have learned that will help you in the future.
Reference: Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach-4th Edition- Tribole, E. and Elyse Resch, St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2020.