Emotional eating is when you eat for emotional reasons rather than physical hunger. In itself, emotional eating is not “bad” (more on that to come) but the shame and guilt we feel after eating, and perhaps physical discomfort, too makes it an uncomfortable experience.
Eating in humans is a complex interplay of instinct, emotion and rational thought. Oftentimes the go-to treatment for emotional eating is to try to “stop” eating the specific foods we binge on but when we go down this path we are neglecting the complexities of the human eating experience. By using only rational thought over the foods we should eat, it will not support a healthy and peaceful relationship with food long term.
Emotional eating is not really about the food itself. To really know how to stop out-of-control eating, we need to get to the bottom of why we do it in the first place and learn how to work with our bodies. Let’s explore some underlying triggers and how you can reduce the burden of emotional eating.
First things first, let’s ditch the idea that emotional eating is “bad”. I know it can feel that emotional eating is causing you harm, and if that’s the case that’s valid, it is likely not helpful. But eating is a normal coping tool.
Food is shown to reduce stress, provide comfort and it lights up the pleasure areas of our brain, just as other pleasurable activities do (such as puppies). Carbohydrates even increase the production of serotonin, a hormone that stabilises our mood and makes us feel happy. It’s no wonder food serves a purpose during emotional moments.
Emotional eating can become less helpful if it is one of our only tools we turn to when experiencing strong emotions. In this way, it can lead to physical discomfort and bring on further difficult emotions related to the eating experience. It can also prevent us from exploring the underlying triggers.
If we are in the mindset that emotional eating is bad, we stay stuck in the belief that we are bad or we are broken when we eat emotionally which fuels further difficult emotions. The first step to breaking free from emotional eating is to ditch the idea that it is bad, acknowledge how it may have helped you as well as being unhelpful for you now.
It’s easy to get caught up in the messages telling us certain foods are good, while others are bad and this can become stressful. The truth is, these messages miss the bigger picture. They focus only on the nutrient profiles of food and assume that food makes up a large part of our health.
One thing that makes humans unique is that food provides so much more than nutrients. It plays a big role in culture and belonging, it provides pleasure and comfort and even brings us happy memories. If we are focusing so much on nutrients, we are missing out on all the other roles food is supposed to play in our lives.
The truth is, food makes up only a small part of our health outcomes. In fact, stressing over healthy eating is worse for your health than allowing yourself to eat the foods you like. Focusing so much on healthy eating can impact on other important health factors such as culture, belonging, pleasure, satisfaction and sleep.
Seeking satisfaction from eating is such an important and innate need that if we are denying it, we can become hyper-focused on the foods we are avoiding, even if we feel we are eating enough overall. To break free of emotional eating, we need to let go of good and bad foods and acknowledge the importance of both fun and nutritious foods.
How you react to an uncomfortable eating experience can have a bigger impact on your health and overall well-being than the food itself. There’s such a stigma around emotional eating that it can trigger emotions such as shame and guilt. As it is rarely spoken about by others, we can feel very alone in our experience.
Often, we react to out-of-control behaviours by saying hurtful comments to ourselves but how do these comments affect the rest of your day? Believing we are flawed, believing we are “bad” or have no willpower is a sure-fire way to ignite an emotional eating cycle that can leave us feeling defeated.
The alternative is to ditch the self- judgement and explore the experience curiously. It is completely normal to turn to a fast source of comfort when feeling strong emotions, give yourself space to acknowledge the emotions, what triggered them and find some alternative more helpful words to use next time.
There is nothing wrong with using food but if we automatically turn to food a lot of the time, it can distract from finding longer term coping tools. You deserve the opportunity to explore curiously what is triggering these emotions and to have coping strategies that help you physically and emotionally for the future.
The important thing is to focus on adding in new tools, rather than removing current coping options. If food is an important coping tool and we take this away, what will really happen when we need some comfort?
Take some time to write down other types of coping tools, try to include a range of different activities such as gentle or intense, alone or with others, indoors or outdoors. When you find yourself feeling strong emotions, allow yourself the opportunity to take some deep breaths and try a new activity from your list. Importantly, give yourself full permission to still choose food.
Emotional eating is not something to be fixed. In fact, it is such a normal part of being human. However, you also deserve to feel connected to your eating experience, to feel physically well after eating and to have a range of coping tools available for the complex emotions we feel as humans.
Want more support? Overcoming Emotional Eating is the go-to course for women wanting to feel more connected to their body and break the emotional eating cycle - for good.
Tribole, E and Resch, E. Intuitive Eating: A revolutionary anti-diet approach 4th edition. St Martin’s publishing group: 2020
Timmerman GM, Acton GJ. The Relationship Between Basic Need Satisfaction and Emotional Eating. Issues in Mental Health Nursing 2001;22(7):691-701.
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