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Anti-Diet Guide to Emotional Eating

A young woman eating a pint of ice cream

Emotional eating is a common complaint I hear. Folks may believe that they’re eating to cope with emotions, often uncontrollably, and that it’s not good for them.

Emotional eating doesn’t look just one way. In this blog post you’ll learn that emotional eating can come in many different ways and it’s not automatically a “bad” thing!

Eating is often an emotional experience, because we’re humans and we have emotions! And, food often isn’t neutral for many of us. Some foods can feel linked to positive memories, experiences and emotions, and some foods can feel linked to negative memories, experiences and emotions.

If you feel like emotional eating is a problem for you, I’ve got some pointers to help you get curious.

And, I reached out to some of my therapist colleagues to bring you insights on emotional eating from mental health practitioners.

What is Emotional Eating?

While you can find various “definitions” of emotional eating on the internet, there isn’t a standardized definition.

For purposes of this blog post, let’s say that emotional eating is eating when you’re feeling emotional intensity. And for many people, that has a negative connotation, both in the originating emotion that accompanies the eating and subsequent emotions about the eating.

When in reality we can eat when feeling positive emotional intensity, too! Sometimes we eat for joy, celebration and relaxation. Sometimes we eat for comfort, distraction and soothing. These are very human behaviors.

Psychotherapist Valerie K. Martin, LCSW, explains, “Many cultures for millennia have used food to celebrate and connect; technically that’s ‘emotional,’ not an ‘eat to live’ kind of ethos. So emotional eating is not inherently bad; it can be neutral, it can be positive, and sometimes it can feel not so great. But that doesn’t make it ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’.”

Why Do We Engage in Emotional Eating?

Angela Tucker, Certified Canadian Counsellor and Registered Dietitian in Manitoba, Canada says, “A common pattern I run into with clients when it comes to emotional eating, is that sometimes food helps us feel safe when we are experiencing difficult or uncomfortable emotions.”

“For so many of us in our lives, food has been a source of love and comfort, so it is really quite natural for it to help us feel safer,” Tucker says. “Unfortunately, many of us have also been made to feel ashamed of enjoying food in this way, leading to a complicated relationship to food. On one hand food helps us feel comforted and safe, and on the other hand experiencing shame about eating makes us feel unsafe.”

Do you find yourself reaching for food when you’re feeling some kind of way?

According to Martin, “It’s kind of like we have 2 internal gas tanks: our physical nourishment (food) tank, and our emotional/relational nourishment tank. If either one is getting low, we’re already in a vulnerable state, so sometimes we conflate the two. And which one is easier to fill? The food tank — because for most of us, food is pretty quickly accessible, whereas meeting our emotional/connection needs is, well… more complicated.”

If you feel like food is one of the first things you go for when feeling emotional, you’re not alone! It makes sense why we do this. Food may be satisfying a need, but it doesn’t satisfy all of our needs.

“And sometimes, filling the food tank can temporarily seem to satiate our hunger in the emotional tank— but it’s really a temporary illusion of satisfaction,” Martin explains. “We still need to do the work of filling that tank by meeting our emotional and relational needs.”

5 ways to handle emotional eating

What to Do About Emotional Eating

In Intuitive Eating, they use the language “cope with emotional eating with kindness.” In my experience working with my clients, a self-compassionate approach is key to healing to our relationship with food!

Remove Guilt and Shame from Emotional Eating

The first thing to do when you are eating when feeling emotional is to check any guilt or shame!

You might have been conditioned to believe that emotional eating is wrong or bad or unhealthy. This is just one of many unhelpful messages from diet culture.

The truth is there is nothing wrong with eating when we’re feeling emotional intensity. Hopefully we’re able to connect with our bodies and the food feels good physically, mentally and emotionally.

Food can be a totally healthful emotional coping tool, among other tools.

So drop the judgment and remember that shaming ourselves for eating when we feel emotional can contribute to a cycle of restricting and bingeing.

We also know that shame is not an effective motivator for positive change, so whatever that shame is hoping to achieve, it’s likely going to backfire!

Notice How Emotional Eating Makes You Feel

Next to dropping the shame, maintaining connection with your body is key to making emotional eating a positive experience.

You’re likely eating to feel better in some way, right?

Well, how will you know if you feel “better” if you’re not connected with yourself?

See if you can practice some simple grounding strategies before or during eating, so that you can enjoy your food as much as possible!

Eating to feel better is nothing to be ashamed about! And we can extract as much joy and pleasure out of food when we’re staying in the present moment, using our senses to experience our food, and maintaining connection.

We can run into trouble when we use food to emotionally numb or dissociate. Not only is the food likely not helping us to feel better, but we might end up feeling worse when all is said and done. We’re not able to feel satisfied with the food when we’re using it to numb out and the true need that we have is not tended to.

This might be a sign that you need to cultivate additional coping skills and gather more tools in addition to food. A licensed psychotherapist is an excellent guide for this!

A young woman on a city street eating a slice of pizza

Get Curious About Eating Patterns That May Lead to Emotional Eating

Do you feel like you’re emotionally eating all the time?

Get curious about any patterns that may lead up to emotional eating. While there is nothing wrong with eating when you’re feeling emotional, it’s also helpful to take stock of what is contributing to this pattern.

For many people, restricting and dieting sets the stage for feeling out of control around food, regardless of emotional state. And folks who have been trying to control their food intake may be especially compulsive around food when they’re feeling extra emotional.

This rebound eating in reaction to restriction can feel like emotional eating, when actually your body is just desperately seeking nourishment.

Make sure you’re not dieting or restricting. Your body deserves nourishment at frequent intervals throughout the day, in plentiful amounts!

Take Stock of Your Emotional Support System

Consider what is currently in your coping skills toolbox. Just like actual toolboxes, it’s helpful to have a variety of tools to help us complete various tasks. The same can be said for our emotional support toolboxes!

Think of it like this: a toolbox full of wrenches won’t be very helpful when you may need a screwdriver, pliers, a hammer, etc. Just like a toolbox of just food won’t be very helpful when you may need someone to talk to, more support at home or at your job, mindfulness, medication, etc. Not to mention the emotional impact of living under systems of oppression.

So remember: food is a fine coping tool, but when it’s the only coping tool you’re likely not getting the support you need. Food tends to bring short-term comfort, but won’t solve any long-term issues.

Write out a list of what you do that helps you ride the wave of intense emotions. If it’s lacking or you aren’t using some tools very much, consider diversifying it!

A graphic of a person sitting on a couch eating food

Gather an Anti-Diet Professional Support Team

Having professionals in your toolbox is a great way to take care of yourself and work on your relationship with food!

You don’t have to do this alone! This world is wild and it’s OK to not be OK. Know that if you are struggling, you deserve support.

This may include a registered dietitian and a psychotherapist, and perhaps a psychiatrist and others. It’s important to find a support system that isn’t going to perpetuate diet culture.

Martin cautions, “If you have people in your support system or on your professional care team who don’t understand the nuances and sneakiness of diet culture, they might give advice or guidance that actually doesn’t address the actual issues you’re struggling with, and could even be unintentionally harmful to your overall relationship with yourself, your body, and food.”

You are worthy of weight-inclusive care from providers who don’t praise or advise disordered eating habits!

Learn about our approach and what it’s like to work with our team of anti-diet dietitians.

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