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Is Emotional Eating a Problem?

Food is not just nutrition and fuel for our bodies; it is part of our history, our culture, our connection. Food is something that is meant to be enjoyed for the taste and pleasure it brings us. Food is also a valid and effective coping mechanism. Food makes us feel good, and maybe it has gotten us through some of the most challenging times of our life. We can thank food for being there, and we can explore other options. 

We can also get curious about how emotional eating might become a problem if:

  1. It’s your only coping mechanism
  2. It’s not actually helping you to cope and process your emotions and stress
  3. If you feel guilty and ashamed anytime you eat to cope with stress. That guilt creates a stress response and keeps them trapped in the vicious emotional eating cycle: You feel guilty and ashamed for emotional eating, so you continue to emotionally eat.

The thing is…We feel a lot, every day: happiness, anger, frustration, sadness, joy, loneliness. At the end of the day, food won’t fix feelings. Food may even sometimes make things worse. Think about the pros and cons of emotional eating. How effective is it? Was it effective initially, but now you’re not sure? Does it lead to more stress?

Step 1 is differentiating between emotional and non-attuned eating. Are we compulsive overeaters or do we lack elements of self care? First, we need to determine whether we need to work on handling emotions, self care, or both. Self care is meeting our basic needs (food, sleep, hydration, safety). 

Sleep

Extra food doesn’t compensate for lack of sleep. This can also be described as energy seeking hunger. We need ~7-9 hrs for adults and this varies from person to person. If we are seeking food out related to lack of energy, could we need more rest? 

Life balance

Boundaries are so important. If we don’t have boundaries, this can be a huge trigger for emotional eating. If we feel that we’re drowning in life’s responsibilities, nourishing ourselves may be last on the list and our body’s cues can be unreliable. How might boundaries protect your time and energy for self-care?

Nourishment

Do you eat enough and consistently throughout the day, without going too long without eating? Do each of your meals have a balance of protein, carbs, and fat? Have you recently increased physical activity? Did you start a new medication which may have increased your hunger? Have you changed their pattern of eating? Maybe you notice you’re going long hours between meals or not eating a balance of foods that give you staying power. This is why we recommend eating ~2-5 hours. If you’re in a primal hunger state, you’re more likely to overeat, your fullness cues are decreased, your neuropeptide Y/carb cravings are in full force, you’re not going to be present, and your food doesn’t taste as good.

Stress

You can’t address emotional eating without addressing stress. What are sources of stress? What are ways you manage stress? Would therapy be helpful? We can’t control the stress, but we can control how we manage it.

Hidden Deprivation

Do you believe all foods are emotionally equivalent? Are you able to think about foods without labeling them as good or bad? Are you able to eat foods you truly enjoy without special conditions? Do you have free access to food? At social gatherings, have you stopped eating according to the expectations of others rather than eating what you really want? This can be sneaky. If so, this is a good indicator that you need to make peace with food. We can’t address emotional eating if you’re living in deprivation. 

How to Heal Emotional Eating

Nurturance is going a step above self care. Playing with pets, listening to enjoyable music, reading a book for pleasure, taking a walk outside, getting a massage, taking a bubble bath, etc.

Sitting with Your Feelings

A practical tip here is the timer method. Set a timer for 5 mins. What is it you’re feeling? What is it you really need? How can you fulfill this without food? This is tough, it’s not easy. Taking the pause is a huge win. It takes a lot of practice and consistency of showing up with this response. Let’s get curious about it and approach it with nonjudgmental awareness. Remember, food is always a valid option, but let’s get curious about these other coping mechanisms. 

  1. One little thing approach: Write down a list of coping mechanisms, pick one, try it out. If you still want that food, have it. 
  2. Sadness or grief may come up for you. If you no longer have food to deal with your emotions, that can feel sad. This is normal. You’re taking away a source of comfort, a security blanket, and a reliable way to cope that has been there for you for a long time.

Preparation and visualization is also key to preventing emotional eating. Come up with a plan of attack prior to going into a situation that you know could trigger unpleasant emotions. Visualize, plan it out, write it down. This can be helpful to do with a therapist or registered dietitian.

Stay Present! 

Be intentional when using food to cope with emotions. When food is used to numb or avoid a feeling, eating becomes mindless, and there’s less enjoyment. This makes it an ineffective coping skill and won’t help you feel any better. Instead, slow down and pay attention. Make eating an active choice. Think about what food will make you feel better in that moment. Use all the senses to smell, taste and savor that food and eat mindfully. Staying present helps you use food and the act of eating in a positive way to feel better, without a side of guilt.

Next time, use the following handouts to navigate through emotional eating. Make your own list of coping mechanisms and follow the decision tree. Remember, if you try a coping mechanism and still want to turn to food, you have permission! If you want extra support, our Nourish Family registered dietitians are here to help.

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