DISCLAIMER!!!– We all emotionally eat.
Eeeks yep it’s true! It is part of normal eating and is not to be judged. We celebrate with food; we cry over food; we give and receive food as gifts. Food is intimately connected to the human experience, and this can be a completely healthy part of life. In fact, having a relationship with food where you can be open to enjoying it and not feel guilt or shame for eating it is crucial to physical and mental well being. I want to make this point clear because I have seen “emotional eating” being criticized as the reason for “America’s obesity epidemic” or often see individuals beat themselves up for ever taking a bite of food when they aren’t hungry and are feeling an emotion. This just becomes another way of being critical of yourself and your food and isn’t helpful in the process to normalizing your relationship with your food and your body.
So then what is the big deal with emotional eating, if it is something we all do, and it’s part of being a normal eater?
Emotional eating becomes a problem when it is the only or main coping skill used to manage emotions. Food can often become the go to thing used to avoid feeling uncomfortable feelings and this can have several long-term consequences both physically and mentally.
How is food used to cope with different emotions?
To determine if you may be using food to cope let’s look at some of the different emotions and how food may play a part in managing them.
- Boredom or procrastination – Food can be used as a way to fill time when bored or keep you engaged when having to do boring tasks. I often see busy individuals use food as a break when they don’t feel able to just give themselves downtime due to the perfectionistic or productive mindset.
- Food as a reward – Food can be used as a reward or bribe, ex: once I meet this deadline, I can have that piece of cake I have been wanting.
- Excitement/novelty – Food can be used to increase excitement when life may be lack luster, ex: exciting new restaurants or entertaining with food and drink.
- Love/soothing – Individuals can express love with food, and also use food to feel love or soothing when needing comfort or connection. Just think how much a “comfort meal” that grandma used to make can sooth the soul.
- Anger – Ever munched through a bag of crunchy potato chips when you are steaming mad! Crunching down on food can be used to manage the feeling of anger.
- Stress/Anxiety – Some individuals find it difficult to eat when feeling stressed while others turn toward food and eat more when under stressful situations. Research shows that those who restrain their eating (diet) are more likely to overeat when facing stress, contributing to the restrict/overeat cycle.
- Depression – Food can be used to manage the sadness or apathy that comes with a depressed mood. Eating carbohydrates actually increases brain serotonin levels and eating fats increases endorphins. Serotonin and endorphins make us feel happier and more energized; therefore, it makes sense that one may turn to food when mood is low.
As you can see there are several ways that food can play in to managing emotions. Food can also be used at different levels from just to experience pleasure all the way to numbing out completely with food.
If you feel like you are using food to manage your emotions there are steps to support improving your relationship with your emotions and food.
First off, you need to be adequately nourishing your body to be able to have awareness of your emotions and skills used to manage emotions. If you are currently struggling with restricting your food intake, you will need to first stabilize your intake to support the ability to work on the following steps. Then you can check in with your hunger cues, notice if you are physically hungry. If you are not physically hungry and have been honoring your cravings for satisfaction but still want food, it is time to assess “what am I feeling.” Once you are able to label the emotions, it’s time to ask “what do I need?” The answer is not food in this case since you are full and satisfied, but instead there may be other coping skills you can use to manage the emotion that is present or fill the need that you are experiencing. It is important to work on getting your needs met through self-care, processing and expressing emotions, and learning coping skills. If you are having trouble connecting to your emotions it may be time to get additional support from a licensed therapist.
It’s important to note that you may not use eating food, but instead you may use restriction, exercise, or the excitement of a new diet to manage emotions in the same way that turning toward food can be used. Let’s say this is emotional “not” eating, and the above skills would still be beneficial to heal the relationship with body and self, except instead of not eating you may need to feed yourself and then try the skills. Eating regular meals is part of self-care after all!
After beginning the work to heal emotional eating and learn other coping skills, individuals often realize what a gift it is to become aware of their urges. In the future, you can use urges that come up as a clue that you have a need that is not being met. This helps you to use your skills, and tap in when you need extra support and self care.