exploring what emotional eating is, what can trigger it, different ways to handle it and whether or not it’s even a problem.
I’ve talked a lot about emotional eating on the blog, from the Intuitive Eating perspective on it (though that is being somewhat revamped in the latest edition of the book – due out in June, but available now for pre-order!) to differentiating it from binge eating.
Today though, I wanted to walk through the different aspects of emotional eating from what it is, to how it can be triggered, different ways you can approach it and whether or not I feel it’s even a problem to begin with.
As we’ve talked about in the past, emotional eating is a drive to eat when you don’t have physical signs of hunger. It’s something that we all experience from time to time – especially given how central food is to our culture, traditions and experiences.
Emotional eating most often pops up when you have a need you’re not meeting (either because you can’t identify it or unable to meet in the moment).
In instances where you have a need but you can’t meet it (say, for example, you feel bored sitting on a conference call but you’re not able to leave the call and do something that will better entertain you), food can be a stand-in as a way to soothe the discomfort that arises from the boredom you’re unable to solve in the moment.
In instances where you find you’re eating despite not feeling physically hungry but don’t really understand why, it’s likely you have an unidentified unmet need and food is the substitute means of meeting that need until you can figure out what it is.
In either circumstance, it’s not something to berate yourself for. Reaching for food when you either can’t meet, or haven’t yet identified, a need is actually a pretty resourceful attempt at taking care of yourself in a time when you’re not quite able. It’s the most soothing or pleasurable experience you’re able to provide yourself in that given moment, which is actually an incredible act of self care.
Emotional eating can become problematic when it’s one’s only coping mechanism for uncomfortable emotions. In this case, while the act itself still stems from self-care (trying to relieve the discord you feel when an unmet need or uncomfortable emotion lingers), it can lead to eating in abundance, a behavior which in and of itself can then start to cause you additional discomfort.
Again, regardless of the why, it’s important to appreciate the important self-care role that emotional eating has played for you at a time when you had no other viable coping tools available to you.
This can be a really difficult view to take on the situation, especially living in diet culture which creates a society of constant judgement around our food, health behaviors, weight and body image. However, beating yourself up for utilizing the tools you have available to you in order to cope will only further the cycle of discomfort –> eating in abundance to help those feelings –> berating yourself for doing so and starting all over again.
A better approach to take is one of curious non-judgement and kindness to help you add some additional coping mechanisms to rely on. This means taking time to explore what it is you might be feeling during those moments to help you find other ways of coping you can add to any already existing choices. Work to use non-judgemental curiosity when emotional eating comes up to get to the heart of what it is you might be feeling or needing in that moment. When you dig to uncover those unmet needs or emotions, you’ll receive valuable information that can be critical in building additional self-care responses.
It may be as benign as sleep, or perhaps it’s true hunger that you might have been oppressing for any number of reasons. It might also be something more difficult, like dealing with a long oppressed trauma or a harmful/overwhelming work or personal situation.
While it can be hard to surface those feelings and face them, doing so will ultimately help you explore different ways that you might be able to deal with tending to them. Not only that, but exploring and facing your feelings initiates understanding, which in turn can help you make sense of your eating.
Rather than feeling as if you’re just an out of control monster who can’t be trusted around food, you start to understand why it might be happening, which allows you to stop judging yourself unfairly and begin to treat yourself with more compassion.
Taking the time to recognize and own what you’re feeling provides you the knowledge you need to determine what you really need.
Eating can serve a short-term purpose in helping numb the pain of hard feelings, but it’s similar to putting a bandaid over a deep gash – it might stop the bleeding temporarily, but you’ll have to continue changing that bandaid until you address the core problem: that you actually need stitches. We can’t access an understanding of what’s driving our eating until we stop trying to cover the wound (those feelings we haven’t faced or needs we haven’t met) with bandaids (eating).
The act of eating for comfort itself is not what causes distress in the emotional eating cycle. The problem arises when eating is our only source of coping with uncomfortable feelings. Doing the work to not only face those emotions but build an arsenal of ways in which you can cope with them is what allows us to break the cycle.
Building this toolbox of responses is key as it allows you to choose options other than food (when needed) to cope. That way, when food is your choice, it is comfort eating in its truest sense, rather than a way to numb or block out hard emotions & ultimately perpetuate that distressing cycle.
As with all hard work, this is something that takes time and repeat experience in order to change. If you’ve consistently turned to food in order to cope with hard emotions, be patient. Give yourself time to not only identify but generate additional ways to cope with or meet those emotional needs. Approach the situation with curiosity. It’s a learning experience where you’re gathering the data and tools you need to figure out the best ways to serve & care for yourself.
Disclaimer: Statements in this post are for educational use only and are not intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent conditions. Readers are advised to consult with their healthcare providers prior to making any changes to their healthcare management.
- Bacon, Linda, and Lucy Aphramor. Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight. BenBella Books, Inc., 2014.