Emotional Eating: What it is and what to do about it

By Caroline L. Young, MS, RD, LD, RYT
 
Navigating emotions may be the hardest part of being a human. Over the last two years, it’s safe to say we have been collectively living in a particularly emotionally turbulent time.
 
In my work as a registered dietitian nutritionist, I have certainly seen the use of disordered eating behaviors increase, in attempts to manage hard emotions since the pandemic started. Today, I’d like to talk specifically about emotional eating, a concept that is often misunderstood and unnecessarily seen as a shameful practice.
What is emotional eating?
In short, emotional eating is when we eat to cope with difficult emotions and are not physically hungry[1]. It’s when we have already fed ourselves enough food and can (not always) sense our fullness in our bodies, and still reach for food anyways.
 
Every one of my clients who experiences emotional eating looks at it as something that is bad and shameful, which makes sense, as we live in a culture that demonizes it. But when we step back and observe emotional eating as a natural behavior we use to help us cope with hard feelings like anxiety, loneliness, sadness, and anger, we can begin to let go of judgement. Instead, we can look at emotional eating through a kind, understanding lens. In fact, the science-based practice of Intuitive Eating devotes an entire principle to emotional eating, called “Cope with Emotions with Kindness.”[2]
 
Before we move onto exploring how to shift our relationships with emotional eating, I’d like to point out that eating out of emotion is not always because we are suffering.

Emotional eating also encompasses tradition and connection – all elements of life that are also emotional.

For example, I feel connected to my mother when I eat a peanut butter banana sandwich or graham crackers with peanut butter, even though we live thousands of miles away from each other. This is because I grew up eating these foods with her, and we both get enjoyment and comfort from them (and of course nourishment). Each of us have foods that evoke emotional responses like this, whether it’s during the holidays or on a random Tuesday. 
How do we know if we are emotionally eating?
Sometimes, deprivation-driven eating can be confused with emotional eating. For example, if someone misses lunch, and ends up feeling ravenous and out of control around food by dinnertime, they are experiencing deprivation-driven eating and not emotional eating. It’s tricky because deprivation-driven eating can feel quite emotional with a sense of urgency and not knowing when or being able to stop eating.
 
On the flip side, we know it’s emotional eating when we are nourished enough throughout the day, eating meals and snacks at regular intervals, and including all our food groups (grains, fats, proteins, veggies and fruit), feeling full after eating, and still find ourselves wanting food. In other words, when food is no longer a physical need and we eat, we cross into emotional territory.
What are other ways to cope?
Emotional eating becomes a problem when we do not feel like we are choosing it or have other options to cope. Once we recognize emotional eating as a soothing or numbing mechanism, we have awareness and can understand that it is only one way to cope through hard feelings. There are a whole host of other coping tools to help us through hard emotional experiences – usually ones that are more effective at dealing with the source of the emotion, than eating.

Ideally, we can develop a metaphorical toolbox we can turn to, knowing that food is one option but letting it be further down the list. 

For example, when I’m feeling sadness, I need comfort, so my toolbox typically looks like:
  • A soothing mindfulness practice (see below for an example)
  • Spending time with my dog and husband
  • Taking a walk in the park
And I might have something sweet and soft, like a peanut butter or chocolate chip cookie with some milk because it is a comforting snack, and that’s okay too! The key there is that these are choices and food is not the only coping tool.
 
Other examples of coping mechanisms are writing in a journal, art projects, confiding in a trusted friend, going to therapy, listening to music, spending time in nature, moving our bodies, and practicing self-compassion.[3]
 
A mindfulness practice for your toolbox
Mindfulness is about being present with yourself (and hard emotions) without judgement.[4] Here’s a mindfulness practice to try when having a difficult emotional experience:
 
Find a comfortable seat in a quiet space and place your hands gently on your thighs or knees, palms down.
  • Close your eyes or lower your gaze and take a few slow breaths in and out through the nose.
  • Keep awareness on the breath. When the mind interrupts, simply notice and gently return to the breath.
  • Feel the connection of your hands to your legs, and of your feet or legs to the surface you are sitting on.
  • Stay with your slow breaths.
  • See if you can identify where in the body you are feeling the emotion, and bring your awareness there.
  • See if there are any colors, textures, shapes or anything else associated with the emotion in this part of your body. Imagine you are painting a picture of it.
  • Stay with your slow breaths and with your experience for at least a few more rounds of breath.
  • Return to your breath, your feet on the floor and open your eyes or lift your gaze.
 
If you are experiencing emotional eating during hard emotional times, remember it is an entirely natural way of coping and you are certainly not alone. The key is having more options of coping tools and that you are in the driver’s seat, deciding which exit to take when a storm comes through.

Caroline L. Young, MS, RD, LD, RYT, is a nutrition coach, yoga teacher and freelance journalist. Caroline  is owner and founder of Whole Self Nutrition (WSN), LLC, which provides online nutrition therapy and coaching for people struggling with disordered eating, eating disorders, or chronic dieting, and people who want to develop healthier relationships to food, body and exercise. Within WSN, Caroline provides online public and private online yoga groups, and media services including writing and webinars. WSN's mission is to help people feel at ease in their skin and empowered around food, and live in alignment with their values. 
 
[1] https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000808.htm
[2] https://www.intuitiveeating.org/10-principles-of-intuitive-eating/
[3] https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/about/copingwith-stresstips.html
[4] https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/mindfulness-and-mental-health

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