When we eat, there is often more involved than simply fuelling ourselves for energy.
Food plays a central role in our lives. Holidays, birthdays, socialising, romantic dates, family get togethers … there is so much emotion connected to food and eating experiences.
So it makes sense then that when we feel upset, worried or just not ourselves that food often becomes a source of comfort.
Comfort or emotional eating is normal because … surprise, we are humans who all experience emotions.
You may already identify as an emotional eater and often wonder how to stop.
Or you may be unaware that you eat emotionally eat.
Regardless, an important point to make clear is that emotional eating is perfectly normal and I’m not here to tell you that you should stop.
Instead, this article will explain what emotional eating is and how to navigate emotional eating to help heal your relationship with food.
What is emotional eating?
Eating with emotion is not the same as eating for physiological hunger. Instead, there is something else driving the urge.
Reasons for emotional eating may be sadness, anxiety, stress, anger or even boredom. You may already know that you do this.
Though there are some people who are unaware. They may eat past the point of fullness and satisfaction, thinking that they are eating something just too delicious they “can’t stop”. But really, there might be something else deeper going on.
One way to identify if you are eating out of emotion is asking yourself “If I am still eating even though I feel full and satisfied, is there something else that I might need which I am using to fill with food?”.
This question may help you to discover that you are using food to cope and take care of something bigger at play.
How to navigate emotional eating
So what do you do if you are emotional eating?
The first thing to remember is that emotional eating is perfectly normal and ok.
Using food to soothe an emotion is your way of taking care of yourself. Being aware of this is also an important step in developing a healthy relationship with food.
There are some steps that you can take to navigate emotional eating, based on Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch’s Intuitive Eating Principles.
I should point out that this is not meant to stop you from engaging in emotional eating (as that is particularly unhelpful). Rather, these steps are about helping you to tune into what your body is telling you during these periods of experiencing different emotions.
- Ask yourself if you are biologically hungry in this moment. Use the hunger scale to identify your hunger and pay attention to any signals your body is giving you – stomach growling, empty stomach, headaches, grumpiness. If you are hungry, eat! If you aren’t hungry, follow the next three steps.
- Identify what you are feeling in this moment. Give yourself a moment to step away from the computer or whatever you are doing and dig deep to figure out what you are feeling. You could write your feelings down, say your feelings out loud, call a loved one/friend/therapist to tell them your feelings or just sit calmly with your feelings (though this is tough!).
- Ask yourself what you need in this moment. Once you know what you’re feeling, what do you need? A break from the computer? Fresh air? A walk around the block? A hug? A big old cry? A holiday? A visit with a loved one? A night out with the girls? A night off from watching the kids? Whatever it is, make a plan for how you can meet this need.
- Give yourself full permission to eat in this moment. Even after you have identified what are you feeling, what you need and made a plan to get what you need, still allow yourself to eat if you wish. Giving yourself full permission will help you stay in tune with what your body is telling you and let you make a calm, non judgemental decision about whether food is what your body needs in this moment.
These steps can be difficult to implement in times of high emotion, so please be gentle with yourself and know that you do not need to perfect these.
Also, there are days when we will need more food than other days. Anytime you feel yourself using food to soothe yourself, take that opportunity to reflect on why.
Emotional eating is common and perfectly normal. It is your body’s way of protecting yourself when there is something else deeper going on.
Continue to be gentle with yourself and know that this is about making baby steps each day to connect yourself with your body – which can be really tough if you are recovering from dieting.
If you are experiencing emotional eating and would like some help navigating through, I’d love to connect with you.