In the midst of uncertainty, emotions are prominent and avoiding them feels challenging. Some choose to respond by “shoulding“ and suggesting that we take this “down time“ to become healthy, fit, lose weight and live our best lives. I’m not part of this camp. You can’t run away from emotions because you’re a human and they are part of you. The important part is to acknowledge that we all deal with emotions in different ways.
A very normal way to respond to emotions (both uplifting and difficult) is by eating. Why are all of us associating this with something to be weary of and prevent?
This article is not meant to condone disordered eating patterns, eating to avoid emotional distress or binge eating. The goal is to normalize that you may be craving different foods at different times for different reasons. Eating for emotional reasons is not always something that is dysfunctional.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is probably exactly what it sounds like: eating for comfort; eating to appease yourself, eating because you feel an emotion. It is eating for a reason outside of hunger. A quick google search may have you think that if you’re an emotional eater, you have a problem. Research would say otherwise.
Emotional eating facts:
Emotional eating is not synonymous with binge eating
If you’re binge eating, I would still encourage you to follow the steps below and “lean in“ – I promise that nothing horrible will happen to you for bingeing. I also want to note that typically, binge eating is a response to restriction. And yes, even if you’re in a large body, you can be restricting your intake!
Emotional eating is not synonymous with overeating
Emotional eating does not mean losing control over your eating
Emotional eating doesn’t change your body size and shape
When is emotional eating problematic?
1. You are trying to use food to alleviate your negative emotions
Emotional eating can be problematic when you are using it to avoid difficult emotions. In trying times, you may experience emotions more acutely or differently than normal. It’s important to allow yourself to feel those emotions rather than try to get rid of them. An example of this could be grief. Everyone has something or someone that they have lost because of COVID-19. You’re allowed to feel sad, angry and anything else that you’re feeling. You don’t need to minimize your struggle because someone else is “struggling more“. Be vulnerable and share your pain.
2. Eating elicits feelings of shame, guilt, regret and you are responding to food in a mechanical/automatic way, feeling limited awareness or engagement in choosing what you’re putting in your mouth
Another area where emotional eating can be problematic is if you associate it with your virtue or self- worth. The food you eat does not determine whether or not you’re a good person. If you perceive yourself as “being bad“ (how many times have we heard someone say this about themselves or about someone else?) for eating a certain food, your brain will try to protect you from these uncomfortable emotions (shame, guilt, distress…). When this happens, your emotional eating becomes mechanical, you are not present and you experience a sense of urgency in getting it done with. The biggest problem with this is that you don’t even experience the pleasure and reward you were seeking as your mind has dissociated from the experience.
3. Using food to numb uncomfortable feelings
People can sometimes use overeating/binge eating as a way of shifting emotional pain to physical pain. You eat, you feel uncomfortably full or sick and your focus shifts from whatever pain you were experiencing about life to a more “controllable“ kind of pain: your lack of “self-control“. This is a form of emotional avoidance. An example: Illness, death, job loss and uncertainty about the future bring up a lot of emotional discomfort for everyone. What is even more uncomfortable is the perceived lack of control that we have over this situation. It’s extremely unsettling. If you’re someone who has difficulty tolerating uncertainty and avoiding pain, you may turn to food. If you feel uncomfortably full, your mind may tell you things like “you have no self-control“, “you’re fat“…And now you have a new problem to solve instead of dealing with all of the uncertainty in the world.
“Emotional eating can be problematic if you associate it with your self- worth“
Why emotional eating is NORMAL
The term emotional eating is often used to refer to eating in response to negative feelings. That being said, research has shown that emotional eating can occur in response to positive feelings as well. In fact, this particular study showed that emotional eating in response to negative feelings occurred only in people who were restricting their intake, whereas emotional eating in response to positive feelings occurred in all groups.
Normal eating, as defined by Ellyn Satter, states “Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good.“ With the rise of Intuitive Eating now being marketed by the diet industry, individuals make Intuitive Eating a “hunger/fullness“ diet, hoping that they will find the best approach in responding to their hunger and eating ‘just enough’ to feel satisfied. “Honor your hunger“ is only ONE principle out of TEN in Intuitive Eating.
If you don’t lean into emotional eating and allow yourself to enjoy the food, you’re a lot more likely to seek it out more frequently because the whole point of emotional eating is to provide an opportunity to experience comfort, pleasure and reward.
Go ahead, give yourself permission!
How to give yourself permission
- Have forbidden foods available in your home
- When you notice yourself wanting to eat, commit to yourself out loud that you will remain present during this experience. This part is very important!
- While you are eating, notice if your mind is trying to negotiate how you will make this all okay in the future – if your mind goes there, gently bring your attention back to your experience. Remember, you’re seeking something pleasurable out of this food and if your mind is somewhere else, you won’t be getting it.
- Make the experience safe; sit down, don’t rush through it.
- When you’re done, release the meal. Commit to yourself that you will move on from this experience and not carry it with you to your next meal. You don’t need to make up for your emotional eating.
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