Emotional Eating: What it is, What it isn’t, and What you can do about it

Emotions: Everyone has them, and they can be pretty powerful at times. Emotions affect how we feel and can influence our actions, including with food. Read on to learn more about the relationship between emotions and food, as well as tips for examining emotional eating in a helpful, compassionate way.

A common way that people cope with their feelings—whether feelings of stress, loneliness, sadness, anxiety, and more—is by eating. While often viewed negatively, emotional eating does serve a purpose. It’s often soothing or distracting, and while maybe not the most helpful or sustainable coping mechanism, it’s important to recognize that it serves a purpose. After all, people wouldn’t continue to do it if it had only negative effects.

What people often find problematic about emotional eating is that it’s not regulated by hunger and fullness, which means it might lead to physical discomfort or unintended weight gain, as well as guilt and shame about food-related behaviors and body image. Additionally, emotional eating often doesn’t consider satisfaction, e.g. tasting, savoring, or appreciating food, and may lead to thoughts like, “Why did I do that?” or “That wasn’t even worth it.”

The message here is NOT Emotional Eating is Bad, but if you think you’re an emotional eater and want to take a deeper look into your relationship with food, here are some considerations.

  1. Consider why you might be soothing yourself with food. Consider what you eat and when, as well as what thoughts and emotions you might be experiencing before and after eating. Doing all of this might help you to figure out what leads to your emotional eating.
  2. After you’ve considered what might cause you to emotionally eat, you can begin to consider what might actually satisfy your hunger—emotional hunger, that is. Are you lonely and desiring human connection? Or maybe you’re excited and need somewhere to focus your energy. There’s a saying that applies here: “It’s about the food, but it’s not about the food.” Consider that.
  3. Develop new non-food coping mechanisms. Instead of reaching for something to eat when you feel a strong emotion, try calling a friend or family member to talk, going for a walk, taking 5-10 deep breaths, or journaling what you’re feeling to help get your thoughts on paper and out of your head. One note here, though: if eating is strongly desired as a coping mechanism, forbidding yourself to do it is also not advised, as restriction may lead to rebound overeating, followed by more guilt and shame. This is where compassion is important! It’s okay to emotionally eat. You’re not a bad person for emotionally eating.
  4. Ask for help. For many people, emotional eating is a challenge that is tough to overcome solo. Consulting a professional, such as a qualified dietitian or therapist, may be really helpful in identifying effective coping strategies, as well as removing any guilt or shame associated with food and eating.

We all have emotions—pleasant and not-so-pleasant—and eating is a common way of coping with them. Emotionally eating doesn’t make anyone a bad person, but there are simple steps that can be taken to address if desirsed. For more information or resources, don’t hesitate to contact Kristen: wellness [at] christensontrans [dot] com