The subject of “emotional eating” kept coming up recently, in discussion with clients, partners and the media. “Emotional eating” is usually self-diagnosed. It tends to involve copious amounts of shame and suffering, and is witnessed across a wide spectrum of size, gender, ethnicity, age, socio-economic status, etc. If you identify with this term, here are some ways you can understand it better and slowly dismantle its power over you, in a compassionate, non belligerent way.
NB : It is important to mention that, when recovering from an eating disorder, “emotional eating”, bingeing episodes or eating past fullness is a crucial step of recovery, that usually requires more support than coaching, in the form of a team of medical professionals, including doctors, psychotherapists and dietitians. If you wonder about your own situation and needs, feel free to contact me directly or to get a free screening through the associations listed on my resources page. Take care!
1/ Emotional eating is natural
As per Dr Linda Bacon’s words in “Health at every size”, “an emotional connection with food is part of a normal and healthy relationship with food. Food can and should bring us pleasure and comfort.” Food, just like sex, is connected to pleasure because it guarantees the survival of human species.
The reason “emotional eating” is coined negatively, is because it doesn’t align with the values widely vehiculated in our weight and diet obsessed culture. For example, did you notice that when we speak about “emotional eating”, everyone immediately understands it as ‘overeating’ and never as ‘undereating’? (That’s why I added the term [over] whenever we speak about “emotional eating” in the rest of this post.)
The shame experienced in relation to emotional eating applies to overeating when stressed, but not to skipping meals. That’s a side effect of diet culture.
Diet culture is a system of values that worships thinness above anything else, and elevates fatphobia as a ‘health and wellness’ concern. Strong of the constant messaging we are bombarded with re. weight management, meal plans, calorie trackers and fitspiration, these values become deeply ingrained in our psyche. Where, despite their lack of scientific evidence to reach long term health (more on this here), they hijack and stigmatize ANY behaviour that might induce even the smallest weight gain.
In fact, “emotional [over]eating” is typically rooted in our own (toxic) beliefs that there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to eat, a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ list of foods, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ quantities to consume. Does that remind you of anything? Yep, good old dieting. In most of the cases, people who “emotionally [over]eat” also have a history of chronic dieting and restriction, of body hate, of fearing their own appetite, of weight cycling. That’s why letting go of our focus on weight is an important part of healing our relationship with food.
So, the first step when addressing “emotional [over]eating” is to remove fear, judgement and shame around this behaviour. And because language creates reality, one way to destigmatize “emotional [over]eating” is to stop defining oneself as “an emotional [over]eater”, but to frame it as a behaviour “sometimes, I eat emotionally”. Let’s be realistic for a second here: eating a lot when we seek comfort is no more of a crime than overthinking or oversleeping. Arguably, feeling like we ate past fullness is uncomfortable, but, as a coping mechanism, it doesn’t compare with substance abuse or self-harm, am I right?
2/ Emotional eating can signal malnourishment
If you are nutrient or calories deprived, overeating is the natural drive of your body to bring you back to homeostasis and save your body from semi-starvation.
Therefore, if you have those moments where food seems irresistible to you, ask yourself:
Am I eating enough throughout the day? Have I been skipping meals or ignoring my appetite?
Since recovering, I require at least 3 meals and 2 snacks to function. Anything outside of that and I tend to feel ‘hangry’, light headed, and ignoring those signals can lead to more debilitating symptoms (migraine, mood swings) or a tendency to eat past fullness once I manage to catch up, which is totally understandable physiologically.
Am I restricting some foods or food groups? Do I feel deprived of certain foods that provide me joy and pleasure, or even social connection?
It is no surprise one might crave carbs when on a low-carb diet. But because carbs turn into sugar in our bodies, they sometimes demand a shortcut to that missing energy, so we might feel driven to eat more sweets or candy to make up for the lack of carbs. It is confusing to people, but all of this is intertwined.
We forgot that pleasure and satisfaction play a big role in getting appropriate nutrition.
Give yourself permission to eat all foods. Even fun foods, with little nutrition, have an important role to play in balancing someone’s diet, because they can make a meal well-rounded, and add that touch of pleasure and satisfaction. Allowing all foods is the only way towards a more balanced approach to food and your body, one that doesn’t involve obsessive behaviours, shame or guilt.
3/ Emotional eating is not a food problem
Emotional [over]eating generally calls for more awareness in our management of emotions. How?
Relax into these episodes. Stop fighting the urges, remember that none of these are a willpower issue, but more of a (temporarily) broken connection to self and body. Remember that appetite is not the enemy, it gives us Life! Work on being fully present with food, eating with awareness, avoiding distractions (bye bye screens) to help you record pleasure, taste, aroma, satisfaction so you can digest properly, notice fullness and feel truly nourished by your food.
Develop self-awareness of these episodes, without judgment. Healing starts with consciousness. By journaling about triggers, beliefs, thoughts during “emotional [over]eating” episodes and accepting the way your body reacts, you will soon be able to take the right steps to address big emotions, in a kinder, more compassionate way, and to pinpoint the real need you seek to address when eating past fullness.
If you feel driven to eat for emotional reasons, you don’t have an eating problem, you have a caretaking problem. You’re not taking care of yourself. – Linda Bacon