It’s 100 percent normal to reach for food when your mood is low, but how do you make sure emotional eating doesn’t become problematic emotional overeating? Find out here.
If you reach for food when you’re feeling stressed, sad, lonely or angry, you’re not alone. Soothing uncomfortable emotions by eating is not only common, but it’s also part of a very normal, natural and intuitive relationship with food. We have been taught by diet culture that the only acceptable reason to eat is to fuel our body in response to physical hunger. But human beings have always used food to celebrate, to comfort, soothe, nurture and provide pleasure, so why now has emotional eating become pathologized and deemed somehow “wrong”? Sometimes at the end of a long, stressful week, pizza and ice cream do make you feel better. So what? Relax, enjoy them and don’t feel guilty.
That being said, a few things might indicate that your emotional overeating may be problematic. If you use food to escape or numb your emotions on a regular basis, if you eat to the point of uncomfortable fullness, if you don’t have coping methods other than eating, or if you eat “emotionally” as a result of deprivation (not actually eating enough throughout the day) then these are red flags suggesting you may want to examine your relationship with food.
SOME KEYS TO GETTING TO THE ROOT OF PROBLEMATIC EMOTIONAL OVEREATING ARE TO:
➜ nourish your body adequately with consistent, balanced meals and snacks
➜ focus on self-care to address any other unmet needs
➜ learn to feel, and sit with your feelings add other coping skills in addition to eating
First and foremost, take care of any physical or mental deprivation of food you might have. Dieting (any kind of restrictive eating) can actually cause emotional eating. When we’re chronically hungry and underfed, that makes us irritable, anxious and sad. For anyone who is on a diet or restricting what they eat, what is labelled as “emotional eating” is often just a response to deprivation. So start by making sure you’re eating balanced meals and snacks that include the nutrients your body needs—carbohydrates, protein and fat—at regular intervals throughout the day, about every 3 to 4 hours. This provides your body with steady energy, keeps blood sugars stable and means you’re less likely to experience mood swings that lead to “emotional” eating.
Equally as important is letting go of food rules, labelling foods as “good” vs “bad” and avoiding “bad” foods, as these can lead to mental deprivation. Restricting any food can set us up to have obsessive thoughts and cravings for that food, and inevitably “fall off track” during a so-called “emotional eating” episode.
Again, this is in fact a normal, understandable reaction to food restriction. So include all foods in a balanced meal plan, giving yourself unconditional permission to eat, and ensure you’re eating enough. If you are hungry, the answer is to eat. Once someone truly heals their relationship with food, we generally see the desire to eat for emotional reasons declines on its own. Working with a registered dietitian can be really helpful in learning how to adequately nourish your body and make peace with food.
Once your body has the nourishment it needs, then look at other unmet needs. When we aren’t taking care of ourselves, it can be harder to be attuned to our hunger and fullness cues, and to respond to what our body really needs. Are you getting adequate sleep? Sleep is fundamental to overall well-being and the ability to self-regulate in healthy ways. Have the stressors in your life become unmanageable? Are you drinking enough water? Do you move your body in ways you enjoy on a regular basis? Do you have outlets for play or creativity? What about spirituality? Do you set healthy boundaries in relationships and at work? Do you feel your life is in balance?
How else can you show love and nurturance for yourself? Make a list of five to 10 activities you could do that fill your cup. For example: take a nap, write in a journal, listen to music, call a friend, spend time in nature, be intimate with yourself or your partner, watch your favourite comedian, take a hot shower, colour, play with your pet, etc. Self-care is not (just) about bubble baths and 27-step skin-care routines. It’s about meeting our own needs and caring for ourselves. Often we mistakenly turn to food to fill these other needs.
Sitting with and actually feeling painful emotions is, well, painful. So it’s understandable that we’d turn to food to numb and suppress these emotions. And in the short term, food is very effective at making us feel better. But typically, after an episode of emotional overeating, we’re left with the physical discomfort in our body, plus the unresolved root cause of the emotion.
By numbing with food, we’re just avoiding the true problem, and over time this can erode our confidence in our own ability to cope. Instead of turning to food on autopilot, what if you could create a bit of distance between the trigger (the emotion) and the response (the urge to eat)?
The first step is to become aware of the emotion you’re experiencing. When you next feel that urge to eat, close your eyes, put your hand on your heart and take a deep breath. What do you feel? Give the emotion a name— is it powerlessness? Being overwhelmed? loneliness? letdown? betrayal? frustration? Don’t judge yourself for having this feeling. just observe and accept it.
Resist the urge to push the feeling away. Set a timer for five to 10 minutes, if that makes it more manageable to tolerate. Emotions come in waves, they rise and they fall. It can be hard to sit with the feelings that come up, but over time you’ll discover that you can handle them. When the timer goes off, you’ll still have the option to eat if you choose to, but there is value nonetheless in creating that small amount of space to determine your true feelings.
Finding ways to process and cope with difficult emotions, in addition to eating, is also really important. Journaling, talking to a friend, punching a pillow or having a good cry can all be helpful. Is there a way to resolve the underlying problem? Sometimes it becomes obvious that we need to set a boundary, have a difficult conversation, ask for help, communicate our needs or make a big change in our life. Working with a trained therapist is one of the best ways to learn strategies to process emotions and get to the root of what’s going on. When we become more aware of our emotions and our true needs, we often recognize the bigger changes we need to make in our lives.