Emotional Eating Might Be Helping You More Than You Realize
Katy Harvey, RD, CEDRD
Emotional eating has gotten a bad rap. Our culture acts like we should only ever eat for fuel, as if our bodies are machines that need gasoline. But that completely misses the point of how food can function as a source of comfort, pleasure, and yes - coping with emotions.
Eating for emotional reasons can actually be really helpful. First of all, it’s incredibly resourceful as a coping mechanism. It is a way to make ourselves feel better relatively quickly, and generally we have pretty easy access to food.
It’s also part of normal eating. For example, in Ellyn Satter’s wonderful definition of “normal eating,” she says:
Normal eating is…
...going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied.
...being able to choose food you enjoy and to eat it and truly get enough of it - not just stop eating because you think you should.
...being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food.
...giving yourself permission to eat because you are happy, sad, or bored, or just because it feels good. *(i.e. for emotional reasons!)
...mostly 3 meals a day, or 4 or 5, or choosing to munch along the way.
...leaving cookies on the plate because you will let yourself have some again tomorrow, or choosing to eat more now because they taste so great!
...overeating at times, and feeling stuffed and uncomfortable...and undereating at times, and wishing you had more.
...trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating.
...takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important are of your life.
...In short, normal eating is flexible, it varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food, and your feelings. (i.e. emotional eating at times!)
So if we understand that emotional eating occurs within the context of normal eating, we can start to discern the nuances of when it becomes a problem.
The short answer is: Emotional eating is a problem if it is causing you harm.
How do you know if it’s causing you harm? Here are a few clues:
If you are using food to numb the majority of uncomfortable emotions, without letting the emotions guide you toward getting your needs met.
For example, let’s say that every time Jessie starts to feel anxious or stressed she eats. Sure, in that moment she feels calm and distracted by the pleasure of eating tasty food, but in the long run she’s never dealing with the issues that caused her anxiety or stress in the first place.
If the food is physically harming your body by making medical issues worse.
For example, if Wayne is consistently and repeatedly eating emotionally to the point that his hemoglobin A1c is increasing, then his emotional eating is hurting his body.
If food is your best friend and has become a substitute for real relationships with people in your life.
For example, if Christy goes home every night and eats in her bedroom while watching TV, she’s not getting out and forming relationships with people. Her loneliness continues to be a reason she turns to food. Food will never fill the void of her longing for intimate connections with human beings.
If you are shaming, berating or punishing yourself after you eat for emotional reasons.
For example, if John eats because he had a bad day at work, and then punishes himself for his “lack of willpower” by forcing himself to exercise, then his emotional eating (and his response to the emotional eating) is causing him harm.
Embracing the emotions
The most important thing to do if you are worried about your emotional eating is to embrace the emotions and allow yourself to actually FEEL your feelings.
My therapist once told me, “Emotions are messages from your soul.” This was such a profoundly different way for me to look at my emotions, and I’ll never forget it.
Katy Harvey, RD is a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) from Kansas City. She has an outpatient private practice where she helps individuals heal their relationship with food, exercise and their body. She also blogs at Katy’s Blog.