What does emotional eating really mean? Why does emotional eating matter? And what can you do to stop it?
So, you’re wondering if you're an emotional eater...
You've probably heard of the term "emotional eater" before, and you might be wondering if that’s what you’re dealing with.
People (who come to me for help changing their diet) tell me all the time, “I’m not an emotional eater,” but shortly after we start working together, they realize they actually might be.
Most people THINK that emotional eating means feeling sad and drowning their sorrow in a bowl of ice cream on purpose, but that is rarely what it actually looks like.
Emotional eating may show up as:
- Suddenly feeling like you need to stop for a snack when you’re in the middle of a project at work
- Grazing on snacks while you make dinner
- Grabbing a bowl of ice cream or chips when you sit down to watch TV at the end of the night, even though you don’t feel hungry
- Choosing a burger and fries when you swore you were going to order a salad
- Getting seconds at dinner even though you are comfortably full
So, while you’re probably not crying into a bowl of spaghetti, some of these may sound all too familiar.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating technically means making food choices based on whatever emotion you are experiencing in the moment, whether you are aware of it or not. And that is actually completely normal and natural.
When it becomes a problem is when you use food to avoid or dismiss an emotion that you don’t want to feel or when you are feeling uncomfortable in your body due to emotionally-driven food choices.
Emotional eating to avoid emotions
When our feelings feel too big; when we don’t want the negative sensation in our body - eating will help calm it. And sometimes we calm it before we’ve even acknowledged that it’s there. We’re on autopilot, programmed to suddenly decide to get a snack.
Emotional eating to manage emotions
Sometimes our food choices are driven by wanting to STOP an emotion.
1. All emotions are vibrations in the body - when you eat, you muffle the vibrations and feel less of the emotion. The weight of the food in your stomach literally absorbs some of the vibration and creates a momentary sense of relief.
2. When you eat, your brain produces feel-good hormones that help you relax in the moment.
So, again, you feel better, but typically only momentarily.
Emotional eating to prevent emotions
Sometimes our food choices are driven by wanting to PREVENT an emotion.
In this case, emotional eating is not about what you’re feeling when you eat chips and salsa for lunch; emotional eating is about what you feel when you WANT the chips and salsa, but you DON’T eat it.
The initial feeling that drives our choices is desire. And when we don’t indulge our desire, other emotions come up - deprivation, lack, dissatisfaction. Wanting to avoid those feelings is a key reason why making healthy choices doesn’t feel good or easy in the moment.
Logically, you know it’s better for you. Logically, you know you’ll be fine.
But emotionally?? That’s another story because we are programmed to crave foods high in sugar and added fat. And when you don’t choose them, your brain literally thinks you just reduced your likelihood of survival.
Why should I care about emotional eating?
Emotional eating is completely normal and most of us do it on occasion. For some people, however, emotional eating can cause long-term challenges that make addressing it a high priority.
1. Emotional eating can cause further emotional stress: Emotional eating feels good in the moment, but can’t actually support the underlying emotions. When you use food to shut yourself off from the emotional experience, you may prolong addressing the underlying challenge that was causing the emotional discomfort in the first place.
2. Emotional eating can leave you feeling pretty sluggish: When you eat from an emotional place, you’re more likely to choose heavier foods and foods that are higher in simple sugars. This combination can leave you feeling tired, irritable, and just plain uncomfortable. If you are feeling that way on a regular basis, it could be interfering with day to day activities such as feeling energetic with your kiddos and having patience and presence at the end of the day.
3. Emotional eating often results in a cycle of self-doubt and sense of failure. Emotional eating is driven by a certain set of emotions, but can result in a whole other set of emotions such as frustration, regret, and guilt. This can keep you feeling stuck in a vicious cycle.
Putting an end to emotional eating
It's 100% possible to make the shift away from emotional eating. And it boils down to a couple key points:
1. Know that you can feel all those feelings: Feelings are simply vibrations in the body (energy in motion = e-motion). These vibrations are often uncomfortable, but they don’t typically last very long. If you allow the emotion in your body, or even better yet, tune right into it, you will be able to feel the stress, the doubt, the deprivation, the FOMO and be totally fine (no snack necessary).
- What emotion am I feeling?
- Where do I feel the discomfort?
- How would I describe it?
(Check out this post on feeling your feelings for additional support. There’s even a video!)
2. Change your desire so that choosing foods that feel good in your body gets easier over time: Changing desire starts with tuning into which foods actually make you feel really good. Not because you’ve been told it “should” be good for you, but because you feel that it’s right for you.
3. Stop thinking about foods as “good” or “bad.” Foods have no moral value and what you choose to eat has nothing to do with your own worth. The more you can dismantle judgements around food, the less emotion you’ll have attached to it.
Putting an end to emotional eating may take a little time re-learning, but once you recognize the cause and put a few of these tips into action, you'll be on your way. In fact, you may be closer than you think!
Want more info on how to end emotional eating? Check out my free guide: 3 Steps to Stop Emotional Eating.