If you’ve spent any time in the dieting or well-being space, you’ll have come across the term ‘emotional eating.’
Remember the movie ‘The Diary of Bridget Jones’ or Miranda in ‘Sex & The City?’ Those women were shown to eat when they felt sad, lonely and disappointed with their love life and careers, eating cake and having a glass (or several) of wine.
Our culture sees emotional eating as ‘funny’ at best (like in those movies/shows) but ultimately as ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’. As something we have to overcome by learning to deal differently with our emotions.
I believe that emotional eating is a coping mechanism that has its place – most people engage in it from time to time, especially anyone who has a history of dieting or eating for intentional weight loss (research studies show this).
It only becomes an issue if it is the only emotional coping tool we have and if we do it all the time.
Most importantly, emotional eating becomes an issue when we judge ourselves for it, feel guilty, and try to avoid it at all costs. This is when I see women really veer into the diet-binge cycle and struggle with food and body.
My approach to improving your relationship with food and body is not ‘getting rid’ of emotional eating.’
I advocate ‘adding in’ other coping strategies alongside emotional eating, not ‘instead of.’
Read on for three steps you can use if you’re someone who eats emotionally.
1. If you notice an emotion bubbling up inside and the desire to go eat food, take a pause. Name the emotion.What is it, sadness, anxiety, anger? Notice the sensations in your body. Where do you feel? Is it in the pit of your stomach? Do your arms feel heavy? Where else are you noticing it? Allow yourself to feel the emotion. It can’t harm you. You’re safe. Research shows that if you really allow an emotion to be felt in the body, it won’t last longer than about 90 seconds.
2. Next, ask yourself: What do I really need in this moment? What would feel good/supportive right now?
A good cry into my pillow? Giving myself a hug? Some deep breaths? Banging my fist on my desk (if it’s anger)? Writing in a journal? A five minute walk in fresh air? Talking to my partner? Calling a friend?
Will food help? If yes, what kind of food? Cake? Ice cream? Fruit? A soft bread roll? Intentionally choose what food will soothe you, and tell yourself you are allowed to use food as a coping strategy.
3. Instead of using the food as a way to ‘avoid' the emotion, try to connect to the emotion you are feeling at the same time as eating. Eat the cake, AND ALSO feel the emotion inside. You can hold both – the sadness AND the comfort/pleasure you are giving yourself through food.
Whilst you are learning these skills, treat yourself with kindness. There is no need to judge, criticise and be-rate yourself. Enjoy the taste, the comfort and the pleasure you get from the food, and the time-out you’re giving yourself from the demands of daily life in this moment.
This is important because if you berate yourself whilst eating the food, it will not actually comfort you, and you will need to keep eating more and more, never getting that soothing feeling you want.
In summary, emotional eating isn't the 'crime' diet culture wants us to believe it is. Accept it as a normal part of being human, and learn additional tools to cope with emotions.