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Is all emotional eating harmful?

‘Emotional eating’ tends to fall into the category of stuff we feel pressured to stop doing if we ever want to be healthy, and/or love how our body looks (along with eating lots of plain chicken & broccoli, little to no carbs, and feeling guilty when we eat delicious things!). Gotta love the graphic from the wonderful @thefashionfitnessfoodie!

What exactly is emotional eating and why do we seem to always be fighting against it?

Diet culture has made emotional eating into this big enemy. But I find it’s helpful to break it down, remove the social stigma, and see it for what it really is.

Emotional eating is 100% normal. It exists in ALL eaters, even “normal eaters” who have never struggled with their weight or had any issues with food. But it’s very demonized in our culture and that’s why so many people feel like they’re always battling with it.

Emotional eating is just when we use food to either sooth an uncomfortable feeling like sadness, loneliness, stress or frustration, or when we use it to conjure a feeling like wanting excitement, happiness, or wanting to celebrate.

What if I want to be healthy and have heard “food is fuel,” how does that work when we’re driven to eat emotionally?

Yes food is absolutely fuel – if we don’t eat, we die – BUT it’s important to know that our bodies are also hard-wired to eat for pleasure and relaxation too.

Eating releases feel-good neurotransmitters in our brains, and triggers our rest & digest parasympathetic nervous system to activate. So when we’re feeling anxious for example, our body doesn’t like discomfort, and it’s smart, it knows it will be able to avoid that discomfort and get that quick hit of pleasure and relaxation if it gets you to eat.

On the flip side, we actually get fuel from all foods. There are carbs in potatoes and there are also carbs in cake. There is fat in avocados and there is also fat in fudge. Of course there’s a spectrum and some are more nutritious than others, but nutrients are nutrients.

By having the mindset that what we eat should only be made up of certain types foods, it can create guilt and destructive behaviors around eating for enjoyment.

I mean we even have sweet taste buds, and they’re there to give us pleasure from food!

If you have that mindset of “only certain types of foods should be considered fuel”, say you’re at someone’s birthday party and you emotionally eat a cupcake to celebrate the joyous occasion. You would likely think to yourself something like “Ahh there’s no fuel in this cupcake!! I failed, may as well keep eating them and start again Monday…”

But if you just saw it for what it was, wanting to have a fun treat on a special occasion, know that all foods in some way are fueling your body – whether physically and/or emotionally, it’s easier to just eat it, enjoy it and move on rather than sending you into a spiral.

When I feel the urge to eat emotionally, what should I do?

Generally speaking, it’s helpful to not look at it as a ‘condition’ we need to fix, but the mindset around it should be shifted.

By addressing that mindset, that impacts how we feel about it, which affects the actions we take.

The first step is just seeing it for what it is. Understanding that it’s a behavior us-humans, as emotional beings, are hard-wired to do, and that it actually is a good coping mechanism. It does what it’s supposed to do in a legal and safe way, oftentimes taking us from feeling uncomfortable in the opposite direction, even if only briefly.

There are WAY worse things you can do as a coping mechanism!

Next, use it as an opportunity to get curious in a non-judgmental way. Lean and tune into it rather than trying to stop and dismiss it. See where the urge to eat when you’re not physically hungry is coming from. Challenge yourself to sit with and feel the feelings that come up. Accept that it’s ok you’re feeling that way, no matter what it is. And ultimately address the real root cause or in addition to eating too. If your hunger isn’t coming from a physical-hunger place, food isn’t going to satisfy it.

For example:

  • If you eat when you’re bored, what can you can do that will help you feel stimulated or entertained?
  • If you eat when you’re lonely, what can you do to bring more connection into your life in general and the situation you find yourself in?
  • If eating is the best part of your day, what can you do to make your days more enjoyable? What can you look forward to after a hard day’s work that is not food related?

By normalizing the behavior and fulfilling the real need, you’ll likely find you end up naturally eating less food.

If you’re finding yourself eating emotionally very often, on a really regular basis:

If eating is your biggest coping mechanism for a prolonged period of time or you’re solely relying on food for happiness, especially to the point of regular discomfort, overwhelming feelings of being ‘out of control’ around food, or where it’s affecting your health and wellbeing, getting support from a professional would be really beneficial to expanding your coping toolbox to naturally feel the need to rely on food less. I’m happy to set up a free phone consult with you to see if we’d be a good fit to work together!

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