Emotional eating in our society gets painted as this inherently “bad” thing that must be hidden or “controlled.” When we look at the Google results for emotional eating, you’ll see all sorts of diet plans, self-help books, and theories that require that we restrict our food based on our feelings.

I bring this up because it’s something many clients I work with mention but it’s almost in secret or used as a scapegoat (particularly when there are difficult emotions to process). Here’s what I know to be true:

Humans are complex creatures with complex emotions. Research tells us that we make 200 decisions about food everyday. When people are asked about how many decisions they think they make? The average guess is 15 food decisions. So basically, we may far more decisions than we realize about what goes in our mouth – mostly because they are unconscious decisions.

With that being said, if we take a look back at the cultural evolution of food, food is supposed to be comforting. Food is connected to basic human survival and when food was more scarce, food brought a sense of relief, comfort, and security that we were going to be ok. Fast forward to today and when our “survival” is challenged – perhaps we are ill and not feeling well – what is more comforting than warm brothy soup?? Take a broader look at the food landscape and you’ll recognize there are communities where food scarcity is a real issue. Offer them a warm home cooked meal and watch what happens. Comfort. Joy. Relief.

Food is deeply tied to our emotions. There’s no escaping that. Think of your favorite food – what sort of physical response happens when you start to think on it? What emotions come into your mind? Maybe it’s sweet summer nostalgia. Maybe it’s comfort and ease. On the flip side, think of a food you have a negative association with. Maybe it made you physically ill one time. Maybe you ate it at a dinner where you felt “small” or where you broke up with a significant other. It doesn’t have to be super traumatic to experience and associate a wide spectrum of emotions with particular foods. It’s impossible to try and ignore that fact that food is indeed emotional. Again, we are complex humans with complex emotions and our choices are equally complex.

However….what I suggest is that instead of “How do I Stop Emotional Eating?” we ask, “Is my emotional eating problematic?”

Here’s the thing I try to convey to clients (and what I’ve learned for myself), emotional eating is actually only problematic if it prevents you from living your best life. Meaning….does your emotional eating put accessory tension on your relationships with friends, loved ones, running partners, children, and with food itself?

Examples of how I’ve seen Emotional Eating pop up:

Jane is super stressed at work and comes home to eat a large snack that leaves her feeling uncomfortably full but she decides she needs to work off the calories and skips hanging out with her kids before dinner to go run.

Joe sleeps only a few hours a night and come afternoon time, he’s so tired and burnt out with all that he has going on so he eats a high sugar, high fat food to feel more awake.

Jane is totally not feeling like working on her work project so she heads to the kitchen to find some food to distract and procrastinate the actual work at hand.

Joe has down time at work and reaches for the snack drawer to fill the time and before he knows it he’s eaten all the snacks in his office and feels a sense of guilt.

Emotional eating in all of these examples is interfering with the life that Jane and Joe aspire to lead. I will also say that it’s pretty natural for humans to push aside or feel guilty about behaviors that can be seen as “weak” or “lazy” when in reality, we are not weak or lazy people. We are complex humans with complex emotions and that is OK. 

So What Can You Do About Emotional or Stress Eating?

The biggest question I ask clients who report that they stress eat or emotional eat is… “Is this a harmful coping strategy?” Meaning, is it preventing you from living your best life and does it interfere with a lifestyle you aspire to live or with relationships? Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes the answer is no. Sometimes it’s both depending on the day or situation.
To dive deeper into whether emotional eating and stressful eating is problematic for you, ask yourself about the frequency and the degree in which you turn to food to cope with what you’re feeling. This can be different for every person and if you feel like it’s more often than what you’d like because it’s preventing you from living your best life (not because diet culture says emotional eating is XYZ), here are some questions you can ask yourself next time you feel an intense craving or are reaching for a snack/meal. It can be cumbersome in the beginning to get this specific about how you’re feeling at your meal/snack when most of the time we eat unconsciously, but these are the important questions that help establish balance and ease. Once you answer these questions, you can better determine whether a food will be able to provide that for you or not. Sometimes it’s yes. Sometimes it’s no (and if it’s no, I give you suggestions for other potential coping mechanisms below).
If you’re feeling BORED, are you: not challenged, avoiding the work/looking for a distraction, not in the present moment/disconnected?
If you’re feeling TIRED, are you: overwhelmed, burnt out/over extended, sleepy from less than ideal sleep?
If you’re feeling FRUSTRATED, are you: irritated, annoyed, angry, jealous?
If you’re feeling ANXIOUS, are you: not prepared, stressed, doing something new/unfamiliar, in an uncomfortable position?
Are these emotions tied back to a specific event (traffic, work event, etc) or a specific person (significant other, children, co-workers, randoms, etc)? What do I really need to do to process this emotion and find resolution? Is food what I need? Perhaps you need one of the following instead:
Connection – a sense of true belonging, acceptance, community, love
Purpose – inspiration, creativity, challenge
Balance/Ease – stability, predictability, relaxation
Physical Well-Being – sunshine, movement, physical intimacy, sleep
Distraction – fun, adventure, spontaneity
Navigating what you really need when you feel stressed or feel yourself leaning on emotional eating is not easy! It’s also not easy because it requires work in the beginning and requires that we ask ourselves these hard questions of “What do we really need?” and “What’s truly going to nourish us from the inside out?” Let me tell you, it may be easier to go through the motions for a while but at some point, suppressing emotions that we’re uncomfortable dealing with is going to catch up. Because if food isn’t really what you need, it’s only going to be a temporary fix that continues to pop up in your life until it’s properly addressed.
With that being said…. emotional eating is not a bad thing. Even if it is a temporary fix, it may be the most accessible option in that moment and it might be the most reliable tool we have (and usually the quickest). We are complex humans with complex emotions and dealing with emotions is messy. We do know that restricting or avoiding food isn’t the answer as many times emotional eating or binge eating is in response to restriction.
Regardless of what you’ve done in the past or what you will do in the future, you are not a person who needs to be fixed for soothing your feelings with food. It can be easy to cast blame and or feel shame but regardless of previous situations and experiences, we can always learn more about ourselves and build trust with our bodies. The more we learn to trust our bodies, the more confidence and happiness we can experience with our food choices and our bodies.
Aim to come back to:
How will this food make me feel?
Can this food provide me with what I really need right now?
Sometimes it’s no.
And sometimes it’s yes – and when that happens – eat the dang food and don’t look back. 
How to Deal With Emotional Eating

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.