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.