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Today I’d like defend emotional eating. We all eat for reasons other than hunger. It might be a daily occurrence, or it might be less often. But we’ve all done it. I could look at the research or the many books that have been written on the subject, but for now, I want you to look to your own experience. Think of a time when you ate because you felt a certain way. Perhaps you had a stressful day. Perhaps you’re celebrating. Perhaps you’re bored. And you reached for a snack or treat or drink or second helping…
We all do it, at least sometimes. So does that mean we’re all eating wrong?
In defense of emotional eating
Food is more than nutrition. Food is more than a diet. That is true whether you’re using the original definition of diet (your usual pattern of eating) or the modern version (restrictive eating to lose weight or achieve some health aim). Food is also culture and connection. We use food to pass down traditions and keep our family culture alive. We use food to show our love to one another and to care for ourselves.
But the #1 reason why I say emotional eating is a good thing? Because there are reasonable reasons why people do it.
Causes of emotional eating
1. A reaction to emotions.
We use food to change our mood because it works – at least in the short term. When we eat foods that remind us of a time when we felt happy or safe, it brings back those feelings and memories. On a biological level, when we eat food that is high in salt, sugar, and fat our brain rewards us. Why?
Salt, sugar, and fat are difficult to get in nature in most of the places that humans have lived, even as recently as a generation or two (and to this day in some communities). So the brain wanted us to remember where we found those rare sources of salt and concentrated calories.The brain releases chemical messengers to make us feel really god, so we associate those flavours with that feeling.
One way that the brain gets us to remember something is by releasing dopamine, a chemical in the brain. It is usually associated with feeling good or relief when something unpleasant goes away. It also seems to be involved in learning. There are some studies that suggest that this is indeed what is happening, but it is still a hypothesis. It is very difficult to prove what is happening in a person’s brain, especially when we have such a limited understanding.1
So now, when we are feeling bored, lonely, sad, angry, or any other emotion we want less of, our brain remembers that certain food makes us feel good. And when we are happy and want to extend our good feelings, our brain also remembers those foods. Because they work every time. For a little while, anyway.
2. A reaction to restriction
Some people thrive on rules. They find that having a rule to follow relieves them of the weight of having to make decisions. If this is you, then you’ve probably made a rule at some point that you don’t eat chocolate, or ice cream, or chips – it doesn’t matter for the point I’m trying to make. The point is, you made the rule, and you follow it without any hesitation or regret. You feel relieved that you have the rule and you don’t have to think about it again. Most of us think you’re pretty lucky in that way, but I’m sure you can think of situations where it is not as great as it sounds.
For the rest of us, we get restless when we have these kind of rules. We feel okay for a little while. But then we don’t. We start to miss that food. We start to feel deprived and we crave it. We can hold off for a little while with sheer white-knuckle willpower, but it doesn’t last. One day we break down and stop at the store to stock up. We feel angry and ashamed and weak.
The real reason why we feel this way is because we believe that it is wrong to eat for any reason other than hunger. We believe that emotional eating is a bad thing.
It doesn’t need to be this way. There is a way that we can balance our desires and cravings in a healthy diet. We can have permission to eat for reasons other than hunger and nutrition. In many cases, giving ourselves that permission causes the power of the cravings to fade.
3. Not pausing to respond – or not knowing what else to do
As I’ve said, we eat to soothe ourselves because it works at first. In those moments, it doesn’t matter to us that the soothing won’t last. All that matters is that we feel better now. But, when the need we have is not hunger, food won’t satisfy you.2
This is when emotional eating can turn into a harmful coping strategy. The eating numbs the emotions, and doesn’t allow us to take care of our real need. And so we get stuck in this cycle of eating to feel better. Then feeling worse because we ate too much or too fast or foods that don’t sit well in our system. Then eating to numb the guilt or shame that we don’t know how to take care of ourselves properly. But we can start a different cycle.
The trick is figuring out what will work for you even better than what you are doing now. There are 101 things you could do: call a friend, take a bath, go for a walk, work on a project, play a game, meditate, journal… The list goes on. But not everything on the list will work for every person in every situation.
Keeping a journal can help you to think through things both in the moment and later on. And so can a simple list. Make a list of “things that make me happy” or “things that make me feel good.” Write down everything that you can think of, and everything that you try and works, at least a little. That way the next time you feel stuck, you have your list to look at and remind you of things you can try.
Wait. So does this mean that emotional eating is bad? I thought you said it’s good and normal to eat for reasons other than hunger?
No, it does not mean that emotional eating is bad. It means that our relationship with food can be complicated. There are times when food is helpful to enhance a celebration or give us comfort. We use food because it works and because food is more than nutrition. But we can overuse food and use it to try to avoid our underlying emotions and needs. So how do we know when to eat, when emotional eating is good, and when to do something else?
PAUSE – FEEL – CHOOSE – ACT – REFLECT
1. When you notice yourself reaching for food – PAUSE.
Take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Give yourself the space in your mind to pause.
2. Ask yourself, how do I FEEL?
Consider your physical sensations, your emotions, and your thoughts.
If you feel hungry, ask yourself, what am I hungry for? Consider what is available, your knowledge of nutrition, and especially your intuition.
Once you have a decent idea of how you feel, ask yourself, what do I NEED?
There is no right or wrong answer here. Some basic needs are comfort, belonging, connection, rest, self-care, compassion…
3. Considering your options and needs, CHOOSE.
Given the information that you have discovered, what is the best thing that you could do right now? What is the kindest decision that you could make?
4. ACT: Do what you chose to do.
Drop the judgement, shame, guilt, or fear you might be feeling. You made the choice as best as you could in this moment, now do it.
5. Finally, to close the loop, REFLECT on your choice.
You might reflect right after, or you might do it later. You could reflect while writing in your journal, or in your mind while doing dishes or on a walk, whatever works for you. Consider whether your choice “worked”. Did you meet your need? Did you feel better? Would you try it again?
Sometimes you’ll CHOOSE emotional eating.
When you go through this process, sometimes the best, kindest thing you could do would be to eat for emotional reasons. That option is on the table. You might choose to eat when you aren’t hungry. You might choose to eat to celebrate or to cheer yourself up.
When you choose eat, then choose it. Let yourself enjoy. Let go of the desire to justify or feel guilty, and know that this is self-care too. And by the way, this is a great opportunity for mindful eating!
Sometimes you’ll CHOOSE another option.
Sometimes emotional eating it won’t be the best, kindest option. And those are the moments to do something else. Go back to your list of things that make you happy or make you feel good. Will any of those meet your needs better? What is the kindest choice you can make.
The most recent example for me was at work. I was pushing myself to get stuff done and I suddenly had a craving for something sweet.
PAUSE. I took a breath and looked away from my work for a moment.
FEEL. I wasn’t hungry. I was anxious about whether I would get the work done. My eyes felt tired. I needed a short break. I needed to not look at a screen for a minute. I needed to take care of myself.
CHOOSE. Tea is something that makes me feel good. It feels like a treat, and each sip is a pause. I can even have a low caffeine tea so it will hydrate me a little too.
ACT. I brewed myself some tea. That brought me away from my desk for a minute or two.
REFLECT. When I went back to work, each sip of my tea felt like a mini-break. It satisfied my need, and it also helped me to focus and get my work done.
When we talk about emotional eating, it’s not really about the food. It is about needing to care for ourselves. It is about connecting to ourselves and others. Emotional eating in a healthy way allows us to savour the moment and the flavours. And in the moment when we pause, it gives us the opportunity to grow.
Give this framework a try and let me know, did it work for you?
- For a plain language article summarizing the current understanding of dopamine, check out Psychology Today.
- This is a paraphrase of something Michelle May says often.
- This framework is based on cognitive behavioral theory, mindfulness, and mindful eating. For mindfulness resources, my favourites are Leo Babauta at zenhabits.net, Dan Harris’ 10% Happier (app, website, or book), and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness for Beginners (book). For a brief explaination of cognifitve behavioral theory this article by Simply Psychology is pretty good.
For mindful eating resources, you can read my upcoming article later this month, or in the meantime check out these resources: Michelle May’s amihungry.com especially this one on the mindful eating cycle and this one on cravings 101 where she describes a similar process as I do here. The 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating, by the dietitians who wrote the book on intuitive eating. The Center for Mindful Eating is also a good resource.