By Rebecca Hambright MS, RDN - Wise Heart Nutrition Dietitian
Who decided that “emotional eating” is bad? I don’t know exactly where this rumor started (other than the obvious master-villains... anti-fatness and diet-culture), but I want to slap my flip phone closed (ultimate diss - duh) and be done with this shitty game of telephone.
Instead, let’s flip this narrative around. Intuitive eating principles guide us to “cope with our emotions with kindness”, which ultimately means developing a tool box of coping skills and choosing one to compassionately meet our emotional needs. Sometimes food is that coping skill. And that’s ok!!!
Food is something that can be readily accessible, so it is common for it to be used as a coping mechanism from an early age. If you weren’t given the tools or support to develop other coping skills, it makes sense that you would turn to what you had available in your home, and for some (but not all) of us, that was food. In addition, food is already attached to emotions for most of us. Food is a part of culture and human experience; it can connect us to loved ones, and by extension, the feel-good emotions and memories that we associate with them. When we feel alone and stressed, we are ultimately longing to feel connected or heard, and if we feel cut off from other people, food can feel like a substitute.
There are a few types of eating for emotions, let’s break them down.
Sensory experiences with food can include enjoyment or stimulation. Pleasure in food is an encouraged emotional experience with food, as eating for enjoyment can help us make peace with food and find satisfaction in food. Using food for sensory stimulation is a common experience for neurodivergent folx, who often find that certain sensations from food may help them stimulate their senses, decrease sensory overload, or cope with anxiety or unfamiliarity. Commonly enjoyed food sensations include crunchy texture foods or highly stimulating foods, like spicy flavors or carbonation. Eating for sensory stimulation may happen when you encounter boredom or have to complete a dull task. Food can be one way that we meet our sensory needs.
It’s widely acknowledged that food is a part of culture, connection to others, and a source of comfort. There is a somewhat intangible bridge between familiar tastes, textures, and smells of food and good memories or emotions. It is totally normal to find comfort in food, like in a dish that a loved one used to make for you, in the cheesy goodness of mozzarella sticks, or in the ooey-gooey texture of warm chocolate chip cookies. Food can most definitely be used as a source of comfort when you confront stress or emotion, but it can be helpful to also develop a toolbox of other skills that you can reach for in these times.
Eating for distraction, also known as eating for boredom, is also very common. You may not even notice that you are engaging in this behavior. In this situation, food is used to distract from confronting or feeling uncomfortable emotions, such as anxiety, boredom, or stress. While food can be a helpful tool for coping with emotions in the short-term, , it is important to note that food is not the long-term answer for confronting or working through these emotions.
Sometimes, you may find yourself using food to completely numb out your emotions. It happens. In this situation, you might be purposefully not checking in with your hunger or fullness, or sense of satisfaction in an effort to bypass connection to your physical experience or situation. Eating for numbing may become a concern if your effort to relieve your distress actually ends up causing more distress, like physical discomfort from eating past your fullness, or mental stress from shame or guilt. It’s not that eating for the intent of numbing emotions should be cause for guilt or shame - it is very understandable that food is used as a coping skill - but living in diet culture, it is also understandable that guilt and shame may arise. Once again, it’s normal to use food as a coping mechanism in the short term, but it is not beneficial for food - or any one thing - to be your only coping mechanism.
Eating as a form of self-punishment is another form of eating for emotion. In this situation, you may feel overwhelming guilt or shame, and actually use food as a way to beat yourself up, maybe eating in an aggressive or physically painful way, or denying food. For example, eating a food with a rough texture that may hurt your mouth, eating a food that you know will cause you GI distress, binging on food to a level that causes extreme physical discomfort, or restricting food. Eating for punishment is another method of bypassing your internal cues (hunger, fullness, satiety) in an effort to feel outside of your body or current experience. This form of eating for emotion is discouraged because it only serves to perpetuate feelings of isolation, guilt, shame, and low self-esteem, but it can also be a difficult learned response to change. It could be beneficial to get curious about what is underneath the urge to punish yourself, and to work towards discovering new coping strategies to relieve these emotions with the help of a professional.
So, yes eating for emotions is normal and can be an effective and functional coping skill at times. Food tastes and textures can be comforting, delicious, and provide us with distraction from our current experience. A short-term distraction or numbing out does not mean that the uncomfortable feelings or experiences will go away, but sometimes feeling all the feelings is exhausting and just not necessary or possible.
Often, food is used as a first line coping skill, before we feel ready to move on to exploring the issue or processing our deep emotions. It’s kind of like when everything in life feels like it’s going wrong - sometimes we just need to throw ourselves a pity party and have a good cry. Is that going to solve the problem? Nope. But it just feels good, and it can be a necessary step to begin accepting the situation. Maybe tomorrow morning, you’ll feel ready to tackle the situation head on, but sometimes, you just need to cry and eat ice cream in bed.
As we’ve reviewed, it’s not beneficial to rely on any one thing as a solution - including food. But, food is an important and healthy coping tool to have in your toolbox. Developing a range of coping strategies that you can reach for creates greater flexibility when you’re dealing with hard stuff. This is really how intuitive eating guides us to “cope with our emotions with kindness”. If you feel that food is or has been the best coping mechanism you could access, I want to validate that, while also sharing that I believe you have the ability to develop additional coping skills, possibly with the help of a professional. Even so, sometimes enjoying chocolate chip cookies is the most kind thing you can do for yourself.
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