What is Emotional Eating and Why It's Not Always Bad

“Emotional eating” has recently become a new buzzword in our culture. Most of us have heard of it or have used it, often in a critical or shaming way. Diet culture has co-opted the term, demonizing emotional eating as a shameful act. However, the reality is that food usually has emotional associations tied to it. Eating does not occur in a void and it is not just fuel for the body. All cultures and religions around the world use food as a symbolic custom and as a way of creating connection and adding meaning to our lives. We celebrate with food. We grieve with food. We comfort ourselves with food. We bond and reconnect with loved ones over food. We learn about other cultural traditions through food. Each time food becomes tied to a significant life experience, we deepen our emotional connection to it. These are all normal experiences to have with food. From the moment we are born and taste our first sip of milk, food is tied to the need for comfort and safety. Food is a major source of pleasure and satisfaction in our lives. It’s ok to eat food to celebrate and it’s also okay to use food as a source of comfort. Emotional eating becomes problematic when it’s our only coping mechanism, when we continually turn towards food to soothe our emotions or numb out and, when food becomes our best friend; the only thing we know to turn to when we feel alone.  

One thing to be aware of is that emotional eating is different than overeating due to deprivation from restricting. When we are dieting and restricting, our biological survival mechanism is to overeat and to overeat foods that provide immediate energy to the body: ie carbohydrates and foods high in fat and sugar. This is the body’s adaptive way of making sure we take in enough calories so we have adequate energy stores. Additionally, people who restrict their food are more likely to use food as a coping mechanism in times of stress. Therefore, the first step to tackling emotional eating is to determine if it’s occurring alongside restriction and, if it is, then the restriction must first be addressed.

Emotional eating can be thought of as occurring on spectrum. On the one end is sensory gratification–enjoying food because of the pleasure it brings. Finding pleasure in food is an essential part of intuitive eating and a natural part of living. Next on the spectrum is comfort. It’s normal to have a repertoire of foods which evoke feelings of comfort and enjoying these foods can be part of a healthy relationship with food. The next level of emotional eating is using food for distraction from feelings that you don’t want to feel such as boredom or anxiety. Eating in this way can be problematic because it often gets in the way of being in touch with your hunger and fullness cues and taking care of your needs. A more serious form of using food to cope is using food to numb and sedate yourself, preventing the experience of feelings for an extended period of time. Eating in this way blocks your intuitive signals of hunger and fullness and also prevents you from enjoying food. Lastly, the most extreme type of emotional eating is for punishment. This usually occurs when numbing happens so frequently and intensely and your critical voice becomes so strong that you want to punish yourself by eating large quantities of food, often in an angry and forceful manner.

Reading about different types of emotional eating may feel triggering. Try to cultivate self- compassion. You are not alone in turning towards eating to help you cope. In fact, emotional eating is a wise coping strategy that has probably helped you to survive many stressful life events. As you begin to heal from disordered eating, there may still be times when you turn towards emotional eating. Fortunately, this can provide you with valuable information about your emotions and needs and the ways in which you are trying to cope with what is happening in your life. The information can be used to re-evaluate your self-care or to reach out for counselling as a way to learn other coping strategies which may be more adaptive.

I’m a registered clinical counsellor in Vancouver, BC and I offer eating disorder counselling and intuitive eating coaching to help people reclaim their relationship with food and their body.

Reference:

Tribole, E. & Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive Eating A Revolutionary Program That Works. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Lorilee Keller