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Are you someone who struggles with emotional eating? If so, don’t worry – you’re not alone. Emotional eating is nothing to be ashamed of. Many people find themselves turning to food as a way to cope with difficult emotions. But there is hope. With intuitive eating, it is possible to overcome emotional eating and develop a healthy relationship with food. Keep reading for more information about how to use intuitive eating principles for emotional eating behaviors.
Why food IS emotional
From childhood, we develop an emotional relationship with food. This is because the main source of nutrition in the first months and years of life comes from our main caregivers.
When we receive food from these people, we establish a caring and protective relationship with food. Also, as we grow older, social influences play a role in our emotional relationship with food. For example, it is common to share food at social celebrations (birthdays, parties, weddings, etc.).
We also found that food has a functional role as a “gift”, to show affection or love, for example when someone gives us box of chocolates or treats us to a special dinner out.
Thus, you can see how it’s perfectly natural that emotional eating can be a way of self-medicating in response to difficult emotions. It really can feel soothing.
It’s also worth noting that emotional eating often has very little to do with actual hunger; rather, it is about using food as a way to cope with difficult feelings.
How do I know if I’m emotionally eating?
So what triggers emotional eating? Emotional hunger can be caused by a variety of reasons (1), including stress, anxiety, depression, boredom, and loneliness. Emotional hunger often arises when we try to fill a void in our lives with food. We may eat because we need to distract or comfort ourselves, but this only leaves us feeling worse later, since the real reason underneath emotional eating has not been addressed.
If you feel like you start eating for reasons that have nothing to do with physical hunger, you could be emotionally hungry. If you’re emotionally hungry, it’s important to find healthy ways to deal with the feelings that are causing it. Emotional eating can feel chaotic, but it doesn’t have to control your life. There are many ways to deal with it and move on. We’ll check out some tips later on.
What are the symptoms of emotional eating?
- Eating when not hungry
- Frequent, disconnected eating
- Eating for comfort or to relieve boredom
- Feeling the urge to eat when something inconvenient happens
- Eating to cope with negative emotions
- Feeling guilty after eating
- Eating too much or too little
- Experiencing physical discomfort after eating
Differences between physiological hunger and emotional hunger
Emotional eating is different from physical hunger in a few key ways. First, with emotional eating, the urge to eat often comes on suddenly. When you are physically hungry, the feeling of hunger gradually increases over time.
Second, emotional hunger is often stronger than physical hunger: you feel like you need to eat NOW. With physical hunger, you can usually wait a bit before eating.
Third, emotional eating is not just about satisfying hunger; it’s also about satisfying your emotions. When you eat emotionally, food becomes a way to deal with negative emotions like stress, anxiety, or sadness.
Is it OK to emotionally eat sometimes?
Yes, it is perfectly OK to emotionally eat. Emotional eating is defined as using food to cope with emotions, and can happen when we’re feeling sad, angry, stressed, or bored.
It’s important to remember that although emotional eating is not a bad thing, we do want to develop other ways to cope with these emotions more comprehensively.
When we emotionally eat, it can be helpful to ask ourselves why we’re eating and what we’re hoping to achieve. If we can identify the emotions that are leading us to eat, we can work on addressing them in a more sustainable way.
Why we need other coping strategies besides emotional eating
As we have seen, emotional eating is driven by emotional needs such as stress relief, boredom, or a desire for comfort. And it’s perfectly OK to eat emotionally–as humans, it’s just something we do, and will continue doing. But while emotional eating can provide temporary relief from negative emotions, it doesn’t actually deal with the underlying cause of the emotional stress.
Emotional eating can also interfere with our ability to make attuned choices about what we eat. If we use food to deal with negative emotions, we are less likely to choose foods that nourish our bodies from a place of inner body wisdom.
Emotional eating can also contribute to emotional health issues such as anxiety and depression. When we rely ONLY on food to cope with our emotions, we can feel out of control and hopeless. This can lead to feelings of low self-esteem and worthlessness.
When we emotionally eat, we are numbing our feelings or trying to suppress them. This can become a vicious cycle, as emotional eating can lead to feelings of guilt and shame. These negative emotions, in turn, can trigger a search for food to relieve the difficult emotions, thus perpetuating the cycle.
Intuitive eating and emotional eating
Intuitive eating strategies can be useful when dealing with emotional eating because they help you to focus on your inner needs and feelings. Intuitive eating teaches you to listen to your body and to make food choices based on what you feel is best for YOU.
Intuitive eating and gentle nutrition can also help you to develop a healthier relationship with food, which can lead to a more positive relationship with food, and less distress around it.
Tips for managing emotional eating with intuitive eating?
If you think that your emotional eating is interfering with your wellbeing, there are steps you can take to find relief. First, try to be aware of your triggers: what emotions or situations lead you to emotional eating? Journaling can be especially helpful with this.
Once you know your triggers, you can begin to develop other coping mechanisms to deal with them. If needed, the support of a therapist or counselor can be helpful in working through difficult emotions.
Here are a few simple steps you can take to start interrupting the cycle of emotional hunger:
- Stop and name your feeling: When you find yourself eating for emotional reasons, stop and take a moment to identify what you are feeling. This can be difficult, but it is an important step in addressing the problem. Once you have a better understanding of what’s driving your behavior, you can work on finding healthier ways to cope. And remember: there’s nothing wrong with eating for emotional reasons, and no need to feel guilty about this.
- Use the hunger/fullness scale: Another way to understand your emotional eating is by using the hunger/fullness scale. This tool asks you to rate your physical hunger on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being very hungry and 10 being very full. Once you’ve rated your hunger, ask yourself how the emotion you’re feeling matches up. For example, if your hunger level is at 2 but your emotion is at 8, emotional eating is likely playing a role. Click here for more information on how to use the hunger/fullness scale.
- Think about how to best meet your emotional needs: Once you understand what’s driving your emotional eating, think about how you can best meet your needs. This may mean different things to different people, but some ideas include movement, journaling, talking with a friend, or listening to music. And if a nice bowl of chocolate ice cream seems like it’s the only thing that will do the trick, go ahead and enjoy it!
Here is an infographic with tips that can help you better “feed” your emotional needs:
Dealing with emotional eating IS possible, but it can take some time and effort. If you’re having trouble making changes on your own, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Click here to schedule a free discovery call with me. Getting guidance from a trained professional can help put you on the path to lasting change.
I hope you found this post on intuitive eating and emotional eating helpful. What do you think can help you self soothe when you’re feeling out of sorts? Have you tried any strategies in the past that you found effective? How can you “feed” your emotional needs today?
Hi! I’m Melissa, Registered Dietitian and mother of two dragons. When I’m not talking nutrition you can find me rolling around the floor with my kids, sewing, crafting, cooking or missing the 90s (seriously, music just isn’t the same). Read More…