It’s common to have experiences with food that can feel chaotic and/or emotionally driven. People throw around the phrase “emotional eating” and as a dietitian, I regularly work with people who are concerned about their experiences with emotional eating. But what does it actually mean? What should people do if they’ve identified emotional eating patterns in their lives?
Let’s start with a definition: the American Psychological Association defines emotions as “Emotions are conscious mental reactions (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feelings usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body”.
The key point in the definition here is the physiological changes in the body. Emotions are felt in the body. Emotions are sensations that arise in the body and can be felt and experienced physically (as well as emotionally).
Other sensations related to food and eating also arise in the body and can feel similar to emotions. Sensations of hunger, craving, thirst, etc. also arise and, for some, can be confused with feelings of emotions. A good first step in emotional eating is to start to gather data around the sensations in your body. You can do this through curiosity. What does it feel like in your body to be sad? Lonely? Hungry? Thirsty? Angry? Tired? Bored? Once you’ve built some awareness around these distinct bodily sensations, you can start to notice patterns of when you’re reaching for food when you may have a different need that requires your attention.
From there, it can be really helpful to zoom out on your overall eating patterns. Are you feeding yourself regularly throughout the day? If you are going long stretches of time without nourishment, you may feel chaotic and emotional around food. But, what could actually be happening is that you get to a primal hunger place that’s beyond normal, reasonable hunger. In this place, you’ll often find yourself eating more than you meant to or eating things that may not feel great in your body in retrospect. You may define this experience as “emotional eating” but that may not be true at all. Experiment with being nourished throughout the day and notice if this makes any differences in emotional eating episodes. There’s a large chance that emotional eating instances may decrease as you ensure that you are fed and nourished regularly throughout the day.
One practical way to do this is to create a structure with regular meals at regular intervals so that when you aren’t sure if you’re feeling hungry or something else, you can trust that you are meeting your need for food at a baseline, non-negotiable level. That way, when you’re reaching for something snacky outside of planned meals and snacks, you can be cued in to checking in with yourself on an emotional level. To sum it up, when doing emotional work with food, it’s important to be regularly and consistently nourished!
It’s also important to understand that the goal of talking about emotional eating isn’t to eradicate all emotional eating. Food is emotional. It makes us feel good. That’s okay! The goal is to learn to expand our toolboxes so that we’re able to have choices when we are feeling big emotions. Only having one choice (i.e. food, exercise, sleep, etc.) when experiencing big emotions doesn’t lead to better health. Having the flexibility to choose food sometimes, a shower another, a nap another, etc. is what allows us to meet our needs better and promote our health more wholly.
Once you understand more about your overall patterns with food and sensations in the body, we can then start brainstorming other choices you can make to meet your needs. For example, if you are often finding yourself reaching for food when you are needing to unwind and relax, you can then come up with a list of options to do when you need to relax. You can even include eating! This is not about NOT eating when emotional, this is about creating other options for yourself so you have choices.
This is lifelong work! In my opinion, the topic of emotional eating is actually really about learning how to meet our needs. First, we need to really be honest about what those needs are. Then, we need to experiment with how to meet those needs and play around with different approaches until we find what works best for us. As our needs shift, this work will shift and our personal solutions will shift too. That’s okay! That’s the nature of this work. Keep going. It’s worth it.
And, if you need help and/or support, we are here to help! Food is nuanced and complex and touches every single aspect of our lives. If you want to have individualized help exploring your relationship with food, we would love to partner with you in individual nutrition therapy.