This time of year can bring all kinds of emotions. It's the MOST time of the year. The most sights, smells, tastes, family struggles, expectations, nostalgia, grief, happiness...all of it! And with all those emotions, it's common for people to reflect on patterns they observe in themselves around food. Maybe you've noticed an uptick of reaching for something sweet when you've had an emotional day? Maybe you've witnessed yourself numbing stress or some other unpleasant feeling with food (or for some, the restriction of food can also be how they may numb the emotion). Some people may even recognize the macro patters with seasonal differences with food: for many this time of year brings abundance and bargaining to "undo" all their eating in January with the New Year.
Regardless of your particular struggles with food or time of year, let's explore emotional eating: what it is, and what we can do about it (spoiler: we don't really need to DO anything about it, but more on that soon).
Why talk about emotional eating
The goal of talking about emotional eating isn’t to eradicate all emotional eating. Food is emotional. It makes us feel good. It's normal and even health-promoting for you to enjoy the physical experience of nourishing your body. We feel good when we hug someone because we need connection to survive. We feel relief when we empty our bladder because it's essential for our health and well-being to regulate fluids and get rid of waste from our bodies. Eating is similar: we need food to survive, and we feel good when we eat. This is our body's way of rewarding us for doing something we need to do.
When it comes to emotional eating, the goal is to create a sense of choice and options. We want 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.
Interoceptive awareness is the ability to identify, access, understand, and respond appropriately to the patterns of internal signals. This is something we can learn and work on developing more sensitivity to. Many people have trouble differentiating between physical cues of hunger and emotional feelings in the body. Though this distinction can feel challenging, it's worth creating a practice of connection with your body so you can start to understand what various physical feelings in the body mean.
One way to practice this is sitting, laying down or standing still and working on tuning into your beating heart. You spend a few minutes each day trying to build more of a sensitivity to the sensations in the body and learning to observe them without judgment is all part of the process as well. You can also do a brief body scan starting at your feet and working your way up the body all the way to the head to try to perceive the different sensations in the body.
Learning how to recognize certain cues as hunger, others as anger, another as sadness, etc. can help you hone in on the most effective choice given the feeling. For example, if you are hot in the cheeks and your heart is racing, that may indicate you're activated and maybe even angry. When angry, you could eat something, you could let off some steam on a walk, you could call a friend to talk, or you could take a nap. Knowing you're angry could help provide some clues as to the choice that will yield the best result for YOU. Creating the practice of tuning into the sensations of the body is key for learning how to navigate food and emotions.
The importance of consistent nourishment
One of the first things to think about when talking about emotional eating is the importance of creating 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, you can be cued in to checking in with yourself on an emotional level. When exploring emotional eating, it’s important to be regularly and consistently nourished!
Sometimes you are reaching for a food even though you don't really need or even want to eat. Pause there and get curious about whether you need a break or needing to relax or needing comfort. Learning what your most common triggers are can be super helpful in noticing and identifying patterns. Once you understand why you are eating emotionally, we can then start brainstorming other choices you can make to meet your needs. Please note: these other choices are in addition to food. You may feel a big emotion and also want/need to eat. That's okay! Remember, the goal here is to create choices so you can flexibly honor what you need in that moment.
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.
What do you need?
As a human being, you have many needs. You need food, water, shelter, warmth. And, you need connection, to feel understood, a sense of creativity, rest, comfort, love, to feel heard and seen, and more. Understanding that these are needs (notice that they aren't wants or desires, or would-be-nice, but NEEDS) can help us respect the various needs we have instead of mistakenly believing that we don’t really need rest, don’t really need creative outlets, don’t really need to express and feel our emotions. We do! I encourage you to sit with that list and think about how you might set a boundary, have a conversation, or something else to protect and honor the needs that you have. Doing so makes honoring other needs (like food) easier and smoother. It may seem peripheral to talk about these things in relation to emotional eating, but as we learn to recognize physical cues from the body (interoceptive awareness) and learn to honor our needs flexibly with lots of choices, struggles with emotional eating tend to lessen and feel more accessible to work on.
This is lifelong work! Emotional eating is about learning how to meet our needs. We need to really be honest about what those needs are. Then, we need to experiment with how to meet those needs and experiment 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.