Today we’re talking about how to stop emotional eating. This is the perfect follow up to last week’s episode (Can I Eat Desert Everyday?), where we covered a lot of questions we can ask ourselves about what we want to eat, and why we want to eat it. Emotional eating builds on those concepts.
Plus, this past year had plenty of emotions — and navigating uncharted territory and dealing with lots of emotions can result in using food as coping mechanism. From boredom (hello quarantine!) to frustration to loneliness to celebratory; if you use food to deal with an emotion, that’s emotional eating.
Emotional Eating Isn’t “Good” or “Bad”
Eating as a respond to an emotion is just a normal thing that people do. We eat cake at birthday parties because we feel joyful and celebratory. We eat ice cream while we binge watch Netflix when we’re feeling lonely or sad. All sorts of people eat all sorts of foods as response to emotion, and there isn’t anything innately good or bad about it!
The important thing to notice is how your eating habits are making your body feel. Intuitive eating isn’t about learning to quit emotional eating. It’s more about how to notice and feel your emotions, and be able to decide if eating is something you want to do or not.
When It’s Not Emotional Eating
Maybe you’re snacking a lot throughout the day, and you assume that means you’re emotional eating. Although that could be true, it could also just be that your body is trying to let you know that you’re legitimately hungry. Maybe you need more food, and snacking is how you’re getting it right now!
Recently I realized I was snacking a lot after lunch. After paying attention for a few days, I realized that I wasn’t eating enough for lunch. I’m currently breastfeeding, and figuring how much food my body needs is something I’m getting figured out.
So even though I DO have lots of emotions right now….I wasn’t snacking because I was trying to avoid feelings. I was eating because my body needed food. The same might be true for you.
Another common mislabeling is when you’re not giving yourself permission to eat and enjoy food. I see clients go through patterns where they’ll eat a lot of desserts; snacking on cookies, having a full helping of dessert after meals, and otherwise loading up on lots of snack-type sweets. Often this is connected to old cycles of needing to binge on food quickly, while it’s “allowed”, before access gets cut off again (the classic diet cycle).
When this is happening, I often guide clients back to that early intuitive eating step: letting go of all restrictions. When you truly allow yourself to eat anything that you want or need, you might find that you don’t have an emotional eating problem at all. Instead, you’re still learning to trust yourself and give yourself permission to enjoy food.
When It IS Emotional Eating
If you’re emotionally eating as a means for coping with your feelings, and if it’s making you feel not-so-good, I have three tools you can use to engage with what’s happening.
Take a week to take an inventory of what’s happening. Notice when you’re eating, what you’re eating, and what emotions are going on during that time. Check in to whether you’re feeling restricted, or whether you’re actually feeling hunger.
As you practice awareness, you’ll likely be able to get a better picture of what’s happening.
For example, maybe you notice that every time you work on a specific project, you find yourself browsing the pantry. Maybe the project is extra stressful, or maybe you find it really boring. Nice! This is a sign you’re probably eating to avoid an emotional reaction.
Make an Action Plan
Next, think about what you can replace the eating with. Would a 5 minute meditation help? A walk around the block? A quick chat with your best friend?
You might find that the action you take is quite different, depending on the emotion you’re feeling. I know that I want something very different for anger (movement and action) than I do for sadness (lighting a candle, taking a bath).
Also, you might find that some food could be helpful — but in a different way. For instance, choosing to sit down and mindfully savor a delicious dessert or crunchy snack is not at all the same experience as devouring a piece of cake or bag of chips without really being aware of eating them. Feel free to experiment with what kinds of replacements feel right for you.
Regularly Practice the Action Plan
You’ll usually find plenty of chances to practice because you’ll find the same triggers coming up quite often! I recommend taking a couple weeks to actually practice taking the action in the situation you identified.
If you’re emotionally eating every time that stressful work project comes up, focus on choosing a replacement activity, and then DO it. Take the walk, pull out your journal, turn on the virtual yoga class. Practice it.
Once you’ve worked on that for a few weeks, then you can consider if there are other instances of emotional eating in your life you’d like to continue working on. Don’t be afraid to take it one step at a time, with plenty of grace and patience mixed in!
Choosing the BEST Solution
You’re a problem solver, and you’re looking for the best solution that will feel really good for you. You get to experiment, and you get to decide what works for you. Sometimes that might actually be food. Sometimes it might be something else. At the end of the day, all that matters is that you’re finding solutions that feel good in your life.
I think of it like this: emotional eating can be a little like duct tape. It can be super helpful, and even come in clutch when you really need it. Sometimes, it’s the perfect solution! However, it’s often worth it to dig a little deeper and find the root of the problem when you have the capacity to do so.
If things are really hard and you know that you’re dealing with that by eating emotionally….but you don’t feel like you have the bandwidth to change things right now, it’s okay to accept it. Later, maybe you’ll come to place where you have a little more energy, and you’ll decide you want to take a look at the duct tape you’ve been using (emotional eating) to hold things together.
You get to do what works for you, in the way that works for you.
If you’re feeling like you’re ready to do something about it right now, you can start with the tips above! You’re also invited to try out my free, on-demand training, How to Ditch Food Guilt and Body Shame to Gain Confidence and Feel Free. You’ll learn more about releasing restrictions, practicing self-care, and gaining food freedom!