Emotional Eating Is OK!

My approach to food coaching and nutrition is one centred around YOUR relationship with food and learning how to trust what you need and when.

A key principle is learning how to cope with emotions without food – know that many women feel guilty and think emotional or comfort eating is “bad” and they feel ashamed about eating “too much” out of pleasure or when they are sad or stressed, which is self-sabotage and self-abuse too! Unless you are a robot, I am pretty sure you feel emotions when you eat – because you are human!

“Coping With Your Emotions Without Using Food” is an Intuitive Eating principle that I live by and coach by, but it shouldn’t be turned into another food rule – women are very good at creating these because diet culture has programmed us to believe we have to have these so we can control what we eat. Emotional eating is 100% normal and OK to do – give yourself that permission. 

Food can be love, and reward, and comfort, and soothing. There is nothing wrong with having some emotional attachment to food, but what can be a problem is if food becomes your ONLY way of coping with emotions. This drives behaviours that may have negative consequences and often results in disordered eating, poor body image, destructive habits like binging, feeling guilty about that and then restriction and deprivation of food.

The Intuitive Eating movement identifies five types of emotional eating on a spectrum:

1. Sensory gratification: This is essentially eating for enjoyment and pleasure. This is a very normal behaviour. This is not only harmless but is actually super helpful in you making peace with food.

2. Comfort: This is when you eat foods to comfort you during a stressful or emotional time. Maybe it’s eating your favourite comfort food at the end of a long day or having some cookies with milk before bed. Eating for comfort is again normal and can even be a helpful way to relax. The issue is if food is your only way to wind down after a long day, or the only way to deal with your anxiety.

3. Distraction: This is actually a very common type of emotional eating and often people who eat to distract themselves are not even aware they’re doing it! Eating to distract can take on milder forms, like eating to procrastinate and avoid doing something you don’t want to do. People who say they eat out of boredom often fall into this category, like nibbling throughout the day at work even if they’re not hungry. Eating to distract can take on more intense forms, such as eating to distract you from feeling uncomfortable or painful emotions. Again, though it’s OK to use distractions as ways to get by, food will only offer temporary relief, but not actually help you fix whatever you’re avoiding.

4. Sedation: This is a more intense form of emotional eating and is used for the main purpose of numbing out uncomfortable or painful emotions. In other words, foods are used to NOT feel. In this case, you are probably not being in-tune with your hunger and fullness cues, nor your level of satisfaction with your food, because you’re trying to tune-out of your body, not tune inwards. This is taking distracted eating to another level of self-destruction.
The problem with eating to numb-out is that it may only provide temporary escape from your distress, and most likely cause even more distress after the fact i.e. physical distress from being uncomfortably full, and mental distress from feelings of guilt or shame or anxiety about your behaviour. For people who may be trying to cope with trauma or deep emotional issues, food sedation may be the best coping mechanism they have. And that’s OK. This is not to shame anyone who may use food this way.
If you were not taught how to cope with stressful feelings any other way, then it’s understandable if food has become your go-to for escaping. However, know that there is hope in learning other ways to cope with these emotions and get out of the emotional eating pattern – often this requires professional help and support.

5. Punishment: This is when eating for sedation becomes so destructive and the feelings of guilt and self-blame may become so intense, that you then start using food to punish yourself, instead of nourishing yourself. You may eat in an angry and aggressive way, like you’re trying to beat yourself up and make yourself feel even worse about eating “too much” or the “wrong foods”. Again, know that professional help and support is available if you choose to free yourself from this type of destructive lifestyle. Addiction therapy and trauma release techniques are often necessary to help you find healthy coping mechanisms to deal with difficult emotions.

I believe very strongly that we ALWAYS have a choice. When you are making an intentional decision to comfort with food, then there’s actually a chance that it will help you feel better. By bringing some intentionality to your emotional eating, you’re much more likely to enjoy your food and the experience of eating it. But when emotional eating is impulsive and reactive, you’re more likely to eat in a way that’s disconnected, and feel worse than you did before.

Here’s a few examples of positive emotional eating experiences that some of my clients have shared with me, especially during lockdown:

Ordering in at home on a Friday and watching a movie with my hubby after an exhausting week at work
Going out for pizza and mocktails with the girls to celebrate a birthday
Stocking up on sour worms and chocolate-coated peanuts while studying for exams at home
Baking cookies when feeling bored over weekends
Eating a tub of frozen yogurt and watching a chick flick when feeling really tapped out and in need of some me-time

Whether you’re tall or shorter, or a little bigger, more curves, skinny you just have to be proud of what you have, and everyone is beautiful. – Caroline Wozniacki