The term "emotional eating" has pretty negative connotations. It is usually used to refer to when people crave and eat foods as a direct response to negative emotions, like stress or sadness. That's not quite accurate; according to Paige Smathers, RDN, CN, it is “eating for reasons other than hunger, such as using food to cope, numb, or deal with a difficult emotion, thought, or feeling.”
Many healthy eating experts recommend learning to overcome or avoid emotionally driven eating patterns, especially since most people gravitate towards unhealthier foods during these times. Some researchers have found that emotional eating can become a crutch to avoid or suppress negative thoughts and emotions. Others have proposed that it may be indicative of poor interoceptive awareness, a confusion of hunger and satiety cues with the physiological symptoms associated with emotions.
However, some experts say that emotional eating can have a valid place in anyone's life. "I believe that it is normal to engage in emotional eating," says Smathers. In some cases it can be effective in the moment—a recent small study found that eating snacks improved mood in people experiencing negative emotions, specifically food that was considered "tasty." (However, this was only the case for emotional eaters; those who reported eating less when stressed did not find it to be effective.)
Stacey Linton, PsyD, agrees that emotional eating may not necessarily be harmful. “An individual who usually has high insight into their emotions, and often utilizes positive coping strategies, may find themselves eating a whole tub of ice cream after a relationship breakdown while watching The Notebook,” she says. “If this is not a usual pattern of behavior, then there are [likely] no long-term negative effects.”
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That's not to say that emotional eating doesn't come with its own potential pitfalls. “The problem occurs when emotional eating is your only tool to cope or deal with discomfort,” says Smathers. “The goal is to have many tools to choose from.” If the only way you know how to work through stress is to eat a pint of ice cream, for example, that can become an issue. There can also be negative consequences if the behavior occurs frequently and over an extended period of time, which Dr. Linton says could result in “feelings of guilt, shame, remorse, gastrointestinal issues, and in some cases lead to the development of eating disorders.”
Of course, these risks are not unique to emotional eating. “Like any coping strategy we engage in, balance is key,” says Dr. Linton. “People can use exercise as a coping strategy to manage stress, and usually this is a positive way to manage emotions. However, when used to extreme levels, and when people do not remain connected to their body cues and understand their motivation behind the exercise, this can lead to injuries, and perpetuate disordered behaviors."
Smathers agrees that context matters. “Determining whether or not a behavior is problematic is less about what the coping mechanism is, and more about whether or not it’s the only coping mechanism a person has because anything—no matter how 'healthy'—isn’t healthy if you do it too much.”
Fortunately, there are several ways to address emotional eating if it has become a concern. Learning about personal triggers can be helpful. “If certain places, people, or topics often result in emotional eating, attempt to limit your engagement,” says Dr. Linton. “Or, if that's not possible, plan out alternative coping strategies before entering the potential distressing situation.”
“We are emotional beings. Food is automatically linked to our feelings. Emotional eating is part of being human.” —Stacey Linton, PsyD
“People who struggle with emotional eating will do well to slow way down,” adds Smathers. “Creating some distance between stimulus and response is a very helpful first step in understanding your needs, and learning how to honor them.” For example, take a moment before you reach for the Ben and Jerry's after a stressful day at work and ask yourself if there's something else that could help you decompress, like a short yoga session or calling your friend to vent. If so, do the alternative. If not, enjoy your ice cream with the satisfaction that you gave yourself the space to think about how you want to respond rather than resorting to a knee-jerk reaction.
Attempting to directly suppress the behavior can backfire. “Don’t deprive yourself of food,” warns Dr. Linton. “Restriction leads to overeating.” Similarly, trying to compensate for emotional eating episodes by eating less later on is also detrimental. “This perpetuates the emotional eating because not only are you stressed out and starving by the end of the day, but now you are convinced you’ve 'ruined' everything when you eat something you deem 'wrong,'” adds Smathers. “Then the cycle starts all over again.”
Creating an emotional coping toolkit can be useful to give yourself more options when you’re stressed, angry, or worried. “Listen to relevant podcasts,” says Smathers as an example. “Carve out space in your day for stillness and self-reflection. Practice being kind to yourself. Explore your feelings through writing in a journal.” These activities play an important part in navigating self care, including making food choices. “Ultimately, developing these skills has a profound impact on your ability to align your eating with your needs,” says Smathers. “Learning how to pause instead of reacting is a critical way to work through emotional eating.”
When dealing with this issue, keeping the big picture in mind is important. “Ultimately, you break this cycle by neutralizing food—realizing there are no good foods and bad foods—and reject the dieting mentality,” says Smathers.
Above all, being kind to yourself is key. “We are emotional beings,” says Dr. Linton. “Food is automatically linked to our feelings. Emotional eating is part of being human.” As humans, sometimes we just need some ice cream when we're sad (or very, very happy!)—and that's okay.
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