Fact: I don’t like the phrase “emotional eating.” When we think about emotional eating, we imagine ourselves upset, sitting in front of the screen and digging into a pint of ice cream. This culturally constructed view of emotional eating is wrapped in the context of shame and guilt. And in my opinion, this is often the bait that diet culture uses when attempting to reel us into any newfound diet. What diet culture forgets is that our food choices should reflect personal preferences that stem from emotionally pleasant memories and experiences.
In this article, we’ll discuss the #1 reason why people emotionally eat and why reclaiming your right to eat emotionally might be the first step you need in making peace with food.
Why Am I Emotionally Eating?
Oftentimes, we turn to food as a coping mechanism for uncomfortable emotions like stress, angst, boredom, and sadness. In each of these cases, food serves as a temporary distraction. This is very human: to look for a distraction during the discomfort. This is not a measure of one’s morals or values. Rather, it’s very normal to feel the desire to eat even when not physically hungry.
Aiming to eat when hungry and stop when full is a dangerously over-simplified look into what it means to eat intuitively. Let me be clear: intuitive eating is NOT the “hunger and fullness diet.” Learning how to eat intuitively means fostering a judgment-free approach to food and since it’s human to desire food even when not physically hungry, there should be no judgement around the idea of “emotionally eating.”
The same holds true for eating during positive emotions like excitement and joy. Think about when we eat dessert after a meal. Though we’ve eaten dinner and we’re likely not physically hungry, we eat the sweet treat merely because it’s available and our previous experience proves nothing less than enjoyment. Eating dessert, whether physically hungry or not, is part of a healthy lifestyle simply because it makes us happy.
How To Reclaim “Emotional Eating”
People who identify as “emotional eaters” are often led to believe that they’re also struggling with binge eating and food addiction. In fact, diet culture often depicts these actions within the same storyline. It goes something like this: the shame and guilt one might feel after “eating their feelings” fans the flames of diet cycling, which in turn fuels the desire to binge eat and/or feelings of food addiction (a concept I dive into here).
To break the cycle, we need to view emotional eating as a neutral coping strategy: similar to journaling, reading a book, or listening to music. Fact: eating food is a coping mechanism. Simple as that. Whether or not that action is helping you, in the long run, is what you need to assess. Contrary to what diet culture says, you are not a bad person if you’re using food to cope with strong emotions.
If you’re feeling stressed from a long day and just want to dive into the leftovers of last night’s dessert, then I’m not going to judge you. I’m also not going to tell you “that’s wrong.” Throughout the process of healing your relationship with food, you are learning what is best for your body and your mind. If that means you need to eat some cookies, then so be it. But here is what I do want you to consider: what is it that you might actually need at this moment? Food will distract you temporarily, but what will leave you feeling stress-free down the road?
To start the work, let’s break down 5 tips to consider when dealing with “emotional eating.”
#1: Identify Your Emotional Hunger
To answer these questions, we need to learn how to differentiate emotional hunger from physical hunger. Here’s a quick flowchart that I want you to keep on hand.
Labeling your emotions and building a solid emotional toolbox can help with emotional hunger. That might mean calling a friend, listening to music, or perhaps journaling. Whatever it might be, keep a list of activities that you can try. Set a timer for about 20 minutes and then reassess your hunger (check out this article for a helpful image). If you’re still feeling it, then do yourself a favor: eat. Build a nourishing meal or snack and tune into mindful eating strategies.
#2: Assess Your Food Rules
A dancer’s desire to optimize performance can translate into a tunneled mindset that neglects the use of food to satisfy day-to-day happiness. For example, avoiding dessert for reasons of health and/or bodyweight risks falling into restrictive eating habits.
If you find it hard to “trust yourself” around certain foods or you’re worrying that “once I start I won’t stop,” then you need to start the work of breaking your food rules. Remember, you cannot truly connect food to a positive emotional experience if you believe that what you’re eating is “bad.” To learn more, here are two helpful articles:
#3: Tune Into Your Fullness Cues
Mindful eating encompasses the practice of making food a satisfying experience. Tune into the flavors and texture of the food as you eat. Often times, the most delicious bites are only the first few. The more you eat past comfortable fullness, the less satisfying the food tastes. Gain trust and comfort knowing that tomorrow you can enjoy the same experience. Therefore, you don’t have to “get it all in before it’s gone!”
#4: Honor Your Personal Preferences
Though it’s important to consider the physical effect of our food choices, health defines an interconnection between our mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing. Rather than categorizing foods as “good” or “bad” for the sole purpose of health, incorporate foods that you love into a balanced meal plan.
To start, create a list of foods that you currently avoid because you or someone else has labeled this food as “forbidden” or “unhealthy.” Begin incorporating these foods into your daily meals as part of pleasant and satisfying experiences. To learn more about reintroducing such foods here’s a helpful article.
#5: Eat Enough Food
Your body deserves consistent nourishment. But oftentimes, busy schedules result in unintentional under-eating. Furthermore, many dancers might feel vulnerable to dieting messages and as a result, intentionally undereat. Chronic hunger, however, makes it difficult to regain a positive connection with food.
Are your current meals enough to meet your body’s needs? Here’s an article that dives into a dancer’s daily needs. But if you’re struggling, reach out to a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist if you need assistance to better navigate your body’s nutritional needs!