The Healthy Dancer® Complete Guide to Emotional Eating
Dancer, are you emotionally eating? 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. It’s also the bait of diet culture: used to reel us into the next diet (or “lifestyle change”).
But diet culture forgets that in regard to food, so many of our choices embody our personal preferences and emotional experiences. These might be pleasant memories, unpleasant memories, or simply neutral ones. In this article, we’ll discuss the following:
- The #1 reason why dancers eat emotionally.
- The Healthy Dancer’s strategy to navigate emotional eating.
- Why reclaiming your right to eat emotionally might be your first step in making peace with food.
And don’t forget to scroll to the bottom of this article to download your FREE guide to navigating “emotional eating.”
Why do dancers eat emotionally?
Oftentimes, we use food as a coping mechanism during times of heightened emotional triggers. This might involve uncomfortable emotions like stress, angst, boredom, and sadness when food serves as a temporary distraction. Primitively, this is a very normal human behavior: to seek comfort during times of discomfort. Despite what diet culture tells you, using food to cope is not a measure of your willpower nor is it a reflection of your moral character.
The same is 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.
Are dancers more prone to emotional eating?
High-pressured and competitive environments, along with a future that can feel largely out of one’s immediate control (such as audition success) might result in a dancer relying on food to cope. Feeling out of control over your future can be very uncomfortable and in this instance, emotional eating is a form of comfort.
Another reason why dancers, in comparison to the general population, are more susceptible to patterns of emotional eating is related to personality. Dancers are both trained as and more self-identifiable as visual artists. Using movement to express discomfort might be the backbone of a dancer’s work both in the studio and on stage. As a result, dancers may not have much experience with handling emotions outside of the studio, especially during times of injury recovery or during the holiday season. It is during these instances when dancers may struggle to outwardly identify heightened emotions and therefore be inclined to use food as a distraction for discomfort.
How can dancers reclaim “emotional eating?”
Emotional eating is not problematic. The culturally constructed stigma against emotional eating is.
Dancers 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 context. We’re conditioned to feel shame and guilt after “eating our feelings.” This exacerbates diet cycling, which further drives the desire to eat past a comfortable fullness (for some, binge eat) and/or experience feelings of food addiction (a concept I dive into here). Let’s dive into 10 specific strategies designed for dancers to reclaim what it means to be emotional eaters (spoiler: I WANT you to build an emotional connection with food!)
10 strategies to help dancers navigate emotional eating
#1: Identify Your Emotional Hunger
Identification is an incredibly helpful strategy for dancers wanting to dive into their struggles with emotional eating. First, 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: 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. Removing the point of deprivation will help you to regain the reigns in your relationship with food. Extreme hunger (I refer to this as rebound hunger) makes it difficult to tune into fullness and satisfaction cues at mealtimes. Call to action: Are your current meals enough to meet your body’s needs? Here’s an article that dives into a dancer’s daily needs.
#3: 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:
#4: Challenge Perfectionism
The perfectionist mindset can also trigger dancers into an all-or-nothing relationship with food. If you’re a perfectionist, check out the following articles to learn how to build more realistic expectations.
#5: 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. Oftentimes, 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!”
#6: Avoid The Misconceptions
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 judgment around the idea of “emotionally eating.”
#7: 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.
#8: Reframe The Behavior
View emotional eating as a neutral coping strategy: similar to journaling, reading a book, or listening to music. Fact: using food as a coping mechanism is adaptive. 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.
#9: Build An Emotional Toolkit
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 nor 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? If eating is the only way in which you’re coping with your emotions, then you may be distracted and unable to fully address the true reason for how your body is feeling at this moment. Building a toolkit with multiple coping mechanisms is key. This may include activities like reading, listening to music, improv dancing, and just resting.
#10: Seek Professional Support and Resources
But if you’re struggling, reach out to a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist if you need assistance to better navigate your body’s nutritional needs! Resources are also available. The Healthy Dancer® was created by a former professional dancer turned Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with advanced licensure as a Certified Specialist in Sports Nutrition and Certified Counselor of Intuitive Eating. Nourish The Healthy Dancer® is a series of supplemental self-study courses designed to sustain the work of The Healthy Dancer® lifestyle. Since dancers often turn to food to feel in control when so much around auditions, casting, and company promotions feel out of control, this self-study course teaches dancers how to master body attunement as a tool to navigate emotional eating and alleviate feelings of food guilt.