Emotional eating? Or Emotional About Eating?

Updated: Mar 5

Are you an emotional eater or are you emotional about eating? This distinction is often overlooked but it is crucial in how you move forward to heal this aspect of your food relationship.

Cookies with dripping milk

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is when you eat in response to your emotions, both positive and negative emotions. This can be subtle because typically we’ve made our way to food before we’ve even had the chance to notice, let alone realize, that there is something we are unwilling to sit with.

You may turn to food to cope with emotions of boredom sadness, anxiousness, for comfort, or to enhance and prolong positive emotions such a happiness or excitement. You may also use food as an reward, like celebrating a hard days work or reaching a goal.

We all emotionally eat from time to time and that’s okay.

Emotional eating is not bad in and of itself. Perhaps you use food as a coping tool when you didn’t have any other coping tools, it's reliable and a way to manage when things were overwhelming. However when food becomes our primary coping tool, is frequent and intense, or becomes out of our control that is when we need to examine this relationship and the underpinning dynamics.

What about being emotional about eating?

Being emotional about eating means your emotions are related to the food itself and how you feel about your food choices. This could look like guilt or regret after eating a particular food or even anger. For instance you’ve been on diet and eat a food that you have forbidden yourself from eating and as a response you get regretful and remorseful. These emotions can be reinforced by diet culture which is always tying morality to food. This can spiral into emotional eating as you may sooth or numb these emotions with food, it can become a vicious cycle.

What are signs of emotional eating?

  • Eating when not hungry or full

  • Using food to sooth unpleasant emotions

  • Using food to distract or avoid situations

  • Using food as a reward

What are signs of being emotional about eating?

  • Feeling emotional about what you ate

  • Lingering regret or remorse over what you ate

  • Beliefs about food being good or bad

  • Rigid food rules like a shouldn’t eat this or must eat like this

How to deal with emotional eating?

  • Identify why you eat when you're not hungry: emotions, distraction, habit etc.

  • Identify emotional triggers, the specific emotions that drive you to food

  • Make a list of things you do to sooth these specific emotions

  • Make a list of other things you can do to reward yourself

  • Practice non-attachment

Non-attachment refers to refraining from over-identifying with or allowing our emotions to consume us. It means creating a buffer zone with your emotions, here’s how:

  1. The first step is to foster awareness that there is an emotion you are unwilling to sit with or a situation or emotion that is driving us to food.

  2. The second step is to allow the emotion to be there without attachment or judgement and with curiosity. You can do this by labeling the emotion, for instance; this is stress or this is overwhelm, anxiousness etc... This allows us detach from the emotion by saying this is x, verse I am x.

  3. Notice how this sensation changes. If the sensation persist or intensifies you need to examine your thoughts. You may be having trigger thoughts that intensify the emotion, if so notice them and replace them with coping thoughts (thoughts that deescalate and sooth the emotion).

How to deal with being emotional about eating?

  • Examine any food rules you may have

  • Do you have any moralities tied to food? Good, bad, clean?

  • Examine how diet culture impacts your food choices or beliefs about how you ‘should’ eat

Reflect on these questions and ask yourself how these beliefs have served you, if at all, and how they hinder you. Then consciously decide that you want to break free from this pattern. Start by examining your thoughts and reframing your mindset with coping thoughts and new beliefs.

The key to overcoming emotional eating is really just to be present with what is there instead of turning away from it and towards food... and with being emotional about eating it’s about breaking free from mindsets and beliefs that hinder us.

To help you reach a freer, healthier relationship with food get my free eBook 21-Days to your healthy relationship with food! At the end of the day these emotions just need to be felt and move through us, when we allow them to be there without attachment, over time these emotions come with less intensity and frequency.

Need Support? I'm Serena Benali, a Registered Dietitian and food relationship expert specialized in eating disorders and disordered eating. My mission is to help you reach your happy, healthy place with food and body.

Schedule a complimentary discovery call now. I would love to guide you to a freer, healthier, happier relationship with food and body!

References: Marieke A. Adriaanse, Denise T.D. de Ridder & Catharine Evers(2011)Emotional eating: Eating when emotional or emotional about eating?,Psychology & Health,26:1,23-39,DOI: 10.1080/08870440903207627

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