Emotional eating is a common concern for a lot of people.
It is often associated with eating "too much" or gaining weight. It's important to consider why we eat this way, so we can address what our needs actually are, which allows us to better care for ourselves. Emotional eating occurs when we eat as a response to some type of stimuli. Food can help us feel better when we have had a bad day or help us celebrate momentous life events and connect with others. And sometimes we eat out of pure boredom. There are a lot of reasons we eat, and they aren't all because we are physically hungry.
There are occasions when eating emotionally is not the healthiest choice. Have you ever been so tired you only wanted sweets for that whole day? This is actually normal, but getting more sleep (if able) would address the underlying problem better than eating sweets all day. Though it can be a useful tool, emotional eating should not be the only way we cope. Otherwise, we may not be effectively dealing with our emotions. No amount of food can change a stressful situation or keep you from being bored forever. You might need to try calling a friend or loved one, going for a walk, engaging in a hobby or speaking with a counselor.
If you are worried about weight gain, remember that our bodies are very sophisticated and have adapted over time to promote our survival. When we need energy, we get hungry. Ideally we would then eat whatever it is that we want in an amount that is physically and mentally satisfying. Over time we would include a variety of foods for optimal nutrition. But lots of things impact our choices. These include our schedules, energy levels, access to food, beliefs about food, the latest diet trend, and other factors.
If we wind up not eating, we get hungrier and then it is harder to choose foods that help us feel our best. We are also more susceptible to eating for comfort because hunger is stressful. Eliminating certain foods causes us to crave those foods more in an attempt to correct the imbalance. For example, when we aren't eating enough carbohydrates, we tend to crave higher carbohydrate foods.
So how can we learn to eat in a way that supports our physical and mental selves?
Be mindful: If you are actually hungry, eat! That is just you listening to your body. Bonus points if you are able to eat what you truly want. If you are not physically hungry, notice how you are feeling. Are you sad, anxious, bored, happy, etc.? What could you do instead to meet that need?
No shame in your game: If you choose to eat anyway, or you eat to discomfort, no worries! It happens sometimes, and it is totally normal. It may even be your only option in that moment.
Be kind to your body: Get enough sleep as you are able, choose foods that help you feel your best and choose physical activity that is safe and fun to do. Every person has a different weight at which their body is healthiest. Sometimes it is higher than we would like, and that can be tough to deal with.
Don't restrict foods: Not eating foods we like only makes us crave them more. Then when we do eat them, we feel like we can't stop. There is no such thing as "good" or "bad" foods, and there is no one way to eat that is morally better than another way. We all have different needs. Unless you have an allergy or other medical reason to avoid a food, you have permission to eat and enjoy!
Get some help if needed: If this still seems overwhelming and scary, you may want to talk with a dietitian or counselor who can help you process it all. We all need a little help sometimes.
Julia Henry RD LD is a weight-inclusive registered dietitian at Capital Region Medical Center. She specializes in gastrointestinal issues and helping people heal their relationships with food and their bodies through a Health at Every Size approach. The author referenced an article about emotional eating from the Ellyn Satter Institute.