Don’t Stop Emotional Eating. Embrace It Instead!

By Michelle May, M.D.

Don't stop emotional eating. Embrace it instead!Have you been struggling to find ways to stop emotional eating? Maybe you feel frustrated because you can’t seem to stop eating emotionally – or can’t even understand why you do it.

The next time you start to beat yourself up for emotional eating, consider this little known fact: Emotional eating is normal! We all do it. It is not a shortcoming or a character flaw but something humans do naturally.

Don’t stop emotional eating; free yourself from guilt instead!

We develop powerful emotional connections to feeding and eating from the moment we are born. We form memories and positive associations to food through all the important milestones of our lives: birthday parties, holidays, graduation celebrations, new jobs or promotions, weddings, and even funerals.

As we mature, we eat to socialize, nurture, express love, have fun, and reward ourselves for a job well done. In our food-abundant environment, eating is a readily accessible way to add pleasure to our lives.

It is important to recognize that emotional eating can also be a normal, healthy response to stress and other uncomfortable emotions. For example, you might reach for food when you want to comfort yourself or soothe a hurt. And remember, it is healthy to want to comfort and soothe yourself!

So, if reaching for food is an attempt to care for yourself—which is a good thing—it is not something to be ashamed of! But it may be something you can learn from.

Reading the clues to your feelings and needs

Emotional eating can become a problem when it’s over-used to cope with or avoid your feelings. Jeannette remembers the moment she began to turn to food to deal with her emotions; she shares her story here.

If you feel your emotional connection to food is causing problems in your life, there’s a way out of the cycle. By embracing emotional eating instead of fighting it, you will begin to release yourself from the eat-repent-repeat cycle.

Instead of trying to stop emotional eating, see it as an opportunity to recognize your triggers, understand why you default to eating, and build additional coping skills that will help you bring emotional eating back into balance.

10 ways to move from emotional eating to emotional understanding

1. Put away the labels

Avoid labeling yourself (or your client) “an emotional eater.” Labels become self-fulfilling prophecies. Identify behaviors instead. Unlike personality characteristics, behaviors can be explored and changed. Some examples of descriptive terms you could experiment with include: emotional eating, eating when you feel stressed, eating when you’re bored, using food for comfort, eating as a form of entertainment, etc. When you recognize the behaviors, you can choose to work on them instead of labeling yourself as an “emotional eater” for life.

2. Get back to the basics.

To identify your emotional triggers, whenever you feel like eating, pause to ask yourself the question, Am I hungry? . If there are no physical signs of hunger, it’s likely that the urge to eat was triggered by environmental or emotional cues. Take the time to explore what those triggers are.

3. Leave judgment at the door.

Guilt and shame feed the eat-repent-repeat cycle and close the door on learning. Put the judgements aside and focus on interpreting your emotions instead.

4. Have compassion for yourself.

Instead of being hard on yourself, be compassionate instead. When you eat for emotional reasons, you are simply trying to take care of yourself. Think about what you could do that might work better.

5. Respond instead of reacting.

Realize that a “trigger” is just that—a coping mechanism that you can choose to pull or not. Choose how you’ll respond to your triggers instead of reacting automatically.

6. Read the need.

Your desire to eat when you aren’t hungry is a doorway into your underlying feelings and needs. Your cravings can be clues. The food you crave may give you insight into the underlying emotion or need and can help you to embrace emotional eating.

Learn how to decode your emotions with this video.

7. Emotions aren’t good or bad.

Avoid labeling emotions as good or bad, or positive or negative. All emotions are information that you can use to better understand your interpretation of an experience and help you recognize your true needs.

8. This too shall pass.

Ride your emotional waves as if you were floating on a raft. Comfortable or uncomfortable, all emotions come and go. It is futile to resist the ones that feel unpleasant; resistance only adds to your discomfort and prolongs the pain. Likewise, it is pointless to cling to the emotions that feel pleasant; just be in the moment and enjoy them while they last.

9. Create a self-care buffer zone.

Caring for your body, mind, heart, and spirit builds resilience to the stresses of life. When you practice regular self-care, you will be less likely to turn to food to manage your emotions. Reflect on what makes you feel calm and cared for and find ways to integrate them into your life. Maybe it’s yoga or meditation or finding time to walk in nature during the week.

10. Ask for help when needed.

Everyone needs help sometimes, and there’s no shame in that; in fact, it takes strength to admit when you need help. If you’re struggling on your own, Reach out to a counselor, coach, pastor, or Am I Hungry? Coach or Therapist to help you understand and cope with emotional eating.

Healthy Emotional Connections to Food

You’re not alone in trying to understand emotional eating that may be causing issues in your life. Over the years, I’ve learned to heal the emotional connections to food that wasn’t serving my highest good.

I’ve learned to embrace my healthy emotional relationship with food. When I’m craving chocolate even though I’m not hungry (and sometimes when I am!), I’m probably bored of working at my desk or I’m feeling overwhelmed and in need of a break.I’ve learned to accept that that’s okay, recognize the trigger, and give myself the self-care I need in that moment.

I also love the emotional connections of cooking with my chef-husband, dining with my friends and family, and savoring a fabulous piece of chocolate—simply for pleasure!

Enjoyed this article? Here are three more that you might find helpful:

The hidden trigger for emotional eating

Emotional eating versus binge eating

How to deconstruct overeating.

This article has been updated from a previous version.

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