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Embrace Emotional Eating: Reading the Clues to Your Feelings and Needs

By Michelle May, M.D.

Emotions are temporaryDo you eat for emotional reasons? Of course you do! Everybody does.

Soon after birth we develop powerful emotional connections to feeding, eating, and food. We eat to socialize, nurture, express love, have fun, soothe a hurt, 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.

Emotional eating only becomes a problem when it’s over-used to cope with or avoid feelings. (Jeannette remembers the moment she began to turn to food to deal with her emotions; read her story about discovering the missing puzzle piece.)

If you feel your emotional connection to food is causing problems for you, these suggestions may help you bring emotional eating back into balance.

From Emotional Eating to Emotional Understanding

  • Avoid labeling yourself (or your client) “an emotional eater.” Labels become self-fulfilling prophecies. Instead, identify the behavior since unlike personality characteristics, behaviors can be explored and changed. Examples: emotional eating, eating when I feel stressed, using food for comfort, eating as a form of entertainment, etc.
  • Get back to the basics. To identify emotional triggers, ask “Am I hungry?” whenever you feel like eating. If there are no physical signs of hunger, it’s likely that the urge to eat was triggered by environmental or emotional cues.
  • Leave judgment at the door. Guilt and shame feed the eat-repent-repeat cycle and close the door on learning.
  • Have compassion for yourself. When you eat for emotional reasons, you are simply trying to take care of yourself. What could you do that might work better?
  • Respond instead of react. 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.
  • Read the need. Your desire to eat when you aren’t hungry is a doorway into your underlying feelings and needs.
  • Cravings can be clues. The food you crave may give you insight into the underlying emotion or need, i.e. comfort food.
  • 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.
  • This too shall pass. Ride your emotional waves as if you were floating on a raft. All emotions come and go. It is futile to resist the ones that feel unpleasant; resistance only adds to your discomfort. Likewise, it is pointless to cling to the emotions that feel pleasant; just enjoy them while they last.
  • 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.
  • Ask for help when needed. Reach out to a counselor, coach, pastor, or an Am I Hungry? Facilitator to help you understand and cope with emotional eating.

Healthy Emotional Connections to Food

Over the years, I’ve learned to heal the emotional connections to food that weren’t serving my highest good. I’ve also 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 also love the emotional connection of cooking with my chef-husband, dining with my friends and family, and savoring a fabulous piece of chocolate-simply for pleasure!


About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

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