Let’s talk about emotional eating and turning to food for comfort.
(6 minute read)
This conversation starts with admitting that our relationships with food are complicated. YES we eat food to nourish our bodies and provide them with the energy, protein, carbs, fat, vitamins and minerals they need to fulfill our basic needs such as breathing. Without food, we would (of course) die. Eek.
However, we eat for MANY reasons other than for purely staying alive though. Think about cake on your birthday, popcorn at the movies, when you’re travelling and just want to taste a local fun food. The reasons we eat are limitless and trying to reduce them purely to survival turns you into a robot. And you, my friend, are a beautiful, living, breathing, magical being!
The act of eating in and of itself releases feel good hormones like serotonin, dopamine, and the “reward” hormone, norepinephrine. This means that when you eat, it feels good. (Duh!) So if you find yourself deriving pleasure from food, congrats. It just means you’re a human!
This also means that when you feel stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, out of control, chaotic, sad, frustrated, and any other potentially negative emotion, your body knows that food is a quick way to make you feel better. Isn’t that so sweet of your bod? It’s like “hey, she’s upset. Let’s grab some grub to make her feel a little better!” The feel good hormones are released, and voila you feel relief.
My goal here with this post is to 1.) help you normalize feeling relief after eating (hi, you’re human) and 2.) provide some suggestions if you’re feeling like you’re relying on food a bit TOO much and it’s not feeling good
Normalize emotional eating
Technically, all eating is emotional eating. Because when we eat, hormones are released that make us emotional (feel good). If eating didn’t feel good and/or rewarding, we wouldn’t eat – and if we didn’t eat, well, we’d die! It’s totally, absolutely, COMPLETELY normal to get pleasure from food and feel some type of way when you eat. So if you’re sitting there loving the FUCK out of that cupcake (or kale salad, or WHATEVER), welcome, you’re human and that’s how our bodies work.
For the sociopath on the internet trying to make you feel bad for enjoying said cupcake, a.) they’re probably fatphobic and it’s a reflection of their own issues with food/their body and b.) our toxic food/body culture makes a lot of $$ from the idea that you can’t trust yourself with food. They put certain foods on pedestals and make them “bad” so you want them way more. Read more here on how to find peace with your “trigger” foods. And read more here on how to respond to food/body comments.
BUT moral of the story is it’s normal to feel some type of way when you eat. Relief, happiness, enjoyment, a deep breath, etc.
If you feel like you’re relying on food a bit too much, here’s why and what to do about it.
Because it feels good, remember?! Humans seek pleasure, avoid pain, and take the path(s) of least resistance. If you’re uncomfortable (anxious, annoyed, stressed, and the like) and the options are some yummy crunchy salty potato chips right next to your desk or a walk for some fresh air outside, it’s just sometimes normal human nature to choose the chips! (And absolutely no shame for eating potato chips. I’m an #allfoodsfit dietitian and the last thing on earth i’ll ever do is tell someone not to eat chips!)
That being said, if you’re stressed and overwhelmed because your boss just gave you another 24 hour deadline and you’re already filled to the brim with the other work you still haven’t got to, and you go for the potato chips – it’s a temporary fix. After you crush half the bag you’re still left stressed and maybe with a belly ache. What might your body/mind/spirit ACTUALLY need in that moment? A few deep breaths, asking for help, a 20 minute timer to focus on your deadline, or even a good cry?!
Sometimes food can end up falsely filling a void when we actually need something else – especially since in this day and age food is SO easy to come by (we aren’t hunters/foragers anymore.) It often ends up being the choice between something quick and easy (potato chips) and something more potentially strenuous or vulnerable (a walk outside, crying, asking for help.)
When we choose the food but it’s not what we really need in that moment, we end up left with the initial issue (overworked, overwhelmed, upset, etc) but now with an uncomfortable (usually not that satisfying) belly full.
So what do we do about this continuous conundrum?
Well, we need some coping skills!
Your brain is potentially just in the habit of being uncomfortable and turning to food, being uncomfortable and turning to food over and over. It’s a pathway your brain is used to. But the issue with this is that you probably have some unmet needs where food isn’t a great solution. I.e. if you’re lonely, the answer probably won’t be found in that potato chip bag. But watching a funny movie, calling a friend, or signing up for a social sport would definitely do the trick.
It’s similar (in some ways) to how I used to use alcohol as a coping skill (i’ve been sober since March 2014, woo-hoo!) I turned to it for everything, out of habit and an innate desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. The issue is that it was covering up what I actually needed which was therapy, a trauma therapist, healthy relationships, physical activity, nature, etc. etc. So while it worked to “soothe” my discomfort short term, in the long run I was still left with the initial discomfort PLUS a hangover. Oof!
Make a list of how you can care of yourself. Practice asking, “how do I feel, what do I need?”
And most importantly.. Remember food and..?
One of my most popular sayings is “food and…?” because it doesn’t necessarily have to be “either or”. Meaning, you may need a good cry AND a brownie. We don’t want to set you up for thinking you can NEVER seek food when uncomfortable. It is absolutely normal for comfort food to provide comfort (obvi.) It’s only “problematic” when it’s your ONLY coping skill. So think food and what??
- Cookies AND some fresh air
- Mac & cheese AND a social media break
- Ice cream AND therapy
- A face mask AND a brownie
- (you get the jist..)
So the next time you find yourself soothing with food in an uncomfortable way that does NOT bring you joy all around, ask yourself…
What am I REALLY hungry for?
And if you need more oomph to keep you moving along in your journey towards a healthier relationship with food and your body, check out…
*Important note: if you feel like you’ve tried this stuff and it’s still not working for you, I definitely suggest working with both a therapist and dietitian who can help you get to the root of what’s underneath your relationship with food and help you heal from the inside out.
- Book a FREE intro call with me here for 1:1 support and a comprehensive 3 month program to peace with food and trust with your body.
Disclaimer: Statements in this post are for educational use only and are not intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent conditions. Readers are advised to consult with their healthcare providers prior to making any changes to their healthcare management.