Eating Your Emotions

Woman enjoy healthy eatingHave you ever felt like you either had to avoid eating a certain type of food, or you had to eat it all, and there was no in-between? This way of thinking is often linked to emotional eating and can cause you to feel out of control with food. Emotional eating can impact your ability to cope with emotions in healthy ways. There is a way to break these habits and establish healthy eating patterns.

Comfort Food    

One of the most common emotional reasons for eating is a desire for comfort. However, while food may offer some temporary relief, the most common feelings that come after comfort eating are shame, guilt, or self-loathing. In addition to these emotional consequences, comfort eating often results in physical discomfort and digestive issues, which are anything but comforting.


 Consider the following steps to combat any type of emotional eating:

Find healthy ways to manage emotions. Many individuals find it easier to numb their emotions rather than actually feeling them. Geneen Roth, author and expert on emotional eating, has said, “If you don’t allow a feeling to begin, you also don’t let it end.” Professional counselors often help individuals learn how to experience, process, and work through varied emotions in healthy ways. One strategy you can use is to make a list of self-soothing strategies, and refer to that list when you want to eat for comfort. This list may include ideas for social connection, relaxation, physical activity, journaling, or self-pampering.

Eat enough during the day. Not eating enough during the day not only slows your metabolism down, it also sets you up for extreme hunger and overeating later in the day. When extreme hunger sets in, you may eat so quickly that you reach an uncomfortable level of fullness. Even if you think you are not hungry during the day, you have likely gotten so used to your pattern of eating that you easily ignore hunger. By the end of the day when you have more down time, your brain has time to register how hungry you are. If you feel ravenous, you likely did not get enough to eat during the day.

Establish normal eating patterns. Seek help from a dietitian who uses a non-diet approach if you do not know where to start. The dietitian can teach you appropriate portions. As you feel more comfortable distinguishing between your emotional “hunger” food and physical hunger, you can be more flexible with your food choices.

Give yourself permission to eat forbidden foods. The sooner you stop telling yourself “no,” the sooner you can eliminate the deprivation/guilt cycle. To begin, plan to eat a forbidden food rather than eating it on impulse. This behavior change takes the power away from food and puts it back in your hands. As you learn to reduce emotional eating, be aware that giving yourself permission to eat in moderation is different from giving yourself permission to eat whatever you emotionally want, whenever you want, as much as you want. Professional dietitians and counselors can help you understand the difference.

Change your environment. Create awareness of when, where, why, how, and with whom you eat. I will offer you a few examples:

  1. Instead of eating forbidden foods alone or in seclusion, such as in the bedroom (which perpetuates shame), eat with others.
  2. Dish out an individual portion, and put the larger container away. Then give yourself time to reflect on physical hunger and emotions before getting seconds.
  3. Consider starting out with buying single portions of forbidden foods at a restaurant, then work up to having these foods at home.
  4. If you tend to eat food simply because you see it, store food in the pantry rather than on the counter.
  5. Eat at a normal pace. This can increase your ability to savor the food and notice your satiety cues.

Avoid multi-tasking. The brain can only focus on one thing at a time. Multi-tasking reduces awareness of how much you are eating. It reduces the satisfaction that comes from awareness of color, flavor, texture, and smell. If you need to multi-task while eating, dish out a normal portion, and put the rest away.

Step by Step

 Changing food habits is a process, especially when you are challenging lifelong patterns. You do not have to implement everything at once. Start with small changes, and build your confidence from there. Seek support from loved ones and professionals when needed. You can be successful at balancing your food choices and managing emotions one step at a time.

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Written by Lauren Absher, MPH, RD, CD

Lauren is a registered dietitian who has provided nutrition counseling for emotional eating and eating disorders for eight years. She began Guided Eating, LLC in 2014. Her passion is helping others learn how to find a healthy balance so that food does not control their lives.