How to Understand & Manage Emotional Eating

From the Dietitian’s Desk

With Becca Rick, MS, RD

Emotional eating refers to eating for reasons other than biological hunger and is often thought of and used as a tool for coping with feelings. However, eating will always have an emotional connection. Think of memories of a homecooked dinner as a child, connecting with a friend over a drink or treat, and celebrating a birthday or anniversary with your favorite dessert. Having strong emotions connected to eating is normal and is part of what makes food so enjoyable. When eating is the only tool used to deal with emotions, it can be helpful to add additional coping skills to handle difficult situations, thoughts, and feelings. Food can provide short-term comfort but will not fix the underlying challenges. Explore other tools and skills and seek support to deal with the source of uncomfortable emotions.

Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if they hadn’t been made a pleasure as well as a necessity.

The first step is to eliminate feelings of guilt around food and eating. Let go of the idea that food is morally good or bad. Placing morality around food can lead to feelings of shame, which have no place in the eating world. Instead replace the guilt and shame with self-compassion and curiosity about underlying issues and how to cope with them. Common reasons for eating past fullness include boredom, procrastination, reward, stress, anger, anxiety, depression and soothing. Use these three simple questions to identify and cope with emotional eating:

1. Am I biologically hungry? If yes, then listen to your body’s internal signals and eat until satisfied. If not, ask yourself question #2.

2. What am I feeling? If the biological hunger is not there, try to find the source of the desire to eat. This step may require time and support. Consider writing out feelings, calling a friend or making an appointment with a mental health counselor.

3. What do I need? Once the emotion has been identified, consider what unmet need would help with the feelings. Possible answers may include rest, social interaction or quiet time.

Once these questions have been addressed, consider speaking up or asking for help to better cope with emotions. Remember that everyone deserves to have his/her needs met; this includes adequate rest, expression of feelings, being heard and understood, being intellectually stimulated and receiving comfort.

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