You know when you have a bad day and you reach for ice cream because you know it will make you feel better. Or other times, you order your favourite pizza AND take a bath. And other times, you just need a hug, good cry, venting sesh, or restful sleep. All of these are things we do to help us cope with our emotions. Some involve food while others don’t. When we use food to cope with our emotions we call it emotional eating. Emotional eating is usually referred to as something that we need to “fix”, but do we need to stop and is it really that bad? (Spoiler alert: it isn’t!)
Although a principle of Intuitive Eating is to “cope with emotions without using food”, emotionally eating can be completely OK!
Download this handout to find out the top 10 mistakes you’re making with Intuitive Eating and how to fix them.
Why do people experience emotional eating?
We don’t just eat food for nutrition but for celebration, pleasure, comfort and to nurture loved ones. This is why food IS emotional. When people experience emotional eating, they are using food as a tool to cope with their feelings. People can be emotionally triggered by feelings of anxiety, boredom, bribery, celebration, emptiness, excitement, loneliness, frustration, anger, mild depression, sadness, procrastination, reward, or stress.
How to stop emotional eating
Emotional eating is OK. Although food won’t “fix” the root of your feelings, it may offer comfort and distraction. For example, if you are feeling lonely and homesick, cooking and eating a family recipe is likely to make you feel comforted. If you are feeling stressed from work, eating takeout while watching a TV show might help you feel relaxed and soothed. In these situations, eating is not fixing the problem, but if it makes you feel better then it is an acceptable way to cope and if it worked, then it did it’s job! Emotional eating only becomes a problem when eating is your *only* coping tool.
First things first: Identify the underlying issue(s)
Connect with how you are feeling by using the emotion wheel (on the right). This can help put your feelings into words so that you can identify your true emotions. It may be easier to start with the words in the middle and work your way outwards to pinpoint your exact emotion.
Another strategy to identify the root of the problem is to acknowledge H.A.L.T.S. This acronym stands for hungry, angry, lonely, tired, stressed.
Hunger and stress are not on the emotion wheel but they are important to rule out when you are trying to identify the root cause of emotional eating.
If you’re feeling emotional and moody because you’re hungry, then YES, eating is 150% warranted. Hunger can sometimes get confused for emotional eating. For example, if someone is not eating enough food throughout the day, they can come home with a strong urge to eat. Once they eat, the diet culture voice in their head labels it as emotional eating which in turns creates internal judgement and feelings of guilt. If you think you are not eating enough during the day, try adding a couple of snacks to see if that helps. If that doesn’t work, then there may be a different issue.
Stress can also be an underlying issue of emotional eating. Stress has many physical and mental health impacts. It can cause hormone imbalances and is linked to many chronic health conditions. It’s important to take care of yourself and practice stress-management strategies. If food is causing you stress, that needs to be worked through first because your relationship with your food and body can cause more stress.
Three ways to cope with your emotions (without using food)
Practicing self-care and compassion is one strategy to help you cope with your emotions other than with food. Try:
- Getting enough sleep
- Playing with pets
- Getting a massage
- Taking a bath
- Buying yourself flowers
Take time to pause and tune into your feelings. Ask yourself these questions:
- What am I feeling right now?
- What do I really need at this moment to deal with my current feelings?
- How can I fulfil this need and this feeling?
3.Boredom & Preoccupation
Finding an activity will help keep you preoccupied and can give you joy, comfort, and rest. Try:
- Watching a movie or TV show
- Reading a book
- Working on home projects
- Calling a friend
- Going for a walk
And sometimes, we need help. It’s okay to ask for help, my friend. I’m here for you.
If you are trying out or learning about Intuitive Eating to help you with the emotional eating struggles you’ve carried – make sure you download the handout below to identify key mistakes to be weary of when you’re new to implementing Intuitive Eating.
Subscribe to our Intuitive Eating Handout
This blog was written with the help of UBC Dietetic student, Celine Koppenaal.
The Intuitive Eating Workbook: Ten Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Available from: https://www.amazon.ca/Intuitive-Eating-Workbook-Principles-Relationship/dp/1626256225
Feeling Wheel (accessed on Aug. 17, 2020). Available from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Feeling_Wheel.png