It’s 9:00 pm at night and it’s been a stressful day and you find yourself cabinet surfing for something to eat. You just had dinner, so you know that you aren’t physically hungry, but there is a part of you that wants to eat anyway. In fact, the idea of not eating elicits a level of discomfort that overrides any rational thoughts about what is in your best interest health-wise.
Hello, emotional eating.
Emotional eating is about using food to self-soothe. First let me clarify that we ALL emotionally eat and it’s even a component of normal eating as defined by the recognized authority on eating and feeding, Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist, Ellyn Satter:
- Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it — not just stop eating because you think you should.
- Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection, so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food.
- Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good.
- Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful.
- Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more.
- Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating.
- Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.
- In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.
So, normal eating includes occasional emotional eating. However, it’s the frequency with which we emotionally eat that can indicate food is being used as a primary coping mechanism instead of an occasional way to ‘take the edge off’ of stress. The biggest mistake people make when trying to reduce emotional eating is to ONLY focus on fixing the food part. For example, if someone is emotionally eating a lot of chocolate at night due to loneliness, she might be drawn to go on a diet that limits or omits carbs to get control over what feels out of control, which is her relationship with sweets. However, this approach is both nutritionally and psychologically harmful, as well as short-lived, because food cravings come back with a vengeance due to nutrition malnourishment and the lack of other coping mechanisms in place to manage the feelings of loneliness at night. While there are certainly ‘in the heat of the moment’ strategies to help surf the urge to emotionally eat when it strikes, until we explore the root of emotional eating tendencies, food will continue to have the power.
For more support, I invite you or someone you know who may be struggling with emotional or binge eating to attend my Emotional and Binge Eating Workshop the week of September 23rd. If you have any questions about this workshop, or about other emotional eating resources, please feel free to contact me directly.