We’ve all joyfully gobbled up a thick slice of chocolate birthday cake, picked at finger sandwiches at the funeral of a loved one and clinked champagne glasses to toast the happy couple at a wedding. These are all perfectly normal, healthy ways to engage with food — and they’re also examples of emotional eating. “We all engage in emotional eating to some degree,” says Lorilee Keller, a registered clinical counsellor and eating-disorders therapist with Food for Thought Counselling in Vancouver.
Our emotional associations with food are deeply ingrained and go right back to infancy, says Keller. “It starts with a baby’s need for milk and the connection to safety and comfort that it brings,” she says. From there, our bond with food grows as we use it to celebrate events, connect with others and comfort ourselves, she says. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of that. Where we get into trouble, though, is when we use food as a crutch to deal with an emotion that we are uncomfortable with or don’t know how to process.
The experts evaluate emotional eating on a spectrum, with one end being food used for sensory gratification (like a slice of birthday cake), which is considered a normal part of eating. “The next level would be finding comfort in food, which can be healthy if done without guilt and while being aware of your feelings and hunger cues as you eat,” says Keller. As you move along the spectrum, more disordered eating patterns emerge, where food is used as a distraction from feelings and, in the extreme, binge eating is used as punishment. “Emotional eating isn’t necessarily bad or shameful,” says Rachel Molenda, a holistic nutritionist and emotional eating coach based in Toronto. “But we need to understand why we’re turning to food.” Make sure you’re aware of these 10 eating disorder signs.
Emotional eating is considered problematic if you’re regularly binge eating in the absence of hunger. “Usually there’s a feeling of being out of control around food,” says Keller. If your first reaction when you feel sad, mad or stressed is to open the fridge or if you use food as a reward, you may have a problem. “Once you start eating, you may also have trouble stopping, even if you feel full,” she says. If any of this sounds familiar, read on for six strategies to help you take control of your emotional eating for good.
#1: Learn your hunger signals
Understanding when you’re actually hungry is half the battle. It’s important to learn to decipher between when your body needs fuel and when you’re using food to deal with an uncomfortable emotion, says Molenda. One way that she helps clients get back in touch with their hunger is to do regular check-ins throughout the day and rate their hunger on a scale from one to 10. “When you’re at number six or seven, it’s a good time to eat,” she says, “and then stop eating when you feel that you’re about 80 percent full.” Over time, you’ll slowly get to know your body’s natural cues again.
#2: Focus on your food
It’s important to turn your attention to eating only at mealtimes. “Shut off the TV and put away your phone,” says Molenda. When you’re eating lunch during a workday, try to step away from your desk. “There’s a lot that happens with our hunger hormones when we actually engage with our food,” she says. “We feel more satiated.” If you take the time to savour each bite, chewing thoroughly and stopping to notice the smells and textures of your meal, chances are that you’ll actually feel more full and satisfied when you’ve finished.
#3: Be ready for your next binge
Knowing your triggers and planning for them is key. First of all, be sure to have good food options at the ready. Stock your fridge with delicious and nutritious foods. Stash trail mix, protein bars and an apple in your purse so that you always have a nutritious snack option available, even when you’re on the go. But don’t resolve to ban junk food altogether. Keller says this only reinforces the belief that you can’t be trusted around food, which makes you more likely to have rules around food that can lead to disordered eating. “Having a healthy relationship with food means that no foods are off limits,” says Keller. “By having permission to eat all foods, including junk food, this actually reduces binge eating and emotional eating.” Secondly, arm yourself with other ways to deal with your emotions. Start a journal, renew your yoga studio membership or be ready to call a friend when you start to feel emotional.
#4: Bring awareness to your emotions
When you feel the need for a big pot of noodles or a flat of brownies, do a mindfulness check-in. “Take a few minutes to sit with your feelings,” says Keller. Pause, set a timer for five minutes, take some deep breaths and check in with yourself. “Do what you feel you really need to do to work through it,” she says. That could be anything from journalling to meeting a friend for coffee to going to a meditation class.
Once you know what you’re feeling, be it stressed, angry, afraid or frustrated, Molenda recommends naming it. “Building a vocabulary around your emotions can help you tune into what you’re feeling,” she says. “Then you can figure out what you’re really in need of, other than food.”
#5: Make time for more self-care
Ensuring that our physical, emotional and spiritual needs are met is key for overall health and well-being, says Keller. You may need more sleep, better stress management or more time to do activities that bring you joy. “People hear self-care and think it has to be something expensive, like a manicure or massage,” says Keller. But going for a walk or watching the sunset counts, too.
#6: Eat the darn chocolate (when you really want to)
If you love ice cream or dark chocolate, give yourself permission to eat it when you want a treat. “If you’re trying to be a more intuitive eater, that means listening to your body,” says Molenda. “It’s still OK to honour your cravings, but be honest about how it makes you feel.” (Psst: This is what your food cravings are trying to tell you.) Consider adjusting your indulgences accordingly. Downing an entire pint of rocky road ice cream may not sit well in your stomach, but savouring a small bowl might just hit the spot.
While delving into more intuitive eating, you may also discover a new repertoire of comfort foods, says Molenda. A bowl of chili on a cold day is nourishing for the body and can be very comforting, too. That’s probably the best form of emotional eating, say the experts, when you’re taking care of your mental and physical needs with foods that are good for you and enjoyable to eat.
If you are seriously concerned about emotional eating and your physical or mental health, talk to an eating-disorders therapist or a counsellor. Or, have a loved one with an eating disorder? Here’s how to help.
Take the discussion further by downloading Food Psych, the intuitive eating podcast that tackles everything from body politics to anti-diet nutrition to emotional eating, all with a health-at-every-size perspective.