Emotional eating is a common phrase used in society, but what exactly does it mean? Emotional eating is the act to overeat in response to negative emotions1. Many articles online provide tips on how to stop emotional eating, as some may a feel loss of control during moments of heightened emotion. Doing a quick search online, we found that most articles have written about overcoming it, as opposed to embracing it.
First, let’s ask ourselves – why do we eat food? Although food is used primarily to provide us with fuel for our bodies, it helps us in many more ways. Food is created to bring us joy and happiness, and at times provide us with comfort. It is thought that “hyperpalatable” foods may serve to relieve stress and provide pleasure, as they often act as comfort foods2. Hyperpalatable foods are known as foods that surpass rewarding properties of unprocessed foods (such as vegetables, fruits, or nuts) by significantly increasing salt, sugar, fat, food additives, and flavor levels3. Common examples of hyperpalatable foods may include ice cream, burgers, candy, and melted cheese. Given the satisfying pleasure provided by these foods, individuals in states of heighted negative emotion are found to favour these types of foods3.
So now let’s come back to the misconceptions of emotional eating. What if we told you that in some circumstances, it can be beneficial. When emotional eating is the only coping skill available in difficult situations, it is absolutely acceptable. If you constantly find yourself trying to find ways to avoid emotional eating, stop. Emotional eating is normal, and can be a helpful tool in soothing ourselves in times of stress. Feelings of shame or guilt aren’t productive or positive responses to emotional eating. Instead, let’s try a shift in mindset.
Something to remember is that we are all human. Although we have physiological needs, we also have emotional needs. The harder you try to control and avoid emotional eating, the more it results in controlling you. Looking at emotional eating as a form of self-care may help. For those wanting to improve their relationship with food, having other alternatives for self-care may also help. Having other options is not to eliminate emotional eating, but having a selection of options is always better. Sometimes you may find that food is the best option to help you feel better, and other times it may be something else. Other ways to soothe yourself may include participating in an activity, receiving support from a loved one, or relaxing at home in front of the television.
Allow yourself permission to enjoy the foods your bodies wants without feeling a sense of guilt. Try ditching diet rules, such as calorie restricting, elimination of certain food groups, or labelling foods as “healthy” or “unhealthy”. When we feel guilty for eating certain foods, we often categorize them as “good” or “bad”. Avoiding foods deemed “bad” increases the chance of a binge2. The bottom line is that your emotions are not to blame here. Give yourself permission to eat foods from all varieties, and stop feeling guilty for the times you want to soothe yourself with food.
- Wong M, Qian M. (2016). The role of shame in emotional eating. Eat Behav, 23:41-47. doi: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2016.07.004
- Yau Y, Potenza M.N. (2013). Stress and eating behaviors. Minerva Endocrinol, 38(3): 255–267.
- Gearhardt A.N., Grilo C.M., DiLeone R.J., Brownell K.D., Potenza M.N. (2011). Can Food be Addictive? Public Health and Policy Implications. Addiction, 106(7): 1208–12. doi: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2010.03301.x