The Misconceptions of Emotional Eating

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.


References

  1. 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
  2. Yau Y, Potenza M.N. (2013). Stress and eating behaviors. Minerva Endocrinol, 38(3): 255–267.
  3. 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

The Food Police

“Are you sure you should be eating that brownie?”

“Why aren’t you finishing your pasta? Are you on a diet or something?”

“You aren’t going to eat that last slice of pizza, are you? You’ve eaten so much junk food lately.”

Does this sound familiar? Unwanted, unnecessary and unwarranted comments on what you are, or are not, eating? This is known as Food Policing and no-one, including your dietitian, should take on this role. Whether it’s your thoughts or someone else’s, it can be a way of passing judgement on the foods we choose to eat. You are allowed to have the freedom to make choices on what you’d like to eat without feeling guilty. When normalizing eating habits, especially during disordered eating recovery, it is important to silence those negative thoughts inside our head and stand up to the comments of others that tell us what we should and shouldn’t be eating.

Everyone’s their worst critic. This is a common saying which refers to the idea that we primarily judge ourselves the harshest for our actions – but do we need to? We often categorize foods as “healthy” and “unhealthy”, which only leads to guilt when we eat foods that would be labelled as the latter.  Feeling pleased with your food choices, as well enjoying a variety of food in your diet, is an essential part in making peace with food1.

Sometimes dietitians get a bad reputation for being called the Food Police. In this field, we sometimes feel as though friends and family treat us like the Food Police – someone who judges what others eat and categorizes foods as healthy or unhealthy. We wish this didn’t happen and make it our mission to correct this belief. In actuality, dietitians are here to help individuals create a healthy relationship with food, to assist in creating a neutral, judgement-free eating environment  and to normalize eating habits and behaviours. The act of changing your mindset on food is very important, and should be promoted instead of discouraged.  Rather than abiding by what the Food Police are telling us, we need to challenge them and disregard the negative thoughts that come from your head or others.

Guilt should not be associated with the foods that you choose to eat. Mealtime can provide many opportunities, whether it is to try something new, treat yourself, or provide your body with energy. Using the terms “healthy” and “unhealthy” may lead to feeling guilty or prevent exploration of new foods. Many individuals feel dissatisfied due to not living up to expectations set up by society2. Whether in small or large quantities, a critical point that many forget to consider is that all foods provide nutrition, so we need to stop slapping labels on foods and enjoy eating for what it is. Food is food. It should not matter what it is, as long as you are providing your body with fuel to keep it running throughout the day.

Intuitive eating  allows unconditional permission to consume any desired food, regardless of nutritional value. Understanding that all foods provide nutritional value, whether small or large, is important to developing a healthy relationship with food. Restricting yourself by controlling what you eat is not intuitive eating. Feeling sad, stressed, or having a guilty conscious based off of what you ate is also not intuitive eating3. Meals should be approached with a sense of joy and excitement, and should be a positive experience. Enjoy the foods your body desires, and don’t let the Food Police determine your happiness!


References

  1. Bays, J.C. (2009). Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food. Boston: Shambhala.
  2. Derenne J.L., Beresin E.V. (2006). Body image, media, and eating disorders. Acad Psychiatry, 30(3):257-61. doi:10.1176/appi.ap.30.3.257
  3. Denny, K.N., Loth K., Eisenberg M.E., Neumark-Sztainer D. (2013). Intuitive eating in young adults: Who is doing it, and how is it related to disordered eating behaviors? Appetite, 60(1): 13–19. doi: 1016/j.appet.2012.09.029

Intuitive Eating

You meet your friend for coffee today. As you sit down to chat, they begin the conversation with a new diet they went on where they claim to have lost 10 lbs in 2 weeks. This diet almost seems too good to be true. You stop and think, “Should I try out this new diet as well?”.

Your friend seems overly pleased about their achievement, but what emotional stress did they go through to obtain this weight loss? How else could they have used their time besides worrying about food rules? Is this weight loss permanent, or short-term?

It is likely that your friend may have been influenced by the media. Social pressures make individuals feel like happiness can be obtained by having a certain body image or eating a certain type of diet.  This type of mentality creates a whirlwind of body-negativity, resulting in an obsession of losing weight.

Rather than worrying about weight control, consider taking another approach towards eating. I challenge you to let go of dieting and become an intuitive eater. Intuitive eating rejects the diet mentality and focuses on creating a healthy relationship with food, as well as the mind, body, and soul1. Intuitive eating goes beyond diet, as it focuses on eating foods based on hunger and satiety cues. This method of eating helps to distinguish the difference between physical hunger, and emotional hunger2,3. Eating due to actual hunger, is known as physical hunger. Eating due to stress, habit, or sadness, is known as emotional hunger3.

Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch wrote a book on intuitive eating and created 10 incredible principles relating to intuitive eating.  Here is a quick summary of each:

  1. Reject the diet mentality: The first principle involves dismissing fad diets, as the majority are not sustainable methods to losing weight1.
  2. Honour your hunger: Listen to your hunger cues, and only eat when you are hungry1.
  3. Make peace with food: Allow yourself the permission to eat unconditionally. Restricting yourself from particular foods may lead to feelings of deprivations, which may make us more likely to overeat1.
  4. Challenge the food police: Eliminate feelings of guilt with certain foods, don’t feel bad for treating yourself at times1.
  5. Respect your fullness: Listen to your satiety cues. Being able to distinguish physical and emotional hunger may help to discontinue eating when full1.
  6. Discover the satisfaction factor: Take the time and indulge in the current moment, enjoy the experience of eating1.
  7. Honour your feelings without using food: Discover other methods to deal with stress without the use of food1.
  8. Respect your body: Accept the genetic blueprint that is yourself. Love your body for what it is, no matter the size1.
  9. Energize yourself- Feel the difference: Enjoy doing what makes you feel good when moving around1.
  10. Honour your health with gentle nutrition: Make food choices that make you feel happy. Your diet does not necessarily need to be perfect to be healthy1.

Using these 10 principles of intuitive eating, you can become attuned with your body in knowing what it needs to be fuelled and energized.


References

  1. Tribole, E, Resch E. Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin; 2012. 368 p.
  2. Denny, KN, Loth K, Eisenberg ME, Neumark-Sztainer D. Intuitive eating in young adults: Who is doing it, and how is it related to disordered eating behaviors? Appetite. 2013; 60(1): 13–19. doi: 1016/j.appet.2012.09.029
  3. Tan CC, Chow CM. Stress and emotional eating: The mediating role of eating dysregulation. Personality and Individual Differences. 2014; 66(2014): 1-4. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2014.02.033.