Emotional Eating

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Last week, I received the following email from one of my patients:

“I wanted to touch base about a concept that keeps coming up in food podcasts/books/articles, etc. The idea of ‘emotional eating,’ and what that even means. I understand that it is the idea of food being comforting and thus using it as a coping mechanism, but isn’t food almost always tied with emotion (happy, guilty, satisfied/pleased, disappointed, etc.)?

“I think this concept is referring to eating when not hungry to deal rather than other ways, but often I hear rethinking if that cupcake in the middle of the afternoon is what you need or to call a friend or go for a walk.’ Yes, I agree that sometimes if I am tired, I will crave these foods, and realize I just need a nap. However, what if I crave a sweet snack in the middle of the afternoon, after lunch, because I am hungry and that’s what I want? To be honest, I don’t love this idea because it feels judge-y. Am I interpreting it wrong?

“Also, on a Friday after a long week, I look forward to a drink, a meal of my choice, and some popcorn in front of the TV. Does that make me an ‘emotional eater,‘ too? I don’t think that is wrong but maybe this is not how I should be coping with stress…? Thanks!”

“Emotional eating” is a buzzword phrase that seems to be everywhere lately. Many of my patients come to me to help them stop “emotionally eating” because they see it as a problem or a failure on their part. I thought it might be a good idea to explain what I believe emotional eating is and what it isn’t and whether it should be seen as problematic or not.

From the time that we are babies, feeding (i.e., via breast milk or formula) is one of the very first ways our parents/caretakers take care of us and show us love. Feeding and eating are primal actions that serve as a way to keep us alive; we depend on our caretakers to help us with this at the beginning. When a baby is hungry, he or she will cry, and the caretaker will provide nourishment to take away the feelings of discomfort from hunger and give the baby satisfaction. This basic hunger-crying-feeding-satisfaction loop happens over and over again and basically cements itself in the infant’s brain that the only way to get rid of one’s uncomfortable hunger is to cry until mom or dad gives the infant nourishment. This way, a very strong connection is forged between food and love as our caretakers are the first ones in our lives who provide both of these necessities to us.

As we grow up, food and eating situations are often connected with emotions. For instance, you might have very strong and fond memories of your grandmother’s apple pie and how lovingly she served it to you on special occasions. Or perhaps you remember how your dad used to make you the perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich for school every day, cutting off the crusts just so, and how this made you feel loved and special. We collect these eating/emotion experiences throughout our lifetime, and as a result of this, we can elicit some of the above emotions by eating some of the associated foods.

I believe that while eating can often be associated with emotions, it does not necessarily need to be problematic. When most people nowadays use the term “emotional eating,” I believe they are referring to the behavior of trying to cope with negative emotions or situations by eating comfort food in the absence of hunger. In my opinion, someone occasionally dealing with their emotions by eating is not a big deal, but if it becomes a chronic habit that is bringing discomfort or pain and/or not truly helping to assuage that person’s negative emotion or situation, that would be something to be curious about in a very neutral and self-compassionate way. It’s important to realize that feeding ourselves comfort food sometimes even if we are not hungry is one way that we are trying to take care of ourselves. It might not be the most helpful or effective way to give ourselves self-care, but it is a self-care attempt nonetheless.

In response to my patient’s thought that food is “almost always tied with emotion,” I would say that many eating situations are not necessarily connected with emotion. For instance, I had an apple and a piece of cheese for snack today, and while it was tasty and satisfying, I didn’t have any emotions associated with it. I also think one can crave a cupcake in the afternoon for no other reason than it is what they are humming for at the time. It doesn’t have to be emotional.

At the end of the day, “emotional eating” is something that nearly everyone engages in from time to time. In and of itself, it doesn’t need to be a problem, but if it becomes the only way that you cope with negative feelings or situations and it is bringing you distress, it would be worth it to try and develop other coping strategies (with the help of a therapist) to deal with these feelings/situations in a more constructive manner.

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