Do you consider yourself an “emotional eater,” convinced that if you could figure out a way to stop feeding your feelings, all your food-related woes would evaporate? The concept is based on the idea that emotional eaters have trouble telling the difference between hunger and the physical sensations that accompany strong emotions. Today, we often think of emotional eating simply as “comfort eating” or “stress eating.” But the belief that emotions drive us to overeat may be based more in perception than reality.
Let’s face it — emotional eating has become a common, maybe even acceptable scapegoat for food choices we don’t feel good about. In fact, research suggests people who feel conflicted about their eating habits may attribute any overeating to emotions or stress after they’ve eaten, even if their eating behaviors are similar to behaviors of those who don’t identify as emotional eaters.
A response to restriction?
Research also shows that people who identify as emotional eaters are more likely to overeat in response to other food cues, including being around food. Plus, former and current dieters are more likely to describe themselves as emotional eaters, while those who have never dieted actually tend to avoid food when they experience stress or strong emotions. That’s due to the appetite-squelching, fight-or-flight response. The bottom line is that any food restriction — cutting calories, cutting carbs, cutting out dessert — can lead to emotional eating due to physical and psychological deprivation.
I talked with Seattle-based registered dietitian Mya Kwon, owner of Mya Kwon Nutrition Therapy, about this phenomenon, and she pointed out that we have three main purposes for eating.
The first is based on hunger and fullness, or using food for fuel. “When we listen to hunger, and move to comfortable fullness, we satisfy the fueling aspects of eating.”
Second: cravings and satisfaction, which are “above the neck.” Kwon says, “Cravings and satisfaction are both biologically driven, and both are legitimate.”
The third reason is emotional or stress eating. “You eat because you are lonely, or sad, or a little depressed … that happens to all of us. But we don’t want that to be our main way of eating.”
“When we compartmentalize each of those things, it’s easy to think, ‘I’m doing a lot of emotional eating in the evening,’” Kwon said. But if we don’t take care of fuel and cravings, it’s hard to know how much of our emotional eating comes from failing to address the first two purposes of eating.
Even when you’re eating enough food, labeling a certain food “forbidden” can create psychological deprivation, which means you can still feel deprived of this food when you’re physically full. Then, if you eat that food and become overfull, it’s easy to label your eating as “emotional” instead of recognizing that making the food forbidden caused the overeating — and the solution is to remove that restriction.
Here’s some irony for you: Food restriction makes you more likely to overeat “emotionally,” but emotional eating can cause distress and guilt, potentially prompting you to restrict your food in an attempt to get your eating “under control.” Talk about a vicious cycle.
Is emotional eating always a problem?
Psychological deprivation doesn’t just stem from food restriction — it can come from restriction in other areas of your life, like sleep, social connection, fun, self-care or down time. Emotional eating can be a signal that your needs aren’t being met, that something needs to change. Consider it the canary in the coal mine. Kwon posed this question: “When is it just part of your eating drive, and when is it because you didn’t take care of your other human needs?”
There’s no denying that emotional eating does offer temporary relief from uncomfortable feelings, otherwise no one would do it — eating in response to emotions is completely normal, some of the time. In fact, using food for comfort is something we often learn early. As children, we have a limited ability to self-soothe because our brains are still developing. If your parents gave you food to make you feel better, you’re likely to do the same as an adult, often subconsciously. If you experienced emotional or physical trauma or neglect as a child and found solace in food, untangling those patterns as an adult can be even more challenging.
“Maybe it’s not the best for your physical or emotional health to eat that way, but if you find comfort in food and that helped you get through some childhood trauma, then thank God you had food,” Kwon said. As adults, we can start to develop other ways of coping, she said, but it’s important not to blame ourselves for doing what we needed to do to survive. “Once you get to know the bigger picture, it all makes sense,” she says.
Occasionally using food to lift your spirits is probably no big deal, but leaning heavily on food for comfort is counterproductive. Emotions are information, and when we numb out or distract ourselves with food, we aren’t really listening to that information, which can prevent us from meeting an underlying emotional or physical need. Awareness of when you are eating to self-soothe is a first step to breaking unhelpful eating patterns, but curiosity is also key. The next time you feel upset, try to identify exactly what you are feeling. Sadness? Anger? Disappointment? Rejection? That’s information you can use to start finding real solutions.
One simple tool you can use when you have the urge to comfort eat: HALT. Ask yourself, “Am I hungry, angry, lonely or tired?” If you are hungry, you need to eat — but ask yourself if that pint of ice cream is the best way to satisfy hunger. If you aren’t hungry, but you do decide to eat for comfort, ask yourself how much food will do the trick. It might be less than you think.