Emotional Eating

Written by: Emily Russo, MS, RD, CDN

Emotional eating is often associated with overeating, but the following sheds light on lesser-known aspects with some coping strategies too!

We’ve probably all turned to food for comfort at some point 🙋‍♀️. Referred to as emotional eating, this behavior is often associated with overeating, but there’s more to unpack. The following sheds light on some lesser-known aspects of emotional eating, as well as a few coping tips to keep in mind!

🍨EMOTIONAL EATING. Picture the scene from Bridget Jones’ Diary in which Renee Zellweger cries into a container of ice cream as she hears that there are “absolutely no messages” on her machine.

For those who haven’t seen the movie, you may instead relate to a time when someone turned to food in response to a botched job interview, a break-up, or family drama over the holidays.

When I felt anxious or nervous about schoolwork, I turned to a bag of microwave popcorn. Chewing bite after bite of the crunchy kernels soothed my nerves. But soon after, I would feel anxious again–and also bloated and thirsty. Not helpful!

Defining emotional eating
Emotional eating is broadly defined as using food to deal with difficult feelings rather than satisfying hunger. This can mean mindless binge eating, as noted with the above examples, but it can also present in other ways.

1. Restrictive eating
My friend used to skip meals to cope with feelings when she felt out of control or overwhelmed. This is an example of how NOT eating, or restrictive eating can also be a type of emotional eating.

During these episodes, people would compliment her for her restraint, instead of showing concern. But this behavior is just as troubling as overeating and has serious health consequences. Studies have shown that nine out of 10 women admit to not eating and risk putting their health at stake when they feel bad about their body image. 

2. Alcohol   
How many times have we heard someone say, “I need a glass of wine” after a long day? Though often said jokingly, turning to alcohol can also be a version of emotional eating. I’ve known people to choose wine instead of food when they are upset, specifically because it has less fat or less sugar.

Clearly, there are different health risks associated with alcohol and food, but it’s important to recognize that the motivation behind choosing alcohol instead of dealing with feelings is often similar.

3. Emotional eating is not a female issue
Everyone is susceptible to emotional eating as a way to cope with feelings, not just females. And though overeating or binge eating is not the same as emotional eating, one can lead to the other.

Consider that approximately 40% of those with a diagnosed binge eating disorder identify as male, and subclinical eating disordered behaviors (including binge eating, purging, laxative abuse, and fasting for weight loss) are nearly as common among males as they are among females.

Is emotional eating always damaging?
Not always. In fact, I think we all do it without realizing at times, like enjoying a piece of cake to celebrate a birthday even if we aren’t hungry; making a loved one’s recipe just to be reminded of them; or learning how to make bread during the pandemic because of boredom.

Also, emotional eating doesn’t mean that the food choices have to be decadent. Some people may gravitate towards so-called healthier food items like nuts, carrot sticks, rice and beans, or granola. Different foods are comforting to different people for a variety of reasons.

And sometimes it’s OK to be Bridget Jones on the couch with a tub of ice cream. That can feel comforting for the moment. And while it’s not logical that this will solve our problems, it doesn’t make us a bad or out of control person.

How to handle emotional eating if it feels out of control?
While food can be comforting at times, bingeing on a bag of potato chips won’t address the core issue. That’s why it’s helpful to develop ways to confront our emotions and soothe ourselves without using food (or wine!).

There’s no way of knowing what will work for everyone, but here are other activities to engage in, rather than eating or drinking, when feeling stressed:

  • Take a hot shower or bath
  • Call a friend
  • Journal
  • Spiritual practice
  • Stitch, craft, play sports, or engage in hobbies
  • Take a walk (or walk and talk!)
  • Listen to music

Nothing is off-limits
Don’t hide certain foods or make them off-limits out of fear of eating them. In moments of stress, we feel like everything is spiraling, including our food boundaries. In turn, we tend to break our food rules and seek out these items when we feel most vulnerable or out of control. This is why it may seem unusual to choose so-called healthier foods during episodes of emotional eating.

But when all foods are regularly available, people are less inclined to binge on them.

Ask for help
If emotional eating or drinking episodes are happening frequently and seem to be impacting your life in other ways, talk to your health care provider.

Bottom Line
Overeating is one example of emotional eating, but there are other ways that it presents. Keep some coping strategies in your back pocket to avoid relying on food when difficult feelings arise.

💛 As always, if you have any questions or comments, please reach out. We love to hear from you!

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