Lesson four – Emotional eating.

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.


A lot of the time, emotional eating is discussed as a somewhat dirty little secret.

Even in the intuitive eating world (see #7), it’s presented as something undesirable, something that indicates you’re emotionally unstable and Not Very Good at Eating, but most of all, something that causes you to get fat. I’ve even heard emotional eating blamed for the Obesity Epidemic ™ (I’m not going to address that here, except to say: I Really Doubt It’s That Simple.)

But, to be honest, eating is inherently emotional. First, in the sense that it provides us pleasure, otherwise we probably wouldn’t take all the time and effort to find food, prepare it, and eat it. Because it is so essential to our survival as a species, it has, of course, become embedded in our brain’s pleasure-pathways as something intensely enjoyable (much like, ahem, other species-propagating activities.)

So whether you think you’re eating for emotional reasons or not, whether you’re doing it intentionally or not, all eating is fundamentally emotional.

On top of that basic biological foundation, we can place the obelisk of culture – all cultures use food as a way of bonding, expressing aesthetic values, celebrating regional flora and fauna, and marking both sad and happy occasions. To attempt to divorce food from this context and view it purely as biological fuel is not only overly simplistic, it is practically impossible.

This is a large reason why strict diets often do not play well with real life – because as primates, we live social lives, and as Homo sapiens, our social lives are organized into culture. We run into it at every turn: going out for coffee or lunch with a friend who needs some quality time; eating as a family on a Wednesday night; popcorn at the movies; holiday dinners; Shrove Tuesday; casserole to a grieving neighbour; cake at a birthday party.

When dieting turns you away from these traditions, or significantly complicates them for you, that is isolating. Sometimes it’s necessary, when it comes to a food allergy or therapeutic diet, or ethical and religious food restrictions, but its impact can be minimized, or it only centres around a limited set of foods to begin with, and the outcome is vital to survival or one’s moral values.

But I cannot help feeling that, when a voluntary weight-loss diet (by cutting out or significantly reducing broad swaths of the diet) imposes such demands on you, it’s destructive. It’s isolation from the larger culture and a way of bonding with others, done through emotional blackmail of the evillest sort: No one will love you unless you’re thin, or at least repenting of your fatness by making a visible, distinctly pleasure-renouncing effort to become thin.

Which makes dieting, itself, a form of “emotional eating” – eating a certain way in an effort to gain love and acceptance.

But, the way that emotional eating is most commonly understood and portrayed is eating directly in response to an acute emotional upset – stress, trauma, anger, sadness, rejection, worry. This type of eating is institutionalized in media through the trope of Sad Girl Eats Ice Cream from Container; or Harried Woman Eats Chocolate with Eyes Closed; and even Woman Laughs Alone with Salad.

(Which brings me to an important pet peeve, that “healthy eating” is never portrayed in images by anything other than FRUITS AND VEGGIES!!! and, most often, a white lady eating/cooking them. However, one cannot live by salad and laughter alone. Not for very long, anyway.)

I find this annoying because it presents emotional eating in a good-food, bad-food light (and images of orgasmic chocolate experiences have become part of that good-food narrative now that chocolate, or specifically, dark chocolate, has been officially approved by the Foodguilt-Industrial Complex), but also in a very gender-stereotyped way.

Women eat when sad. Women orgasm for chocolate. Women eat virtuous salads.

Men eat things like Manly Steaks and Beef Jerky and Dos Equis and Delicious Bacon and Dr. Pepper Ten (and they wash their faces with soap that comes in gunmetal grey packaging, and their shower gels don’t contain moisturizers, they use HYDRATORS, and they don’t even wash, anyway, they DETAIL because their bodies are machines, MANLY EMOTIONLESS MACHINES.) And they do it all between kickin’ ass and takin’ names. Women, meanwhile, eat and moisturize between bouts of laundry and bathroom-scrubbing.

Why yes, I have been drinking many cups of coffee. Emotionally.

Anyhow. The thing with emotional eating is that we, as a society, are in denial about it. Because it’s bad to have and express emotions, somehow, and that leads us all to do this thing that every single person in the world and all of human history has done at some point, in a secretive, guilty, furtive way.

Herein lies the problem.

When you are secretive, guilty, and furtive about your eating, it is not satisfying.

I absolutely agree that eating cannot solve life circumstances or emotional problems, but it can provide pleasure, comfort, a shared experience, and enough distraction to distance you temporarily from the problem at hand – and this is not a bad thing. We all need things like this in our lives – it is a legitimate coping mechanism for when things get a bit overwhelming. And, if anything, food is one of the more benign substances we can use for this purpose.

Used exclusively for escape, no, it is not healthy. But, ironically, forbidding emotional eating may actually cause people to use it this way – forbidden fruit syndrome being what it is. Forbidding it is also going to distract us from doing the thing that can help – using emotional eating as a trigger to investigate our emotions, and to acknowledge what is actually going on that food can’t fix.

Because we will be too busy feeling guilty and trying to hide the evidence to matter-of-factly assess the situation – or even to enjoy the goddamned food in the first place.

So – emotional eating: learn to do it well. Here’s how.

1) Acknowledge that something is going on for you emotionally. Take a moment to name it, if you can. It can help to write this down on a piece of paper – even just one word or phrase, like “sad” or “bored” or “freaking out.”

2) Pick a food that is really, really enjoyable – not just the random thing sitting on the counter, or even the thing that you always go to, out of habit, without asking yourself “What do I really want right now?” Get enough of it, too – you can always save extras for later, by storing them in a convenient but not distracting place (we’ll talk about this next time.)

3) Find a comfy place, without external distractions, to sit. (Put on pajamas or comfy pants too, if practical.) A recliner or couch is awesome. Turn off the TV and the computer, or turn your chair away. Close the book or the magazine or the newspaper. This will only take a few minutes, and then you can go back to what you were doing.

4) Remind yourself that eating is morally neutral – you are not doing something “bad” by eating delicious food. You are simply being human. (And if you have worries about the ethics of food production, you can address those things with more upstream, systemic approaches – beating yourself up at the point of food-on-plate, or depriving yourself of foods that matter a lot to you, won’t fix a problematic food system.)

5) Give yourself full permission to have as much as you want. Say it out loud if you can, or say it internally, sort of like saying grace before a meal.

5) Eat the food. Pay attention to how it looks, smells, and tastes, how it feels in your mouth and throat, and how it settles in your stomach. Give yourself the mental space to just have the physical experience of eating.

6) Pay attention to whether the food reminds you of anything, has family or other associations, brings up familiar feelings and memories.

7) Your mind will wander to random things – let it. Just check in, periodically, with the food and your body.

8) Eat until you are truly, honestly satisfied. Even if that means going back for more.

9) Afterward, assess how you feel again – have you felt comforted? Do you have a little distance? Is everything feeling a little less…intense? What else do you need to take care of yourself? Go and do that, or make a promise to yourself to do it later, when it’s practical. Write it down.

In short, emotional eating can be healthy and useful – if you do it with your eyes open, and short-circuit the shame spiral with permission.

This will take practice – guilt is not something you can unlearn with one try. If you do it consistently, daily or a few times a week, even when you are not in emotional distress, you will be ready for the times when you are.

If you feel like it’s time to commit to eating well, I’ve just opened sign-ups for January groups, or you can do the program one-on-one with me.

But we can also talk about it (for free!), right here on the blog.

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