WHY EATING IS MEANT TO BE EMOTIONAL

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Food is more than just fuel for our body’s physical functions, it brings us joy, comfort, and so much more. Let’s remove the stigma of emotional eating, and just allow ourselves to feel when we eat.


BY: CARA HARBSTREET, MS, RD, LD

Emotional eating can feel like the elephant in the room. It’s there, but it’s not something we’re comfortable acknowledging or talking about. Other times, it’s the scapegoat. We blame our out-of-control feelings around food on emotional eating. We can even go as far as to internalize the concept of emotional eating and identify with it. Have you ever said “I’m an emotional eater” or “Hey, I’m eating my feelings”?

Do a quick Google search on “emotional eating”, and you’ll find some interesting results. According to Google Trends, searches for “emotional eating” peak during the week of Valentine’s Day. And the majority of the links in the search results mention weight loss. As in, “How to Stop Emotional Eating” xor “Powerful Tools to Stop Emotional Eating”. One included a personal story and implied that emotional eating helped this person lose a significant amount of weight.

What can we make of all that? Society makes emotional eating out to be inherently negative and if you’re able to control it or quit doing it, it’s your solution for weight loss or managing your health.  

But despite what Google searches and Wikipedia pages might tell you, food is supposed to be comforting.

It’s connected to survival – way back when, when food was much more scarce and hard to come by, access to food brought a sense of security that ensured we had what we needed to survive. Food insecurity is still a very real problem – it exists in every community in the United States, not to mention worldwide food insecurity. But for most of us, the availability and easy access to food doesn’t erase the comforting feeling it provides.

So we can acknowledge food is indeed an emotional thing. There’s really no escaping the fact that eating a particular food can result in a physical sensation in our body, but also evoke an emotional response. It may be positive, like a fond childhood memory sparked by a nostalgic food you haven’t eaten in a long time. Maybe it’s a little more like comfort. You settle in to enjoy a familiar food and trust that it will be satisfying, filling, and nourishing.

Other times, a food can have a more negative connotation, like triggering the memory of a previous binging episode where you ate that particular food until you felt physically ill. Or you’re resentful that the food you’re eating isn’t what you really want.  There’s an entire spectrum of human emotion connected to the eating experience and writing that off or disregarding isn’t doing much to address emotional eating at all.

The question is actually not, “How can I stop emotional eating?” It’s “Do I want to?”

Emotional eating is only problematic if it interferes with the lifestyle you aspire to have and causes friction in your relationship with food. The construct of emotional eating as a negative thing stems from diet culture. We can even point to our distaste of gluttony and the desire to disassociate from behaviors that imply we are emotionally unsteady, weak, or lazy at times.

In other words: that we are human.

To answer the question of “What’s wrong with emotional eating?” we really need to ask ourselves whether the frequency or degree to which we turn to food to cope with what we’re feeling is problematic for us as an individual. This could be different than how our diet- and wellness-obsessed culture views things. One simple question to ask yourself is, “If fat phobia didn’t exist and all body sizes were accepted, would my emotional eating cause an issue?”

If the answer is no, maybe there’s nothing to be done about emotional eating.  As temporary as that fix may be, it might be the most accessible option for us in that moment. It might be the best tool we have or the most reliable or the quickest. And that is OK. We are imperfect beings and part of that means coping with emotions might get messy.

Offer yourself some grace and compassion.

You are not a bad person for soothing your feelings with a food that brings you distraction, pleasure, numbness, satisfaction, or anything else. Emotional eating is an emotionally fraught thing, and it gets easy to cast blame on ourselves or feel shame about our actions. But sometimes the answer is right there in front of us all along, and eating the food may be just what you need.

You deserve to build that trust with yourself, and just eat the food.

Adapted from the original article.
HEADER IMAGE: CHARLES DELUVIO

Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD is a Kansas City-based Registered Dietitian helping individuals jumpstart their journey to wellness. By breaking the cycle of dieting, Cara focuses on creating sustainable lifestyle changes for people who are motivated to reclaim their health. Connect with Cara over at Street Smart Nutrition.

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