Emotional Eating Isn’t Always Bad

Suzie Glassman

Other than family, food may be our first love

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Our relationship with food starts as soon as we are born. Whether it’s through a bottle or breast, food is both nutrition and comfort. When we are little, we can’t provide for ourselves, so mealtimes are an act of love and care.

That feeling doesn’t go away just because we grow up. There’s nothing like a home-cooked meal when I visit my parents at Christmastime. Comfort food means something different to everyone, but for me, it’s a bowl of hot soup on a cold day or homemade chocolate chip cookies straight from the oven.

We are emotional beings. Food is automatically linked to our feelings. Emotional eating is part of being human.” — Stacey Linton, PsyD

Yet, the term emotional eating has significant negative connotations. Most people use it to refer to when people crave and eat foods as a direct response to unpleasant emotions, like stress or sadness.

We can’t practice abstinence when it comes to eating, nor should we take all emotion out of it. When we ignore the hedonistic pleasures of food, we reduce our meals to a series of numbers (calorie counting) or countless expressions of “I can’t eat that.”

There’s no doubt we can develop a bad habit of using food to avoid dealing with emotions, but we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Here’s why emotional eating isn’t always bad and what we can do to maintain a healthy relationship with food regardless of whether we are trying to lose weight or not.

Eating to Cope with Feelings

We don’t get to avoid food the way we can other addictive substances. We have to learn to live with it in our lives, even if we’re struggling to manage the emotions around it. Instead of feeling shame for what you just ate, how about praising yourself for not partaking in more destructive behavior? The problem is we rarely give context to our behaviors around food.

Why should you feel bad over the empty plate when you felt joy in baking? According to The Atlantic, one flour company quietly saw its sales skyrocket 2,000 percent during the pandemic. Flour was nowhere to be found in stores, and it soon disappeared from the internet.

There are many reasons baking is therapeutic and why so many of us found ourselves doing more of it when everything shut down. We suddenly found time to gather around the kitchen. Eating together as the world shut down — even if we ate too much — allowed us to feel some semblance of joy and normalcy.

Dr. Linton agrees that emotional eating may not necessarily be harmful. She says that for an individual with many positive coping strategies who finds herself eating a whole tub of ice cream after a relationship breakdown while watching The Notebook, won’t have any long-term negative effects.

The problem comes when eating is your only coping mechanism. Just like you can make exercise unhealthy if you ignore your body’s cues and persist for the sake of avoiding stress, anything done in excess can be unhealthy.

How to Maintain a Healthy Relationship with Food

If you eat because you’re emotional and then feel bad for eating, you end up in a vicious cycle where you ultimately end up with a disordered relationship with food. You may feel like you can’t win, so why even try.

I’ve seen this in my practice working with clients who want to lose weight. They berate themselves for not being able to say no to drinks with friends or for eating a slice of their daughter’s birthday cake. However, no one ever gets healthy from a place of self-loathing. Guilt and shame rarely lead to life-long change.

Instead, Alyssa Rumsey writes in U.S. News and World Report it’s best to look at emotional eating as one coping mechanism among many. She says if you find yourself choosing eating over calling a friend, getting a good night’s sleep, or going for a walk to process feelings, you’re not handling your stress well.

Rumsey states coping mechanisms can fall into several buckets, including connection, action, soothing, or pleasure. Here are a few of mine:

1. Action: Taking a walk

My daughter recently had a medical emergency, and as soon as she was okay and cared for, I laced up my tennis shoes and headed out the door. Walking not only takes you away from the kitchen, but it’s proven to boost your mood.

2. Connection: Phone a friend, FaceTime a loved one

I’m horrible with the phone. I’m a texter. But during times when I feel I could crumble, I call my parents. I realize not everyone can do that, so consider anyone important in your life. Connection makes us realize we’re not alone.

3. Soothing: Have a good cry

Many times during the past seven months, I’ve shut myself in my bedroom and sobbed into my dogs’ cozy fur. Coping with emotions means allowing yourself to feel the weight of them. Crying can reduce pain and improve your mood.

4. Pleasure: Have a glass of wine or bowl of ice cream

Sometimes there’s nothing better than a glass of wine at the end of a hard day or dessert at the end of a celebratory dinner. If you reach for comfort food from time to time, do it, and don’t feel bad about it. You can break the cycle when you let go of the concept that some foods are good and others are bad. They are all okay when balanced.

One of my favorite recipes is called “funeral potatoes.” It’s full of cheesy, buttery carb goodness. While I don’t reserve the dish just for funerals, it got its name because it was traditionally served as a side dish during after-funeral dinners.

Cultures all over the world eat to grieve. We also eat to celebrate and to experience communion with one another. We eat to live, and we live to eat. Eating should be emotional.

Balance doesn’t always mean you never indulge or occasionally eat your feelings. Balance means when you do, you move on, and then next time you want to dive headfirst into a bowl of chips and queso, you go for a walk instead.

Self-improvement comes when we make our lives better, not at the expense of our purpose, but because of it. There is joy in food, friends, and family. Know that not all emotional eating is bad for you.

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I write about health and fitness with the goal to help you live a healthier, happier life.

Denver, CO
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