Emotional Eating is Your Unlikely Ally
“If you feel driven to eat for emotional reasons, you don’t have an eating problem. You have a care-taking problem.” -Linda Bacon
Eating can be experienced as a short-term comfort. An instant feel-better fix. A way of self-soothing to distract yourself from anxiety, boredom, loneliness, or even as a way to procrastinate...errr procrastin-EAT? This is a personal issue of mine.
If your body isn’t sending you hunger cues but you feel the urge to eat, it’s because there’s something you need - maybe it’s to feel warm and comforted or it’s to avoid loneliness, anger, boredom, or anxiety. Maybe it’s to procrastinate doing some work or chores you want to avoid...have you ever been doing homework and you keep walking to the fridge - opening the door just to stare inside? It’s because you’re not really hungry but you’re trying to give yourself a distraction.
We Are Emotional Beings
Eating for self-soothing is something that some of us learn at a young age. It’s a coping mechanism. I developed this pattern when I was in 3rd grade and was being teased at school. School gave me such anxiety that I’d come home and drown myself in chips, cookies, and soda to make myself feel better.
My underdeveloped brain didn’t have the self-awareness to realize what I was doing, so these actions carried into my adult life. I didn’t have the patience or tools to take care of myself the way I would now in this situation, so eating served its purpose. If we start seeing our coping mechanisms as something that actually did help us, it’s easier to have self-compassion around it.
I think most of us know that eating to feel better doesn’t help us feel better in the long run. Studies show that although you might receive immediate comfort from eating, the guilt and shame around it overpowers it. In most cases, when you’re eating to self-soothe, it ends up making matters worse. BUT….and here’s the big butt….Eating isn’t black and white. We are emotional beings so sometimes eating will inevitably be emotional. Think about birthday cake...it's something we culturally eat for enjoyment. We’re human, not robots.
Bye, Bye Guilt and Shame
What if the guilt and shame didn’t exist? Let’s paint the picture.
You had a stressful day at work. You drove home in rush hour and almost got into an accident (phewwww) and now you’re totally on edge. You come home...kick your shoes off, change clothes, collapse on the couch and then remember..GASP! There are cookies in the pantry. Ya know, those girl scout cookies you got conned into buying outside of the grocery store because those scouts are so dang cute. You eat 2 or 3 of them slowly, savor each bite, and get some sweet dopamine that makes your brain and taste buds do a dance.
When you eat intuitively, you allow yourself to have WHATEVER, WHENEVER, so you don’t feel the urge to eat the whole box because hey, they will be there tomorrow. And the next day...and the next day. The sweetness legitimately made you feel better and brought up nostalgic feelings from childhood. End of story. Moving on. No guilt and shame.
YOU SEE? Eating isn’t black and white. We can’t put foods into “good” and “bad” categories because some foods are straight up just good for your soul. Depriving yourself of these little moments of indulgence is actually what leads you to reactional eating (a term I heard from Isabel Foxen Duke) which I’m now using instead of “binge” eating. If you’ve been practicing restrictive eating practices for a long time, you’ll end up wanting to rebel against those inner voices in your head that are bullying you.
Binge Eating = Reactional Eating
Reactional eating implies you are simply REACTING to some intense feelings you may be having and you can also use this as a ALERT for you to pay attention to yourself. Thank goodness for emotional eating - it’s a signal your body is giving you that you can FEEL so that you pay attention to your feelings. You can start responding to this cue immediately. If you feel to urge to raid the pantry - start asking yourself some questions because you respond to this urge.
You can start with something simple like:
Hey you, what’s going on? What are you ACTUALLY hungry for?
Have that conversation with yourself. Love? Comfort? A release?
Journal. Call a friend. Meditate on it. Take a walk. Get movement in. Be creative in some way. Allow yourself to eat from a mindful place (guilt-free is the way to be). Start seeing the alert to eat emotionally as a your ally, not your enemy, and respond accordingly. You can learn to have tools in your toolbox to address the issue and live a mindful life.
What's your experience with reactional eating? Let's chat about it! Comment below! :)