Emotional eating: is it always a negative? Emotional eating has been defined as when you turn to food for comfort, but emotional eating can also happen in human bonding moments. Think about it for a moment. Have you gone on a date and sat and lingered and maybe even ordered dessert or another drink even though you knew your body didn’t want or need it, but because you wanted to keep the moment going?
Or what about at the Thanksgiving table, when Nana said, “Eat some pie,” and you listened and shoved forkfuls in your mouth even though you felt fullness pressing on your rib cage. We, as humans, eat or drink to please others. We eat or drink when we are past the point of satiation when we feel emotionally weak.
We may even turn to food for comfort when we feel sad, are worried, or are bored—because eating can be “something to do.” As the Mayo Clinic says, “…your emotions can become so tied to your eating habits that you automatically reach for a treat whenever you’re angry or stressed without thinking about what you’re doing.” That’s when emotional eating can be dangerous.
But the thing about emotional eating is that regardless of the reason you put the food or drink into your body, the feeling of bonding or soothing never lasts. And you may feel awful and berate yourself for eating or drinking too much, making unhealthy choices, or feeling physically or emotionally sick.
But our relationship and interactions with food can be different than turning to it in times of emotion. Nutritional therapist Danielle Brooks, author of Good Decisions Most of the Time…Because Life is Too Short Not to Eat Chocolate, said that our relationship with food (and beverages) can be used as a vehicle for self-discovery. She advocates intuitive eating, or understanding exactly what you are craving, what you want to put in your body and why, and how much of each precise food you actually want.
Intuitive eating is judgment-free and focuses on self-trust, self-love, and inner guidance. Dietitian Jessica Jones, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., writes in an essay for SELF that one of the biggest benefits intuitive eaters will experience is peace: “By paying attention to what your body and mind are asking you for, you will feel satisfied, not deprived, hungry, hangry, or craving foods that you aren’t ‘allowed’ to eat because of a diet you’re following.”
The ten principles of intuitive eating include:
- reject the diet mentality
- honor your hunger (meaning eat when you are hunger but listen to your body for its stop signal)
- make peace with food (No food is bad. Some is more nutritious than others but making things off limits leads to cravings.)
- challenge the food police (often in your own head telling you something is bad or shaming you)
- feel satisfaction within yourself (Brooks explains this idea of how you know when you really crave something, like French fries for example, and you put the first one in your mouth and its salt and oily goodness makes you almost ecstatic? But then after three or ten or twenty fries, you’ve lost that feeling of awesomeness with them? That’s because your craving was satisfied long ago. It is better to stop when the satisfaction has stopped.)
- feel when you are full (and then eat no more)
- treat your emotions with kindness (understand that sometimes you want ice cream because you want to feel more love or fun or whatever in your life.)
- love and respect your body
- MOVE (be active)
- honor your health consistently (that means you can say yes to chocolate but you also say yes to lean proteins, veggies, fruits, and other healthy, real foods)
While everyone has an intuition, not everyone is acutely aware of theirs and its nudges. And intuitive eating may be easier for people who have easy access to nutritious foods, who have enough time and money to focus on eating intuitively, and who are chronic-disease free. Psychiatrist James Greenblatt also says that intuitive eating may be a better second step (as opposed to the primary treatment) for those with struggling with acute eating disorders.
Plenty of resources exist if you’d like to learn more about emotional eating versus intuitive eating, such as Jessica Jones’ Food Positive (which is geared toward BIPOC) and the Food Heaven podcast. The next time you crave something, before you put that food in your mouth, ask yourself why you want it? Is it an emotion driving your decision, the need to connect with others, or something else? The more self-aware we are the better we can be to ourselves, to others, and the world around us.