This might surprise you, coming from a Registered Dietitian: you can go ahead and keep using food to feel better, if you want. In fact, emotional eating is an important part of a healthy relationship with food. Let me explain.
A client of mine was a life-long, self identified emotional eater. She grew up being bullied for her size and was put on diets from a young age. She learned to eat in secret in order to help herself feel better. It worked to feel better, but over the years using food as coping tool left her feeling guilty and out of control. She convinced herself she couldn’t be trusted around certain foods, like candy and chips. She lived stuck in a cycle of binges whenever she felt down, and restriction to make up for it in the days afterward. Her story reminded me so much of my mother’s.
Listening to her, I remembered something someone once told me:
“eating to make yourself feel better is an incredibly resilient act”
Especially if you learned an emotional eating response as a child, you are someone who can work with her surroundings to take care of herself. You, my friend, have the grace, resourcefulness, and capacity to know how to make yourself feel better through food. I think that’s beautiful. Powerful. A gift. That’s why I tell you, sincerely, to STOP beating yourself up for emotional eating.
When I explained to her the steps I’m about to explain to you in this post, tears filled her eyes. She felt relieved and said, “I never thought of it this way”. She realized didn’t need to AVOID emotional eating, she need to eat enough, emotionally.
when does using food to emotionally cope become unhealthy?
My client liked the philosophy behind “eating enough, emotionally”, but she struggled trusting herself to do it. Could she ever get to that point? She worried emotional eating would only continue to backfire with physical discomfort and a guilty feeling whenever she ate “forbidden foods” like chocolate and chips.
Emotional eating becomes unhealthy when it is leaving you feeling more harmed than helped: physically and emotionally.
She was right: without first letting go of her diet mindset, emotionally eating would never really feel all that soothing or satisfying. Sure, the food tasted good, but the guilt over eating “forbidden foods” often ruined it. . If you too feel that certain foods, like chips and chocolate, are forbidden, keep in mind that this blog focuses on just one aspect of the No Guilt Framework. Ultimately, your emotional eating work should occur as part of an ongoing process of developing intuitive eating skills.
tip #1: stop telling yourself you can’t use food to soothe
When do you tend to emotionally eat? For some people, emotional eating is linked to positive emotions: like celebrating, pride, and joy. For others, emotional eating is linked to negative emotions: like frustration, guilt, and sadness. Either way – your first step in healing emotional eating is legalizing the use of food in the presence of ANY emotion you want to.
Much of the shame we feel around using food to cope with (or enhance) emotion come from cultural norms rooted in fear of fatness. Since having a higher BMI isn’t a disease in and of itself, we don’t need to pathologize emotional eating. By seeing emotional eating as something you can choose when you want, you remove the stigma and shame associated with food. This will allow you to focus your attention on the primary emotion, as well as how well the food serves that emotion, instead of dealing with the secondary emotions of shame and guilt.
tip #2 get in the habit of labeling your emotions
So many clients I work with have a difficult time labeling the emotions they feel in a specific way. They say things like “I feel bad”, “stressed”, or, “fat” – none of which are real feelings.
Emotional awareness is a core skill of my No Guilt Framework. I help clients to not only label specific emotions, but to also become familiar with how these emotions feel in their body. This is an important step to stop confusing emotion with hunger, start honoring when you feel full, and as we will see in tip #3 of this post – choose coping skills that actually adress the emotion you feel.
Take a moment now to check in using this feelings wheel: how do you feel right now? what emotion best describes you?
When you look to place your emotion, get specific as you can! This will help you to learn which coping skills best align with your emotional needs.
tip# 3: make a list of emotional coping skills that work for you
Take out a piece of paper. Seriously, do it! Write down three emotions you felt today from The Feeling Wheel.
Can you think of at least one coping tool that works for each of these emotions? For example, if you felt “sad”, you may write down “listening to sad music” as a helpful tool for the next time you label this emotion. Remember, you can write down “food” if you want to! As long as food truly feels like the most aligned, best choice for you – you are free to keep it in your toolkit.
That way, instead of STOPPING emotional eating, which can be a healthy coping tool, you’ll be able to do what my clients do: get stronger at eating enough emotionally. Keep this list handy and use my free Eat Without Guilt Guide to help you get motivated to follow through in using it!
focus on how you FEEL as you emotionally eat, instead of being bogged down with guilt and shame
My client amplified her emotional resiliency skills by improving her tendency to emotionally eat. She now chooses food to cope less often, and when she does, she can do so with out guilt or physical discomfort by simply allowing herself to listen to her body.The days of emotionally eating until sick are behind her, and you can feel this way too.
This post includes a few of the many skills I offer through my No Guilt Framework. Each individual will find different skills helpful at different times, and this post is by no means an exhaustive list of how to stop dieting.
I offer group and private coaching programs that help you create a plan and practice these skills with the focus and consistency you need to FINALLY be okay with your body. Apply for coaching and I’ll meet with you to describe how you can go from feeling completely stuck in negative body image to feeling free and peaceful around food, just like my clients do.