Eating AND Experiencing Emotions – Both Can Be True

Young woman eating a burger

By Crystal Savoy MS, RD, LDN

You may consider yourself an emotional eater – but what does that really mean? We feel emotions all day long and we also need to eat several times too –  so wouldn’t it make sense that we are doing both simultaneously? I think emotional eating is viewed as this wildly unacceptable behavior but emotional eating is a tricky term and is nuanced and can even be problematic because it often leads to shame. Is it possible that you are solely eating for emotional reasons? Yes, and I would never discount your lived experience but I do encourage everyone to set aside their judgment about emotional eating and get curious about their whole experience with eating and in particular, the times they would define as emotional eating. Coming from a place of inquiry rather than criticism frees up your mind to wonder if your body has been fully supported with nourishment or if there is a convergence of emotional and physical needs. Working with a nutrition therapist can help you understand and meet your physical needs which will help you to notice and discern the nature of the emotional eating you experience. Eating with emotion is part of being human so of course, it is uniquely complex. It is also an opportunity to reflect on your past and present relationship with food. There may be times when eating becomes a survival substitute for very difficult issues such as; stress, isolation, depression, shame, anxiety, or trauma. It is exactly at these times when self-compassion is essential for addressing the underlying issue. Too often we hear our clients demonize themselves for emotional eating. We understand this is a common influence of our diet culture and we also know this kind of negative judgment will keep folks from exploring and healing both their relationship to food and the issues that lie just below the surface. The bottom line – you are a normal person, not a bad person for eating with emotion. It may be time to get curious about your relationship with food, deepen your understanding of your emotional needs, and enjoy eating that is unencumbered by judgment. 

Questions to ask that may be helpful if you identify as an emotional eater: 

How do my surroundings (culture/community/family)  influence the way I feel about eating with emotion? 

Has diet culture influenced how much enjoyment I get out of eating? 

How much does my fear of gaining weight interfere with the natural homeostasis of my appetite? 

Does internalized weight stigma prevent me from enjoying food and my body?  (re: do I need to explore my beliefs about people in larger bodies? Check out this blog for more.)

Can I stop judging and give myself enough space to notice what I am truly feeling and what I need? Even if you cannot identify the feeling or the need, it is ok to notice the sensation in your body. Just taking the time to pause and notice might bring a different set of options for self-care. 

What do I have for options in my self-care toolbox? 

If eating is your only coping mechanism then it may be time to explore what else is accessible to you. If you have the Intuitive Eating Workbook by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, there is a fantastic assessment on page 41 to help identify areas to focus on and for skill development.  This blog post by anti-diet dietitian Kylie Mitchell is also a great place to start. Self-care doesn’t have to be going to get your nails done – it can be so many things like nourishing yourself in a way that feels good and supports recovery, getting adequate sleep, setting boundaries, and taking a pause & a deep breath when things feel hard.  

Some additional resources on emotions/emotional eating: 

Podcasts – Food Psych Ep # 74 and Messy Health Ep # 29 

Facts about Emotions

I hope that this helps clear up some misconceptions on “emotional eating” and gives you some ideas for exploring the concept more, it’s such a nuanced topic that deserves conversation in a safe space (ideally with your treatment team).  It bears repeating – you are not a bad person for eating with emotion.  We are human and humans seek pleasure and comfort in many ways – one of those ways is with food, and that’s okay!