I am an emotional eater. Yep – I said it. Still feel the same way about me? What assumptions do you find yourself making? What I can assure you is that yes, it’s pretty normal for me to crave [and eat] something chocolate or a caramel smothered coffee drink when I’m stressed or anxious. I sometimes have the urge to go out for my favorite ice cream when I’m feeling really happy, or the need to celebrate something fun. I have most definitely shed more tears over cheese and wine than I ever have salad or vegetables, and you might even find me occasionally chewing on some Sour Patch Watermelon gummies while bored or distracting myself from hard work. In fact, I’ve procrastinated this particular blog for days, and have used plenty of meals and snacks to do so.
Today’s PSA: WE ARE EMOTIONAL BEINGS. And we eat. Therefore, we inherently eat with emotion. All of the scenarios above are real examples of me being human, and experiencing emotions, all at the same time. I swear it’s not as scary as it sounds. What Intuitive Eating has helped me understand is that:
- There is a difference between eating with emotion, and using food to cope with emotions
- There is nothing inherently bad or wrong about using food to cope with emotions
Our culture has taught us that “emotional eating” is a bad thing. Is this because of our assumption that it means someone is automatically eating past fullness? Or only eating high sugar, high fat foods? And that these foods are somehow terrible? Or that all of this will ultimately lead to weight gain? [which is, of course, the worst possible outcome in our fatphobic society]. Not only are these assumptions just that – assumptions – but even if it is someone’s truth it is NOT inherently a bad thing. It’s a normal thing. It’s a human thing.
As a provider I tend to always be reminding people that I am, too, just human. No matter how hard we try to plaster that smile on our faces and pretend as though we breed nothing but butterflies and rainbows, sh*t can suck sometimes. And by the way, the contentment that comes when life is rainbows and butterflies? That’s an emotion too. Emotions aren’t bad, even when they feel bad.
The difference between eating with emotion, and using food to cope with emotions, is the intention. For example, those times I cried over cheese and wine? I didn’t walk into these situations thinking, “I’m going to go ahead and eat/drink these things because it will make crying feel better” or, “a good cheese will most certainly stuff some sadness away.” I quite honestly just experience most of my cheese and wine with my best of friends, all of which promotes the tendency to feel the feels a little harder [thanks ladies]. Now, have I intentionally taken a spoon to a tub full of cookie dough after an adolescent break up? Yes. THIS was to cope. My intention WAS to feel anything but my cute little heart break. Sound familiar? If so, IT IS STILL OKAY.
If any of this is ringing a bell, I encourage you to ask yourself: Do I have other ways to cope with hard-to-tolerate emotions? Part of the reason we connect sadness, frustration, loneliness and hopelessness to being negative, is because they feel bad. We all know the pit in your stomach, knot in your throat, crying hangover kind of feelings. They suck, truly. But they’re also really important. Important to feel and experience and provide space for. They teach us lessons that excitement, surprise, and happiness cannot. So when you notice the intention to use food as a coping skill – to numb out, to avoid, to feel comfort, safety, pleasure or satisfaction – consider that you might be missing out on these lessons. Consider other ways you can tolerate how yucky something feels, while learning from it what it means, and how it adds to your life. The chocolate I crave and eat when I’m stressed and anxious? Turns out, that’s when my body feels worst, and that chocolate brings me SO much joy and satisfaction [and that feels way better]. It also turns out that chocolate doesn’t make anxiety go away, it’s just a really yummy food. Anxiety can [and will] come right back.
The reason I feel comfortable using myself as such an example in this topic, is because emotions and eating are both intensely personal and individual. I can truly only speak from my own experiences, and encourage you to do the same. Something else that’s very personal? Vulnerability. One of the first areas in your life to explore if you’ve noticed a tendency to only effectively tolerate feelings with the use of food, are your vulnerabilities. For me? Sleep is number one. Catch me on a tired day and I’m a bit more likely to feel “cranky” [which I hate], and a bit less likely to have the brain capacity for contemplating self-care and self – compassion. Another one? When my closest people are hurting. When they’re hurting, I worry and hurt for them, and feel super uncomfortable knowing I have no control over “fixing it.” My vulnerabilities.
I’ve learned that sometimes it feels easier to tolerate this by leaning to comfort foods, but it in fact doesn’t change a poor night of sleep or anything my friends/family may be going through. Something else I’ve learned? A good hug [7 seconds if you’re being legit about it], a cozy blanket, a yummy smelling candle, and losing myself in a new Hulu series or true crime novel is seriously effective.
It may seem as though this topic has actually nothing to do with food. And that is because it doesn’t. Not much nutrition education in this one, just some good ‘ole human reminders. My last reminder for you: be compassionate. Be kind. Be gentle. Spread love – to yourself and others. Part of the reason coping with emotions without food is even an Intuitive Eating concept, is to shed light on how common it is, how okay it is, and also how shameful diet culture makes it seem. Similar to the way our fatphobic, diet-centered society functions to profit off of our “diet failures,” it makes sense that guilt and/or embarrassment for having used food to manage feelings won’t likely help make feel-good changes. Think about it – if the intention of foods and/or eating is to handle the gross stuff, how might feeling the gross stuff [guilt/shame for ‘emotional eating’] then lead to using food to cope? A vicious cycle. No matter what you’ve been told, please know that eating can be emotional and it’s okay. Dealing with our humanness is hard, and requires skill. Skills need to be built and practiced to feel more comfortable and effective.
In what ways have you built the skill of self-compassion? It could be a hand on your heart as a reminder of self-love. Or maybe on that belly/thigh/arm/bum/under chin of yours you’ve been trash talking – it could probably use some positive attention. Maybe you simply learn to allow the tears to come when they need to. Or ask for help instead of taking it on by yourself. Or even just accepting help when it’s offered. Or straight up verbalizing your needs [because, you can do that.] So. Many. Ways.
Oh and one last thing? Therapy is an awesome resource for building such skills, understanding more about your emotions, and what to do with them. It can also serve as an amazing form of self-care. Hard to beat having a specific space and time to receive the genuine compassion of someone else, all while understanding yourself in ways you never thought possible. Just sayin’.