Updated: Nov 1
Written by: Natalie Pirolli, MS, RDN, LDN | October 19, 2022
There is a good chance you’re familiar with the term “emotional eating.” Think about it, how many times have you heard a friend, family member, or person on TV joke about “stress eating,” or maybe it’s someone who said they were buying ice cream, cake, chips, French fries, or whatnot because they were feeling down, angry, or sad? Maybe you can picture the scene in Legally Blonde where Reese Witherspoon is eating a box of chocolates and watching sad movies after her boyfriend dumps her. (Then throws the box at the TV — so relatable.)
Though the concept of emotional eating is well known and often brought up in a humorous way, it can also be something we feel really ashamed about and choose not to talk or joke about at all. We feel bad so we eat, then we feel bad about what we ate and try to compensate by restricting food the next day, which then leads to overeating at night, and the whole shame cycle continues.
Before we talk about this more, I want to say that emotional eating is completely normal and nothing to feel ashamed about. It is not uncommon to reach for food when feeling difficult or uncomfortable emotions like stress, grief, anger, pain, worry — you name it. Or even to reach for food during moments of joy and celebration. There is no doubt that our feelings and eating are tightly intertwined. Think about it, when babies cry what do we give them? Milk. After a funeral, what do people get together to do? Eat. To celebrate a soccer game win, graduation, or promotion, where do we usually go? A restaurant. How could we not associate many powerful emotions, both negative and positive, with food?
This is why it makes so much sense to reach for food when we need something (i.e., release, pleasure, joy, calmness, comfort).
There is nothing wrong with you if you can identify with emotional eating. In fact, noticing when we’re emotionally eating can actually be quite helpful; we can think of it as a cue letting us know there is something going on that we need to address.
Let’s take a deeper dive into some of the things our emotional eating may be trying to tell us:
1. We’re actually just hungry.
Plain and simple it could actually just be our biological response to hunger that is driving us to eat. If we visualize what emotional eating looks like or think about our own experiences with emotional eating, where does it usually take place? At home, at the end of the day, and often alone. We might blame stress, exhaustion, or a bad day, but often it’s because we didn’t nourish ourselves properly throughout the day. Maybe we just had a cup of plain yogurt for breakfast, a salad with little protein at lunch, and now we’re busting through the door ready for the starchiest starches in sight. (Remember how carbs, especially simple ones like bread, chips, cookies, and sweets, raise our blood sugar the quickest, so the body craves them when we’re running on E?). Eating an entire row of Ritz crackers and cheese while contemplating what you want for dinner may actually have less to do with your day and more to do with your body trying to survive.
Or maybe we are eating enough calorically throughout the day; we have our balanced meals (carb + protein + fat) and snacks, so we’re meeting our physical needs, but our satisfaction needs are not being met. Maybe we’ve been trying to “be good” or abide by the laws of diet culture so we’re choosing what we think is healthiest (like the breakfast and lunch above) vs. what may be tastier or what we're truly in the mood for or craving. Or we’re stuck in a monotonous food cycle of eating the same breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks because they’re easy or we don’t have the time or energy to branch out. This is a different kind of deprivation than just simply not eating enough, but can lead to the same result of feeling out of control around something delicious later in the evening.
2. We’re not taking care of ourselves.
This piggybacks off of #1 as nourishing ourselves — both with enough to eat and with enjoyable foods — is a major part of taking care of our physical and mental well-being. Other things we may want to check in on: are we getting enough quality sleep? Are we hydrated? How are we handling stress? Have we had any “me time” lately? How are we feeling physically, emotionally, mentally?
When any area of our well-being is off or lacks attention, it can make us less in tune with ourselves. Do you ever notice that after a bad night's sleep (or after several) you want more carbs? Or maybe you don’t opt for the more balanced meals that you usually go for? This might look differently if instead, we listened to our tired bodies that next day and did a less intense workout or turned the TV off earlier to get to bed instead of fighting through the fatigue.
Or how about when you don’t let yourself feel sad/angry/disappointed about something? You push through the day and keep a smile on your face as the feeling builds then comfort yourself later with all of the salty-sweet combinations you can find in your kitchen. Would that have looked differently if you had just let yourself cry, talked to a friend, and/or journaled it out?
When we’re just pushing through each day, we can so easily become out of tune with our body and its needs. We don’t often take the time to pause and notice what we’re feeling, notice what we’re lacking, and think about what would make us feel better. For some reason, whether it is too abstract to think about, or we think we’re weak for needing something, we don’t make this time to check in with ourselves. But noticing our emotional eating habits, whether in the moment or after the fact, can be a helpful clue that there is something we need.
3. We're lacking other coping skills.
Emotional eating itself is not bad. It’s a clue for what is going on within us, a normal response to emotions, and a way of receiving comfort. Maybe we’re going through a really tough time and just need something that brings a little pleasure into our life. Or maybe it is the nostalgia and warm feeling that certain foods provide that make us feel better when we’re feeling lost, lonely, or worried about something.
The only way emotional eating can become a problem is if it is our only coping mechanism. If we cannot deal with a bad day, stress, or anger, in any other way than to numb out with food, we need to find more adaptive coping mechanisms. Or if we don’t know the reason why, but feel like we need to eat at night to feel something: pleasure, comfort, distraction — we need to dig deep and find out what is really going on with us.
Sometimes what we may be identifying as physical hunger can actually be emotional hunger, i.e., we’re feeling something and using food to deal with those emotions. But unlike physical hunger, emotional hunger cannot be satisfied through food alone. It may feel helpful in the moment but is not getting to the root cause of the issue or truly getting our needs met. This is why it can be helpful to check in with ourselves regularly.
If you’ve ruled out #1 and #2, you might want to explore #3. If we can identify the emotion we’re feeling, and what food is doing to help (i.e., provide excitement when we’re bored, or provide a calming sense when we’re feeling anxious), we can then explore what other things we can do to meet our emotional needs without food.
Tip: Identifying emotions can be tricky. Often times we might think we're just feeling "sad" but it could really be something else going on. Check out this Feelings Wheel to help pinpoint exactly what you're feeling. Start at the center with the core emotions and see if you can work your way out. You might find, for example, that the sadness you were feeling is actually vulnerability or powerlessness. Properly identifying our feelings will help us determine the most effective way to cope.
And check out my October newsletter for more on Emotional Wellness.
1. Just Eat It