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A Dietitian's No-Nonsense Guide to Fighting Emotional Eating

Dec. 7, 2020 - Katie McCallum

We're all guilty of "eating our feelings" now and then. When emotions run high, turning to food for comfort...well, it happens. To all of us.

That's because eating is an inherently satisfying behavior. In fact, it needs to be! We rely on food to survive after all. Searching for ways to cope with stress is natural, too, by the way.

However, we also all know that this tendency to cope via stress eating, emotional eating, whatever we want to call it, isn't exactly healthy — physically or mentally.

"One of the issues with emotional eating is that it affects, of course, how you feel physically. Overeating can reduce your energy level, cause headaches and just generally come with some discomfort," says Kasey Kilpatrick, dietitian at Houston Methodist. "The other issue is that, as far as resolving uncomfortable emotions goes, eating doesn't actually work."

And while there are plenty of eating-related tips and tricks out there to help combat emotional eating, Kilpatrick says there's a reason these restrictive food rules don't work for everyone. She also recommends a more productive approach to addressing emotional eating, and her method actually has almost nothing to do with food.

"Even after learning and committing these food rules to memory, such as limiting ourselves to two snacks per day or not eating past 7 p.m., many of us still find ourselves struggling with emotional eating," says Kilpatrick. "To actually resolve this behavior, we need to first remove the stigma around it — and then we need to use a more productive way to address it."

Why restrictive food rules don't always solve emotional eating

Kilpatrick says that the two main reasons addressing emotional eating with restrictive food rules just doesn't work for most people are:

  1. It assumes your behavior is due to a lack of self-control
  2. You're using a food solution to fight an emotional problem

"If I asked you about all of the areas of your life where you successfully exhibit self-control, you'd likely have quite a list going by the time you were done," says Kilpatrick. "The reality is that, most of the time, emotional eating has nothing to do with a lack of self-control. In fact, you probably have plenty of it! And since food rules are all about encouraging self-control, it's not surprising that they don't always solve emotional eating in the long run."

And, when it comes to emotional eating, the habit of eating usually isn't the problem, either. Remember, eating is human nature! Wanting comfort food is human nature! Instead, the real issue is the uncomfortable emotion you're feeling that's causing you to turn to food as a coping mechanism.

"Unless you target the underlying emotion that's causing you to eat — in a way that's productive and that actually addresses the emotion itself — you're more likely to continue to find yourself struggling to overcome emotional eating," says Kilpatrick.

Instead, use this two-step method to overcome emotional eating

Processing emotions is hard work, especially during a particularly stressful time or when you don't have access to your usual coping mechanisms. As a result, you may turn to food to help you cope with your emotions.

"In terms of trying to deal with emotions, there's actually a lot worse ways to cope than eating," adds Kilpatrick. "However, that doesn't make emotional eating productive — or healthy, for that matter — so it's important to address it."

Here's Kilpatrick's two-step method to overcoming emotional eating:

1. Recognize the behavior without self-judgement

The first step to effectively addressing emotional eating is to simply recognize that you're doing it.

"By recognizing that the only reason you're eating right now is because of an uncomfortable emotion you're feeling, you're already one step closer to overcoming it," says Kilpatrick. "If you have the emotional capacity, you can make this a bigger step forward by taking a moment to write down a word or sentence that describes what you're feeling."

This step may sound simple — almost too simple. But, to truly be successful, you need to accept the behavior without passing judgement on yourself. This is where the hard work comes in.

"Judgement isn't serving us here. In fact, it makes things worse," explains Kilpatrick. "Self-judgement is accompanied by shame and guilt, strong emotions that further add on to your load and make it even harder to properly process what you're feeling."

As you take the step to recognize and acknowledge that you're emotionally eating, Kilpatrick recommends reminding yourself: I am a human going through something very stressful, and I'm dealing with it in a very human way.

Next, it's time for Step 2.

2. Find an emotional solution to your emotional problem

In order to move beyond stress eating or emotional eating, you need to both feel your emotion and find a productive solution to resolve it.

"Once you've made it through Step 1, it's time to choose a better coping mechanism than food," says Kilpatrick. "Accepting and addressing uncomfortable emotions is hard. If you're feeling overwhelmed and need to save Step 2 for later, that's okay! But, ultimately, the goal is to identify a more productive way to handle what you're feeling."

So, what's the right solution to your emotional problem? Well, that depends on both you as a person as well as the particular emotion you're struggling with.

Here are Kilpatrick's recommendations for coping with common emotions:

  • Stress – breathing exercises, meditating or finding a quiet place to take a walk
  • Loneliness – text, call or video chat with a friend or loved one
  • Sadness – make a list of things you're grateful for or laugh along with some comedy
  • Boredom – finish a project, watch a movie or read a book
  • Anxiety – confide in a friend, spend time with your pet(s) or consider reaching out to a counselor or therapist

"Replacing food with one of the more productive solutions above is really the only way to overcome emotional eating long-term," says Kilpatrick. "And, one last thing — while saying these two steps is easy, following through with them is hard work that may take time. If it feels like you're taking one step forward one day but then two steps back the next, that's okay! Be patient and lenient with yourself. Changing your mindset towards addressing emotional eating is a process, but it's worth it."

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