Is Emotional Eating a Bad Thing?

What comes to mind when you think of the term “emotional eating?” If you’re like most, you don’t think it’s a good thing. But, there’s a high likelihood that you’ve participated in a little emotional eating yourself.

As a registered dietitian with a Masters in nutrition, I’ve spent nearly 10 years working with clients, helping them form a healthy relationship with food and their bodies, and I can say (even for myself) that I’ve never met a client who hasn’t experienced the phenomena of emotional eating… or it’s aftermath. But, is it really a bad thing?

What is emotional eating?

Let’s start with the obvious question: What is emotional eating? While there’s no standard definition, emotional eating can be defined as eating due to negative emotions and experiences, not physical hunger. Why do we do this? Well, we human beings are emotional creatures and food can help alleviate stress and anxiety, give us a temporary boost in mood, and it provides comfort. We’ll get into the physiology of just how this happens shortly, but for now, know that the term “emotional eating” generally means eating to cope with negative emotion.

Picture it. You’ve just had a brutal day at the office. You (finally) get in your car, and you have an extra hour of traffic. You get home, walk through the front door and within minutes, you get into a fight with your partner about bills. Now, you’re not talking to one another. So you head to the fridge and go for a pint of ice cream because you want comfort, and you need to wash away your day. And yea sure, you’re hungry. But you’re not hungry for the amount you just ate, and to be honest you ate so you didn’t have to feel (or think), and now you feel worse.

Or maybe…

  • You were teased as a kid about your weight and now, someone in your adult life is commenting on your body size, and you eat to not have to deal with the uncomfortable emotions that were never processed before.
  • You feel like you “blew your diet,” and you’re mad and upset and you’re really eating just because you’re angry with yourself, and you feel like whatever you do doesn’t matter.
  • You just went through a breakup, suffered an injury, or had a recent job loss and food is the temporary comfort to fill the void.

These are just some of the many examples of how and why we use food to emotionally eat.

Is emotional eating a bad thing?

Long story short, the answer to this question isn’t cut and dry. Before we get into it, let’s take a quick look at how food affects our emotions, and why we use it do so.

Research shows the foods we gravitate towards in times of stress and anxiety, tend to be high in fat and sugar, or a combination of both. Think ice cream, pasta, pizza, mac n’ cheese. This is because these kinds of foods alleviate parts of our brain that produce stress and stress-related emotions. Not to mention, dopamine, the feel-good hormone, is triggered inside our brains when a craving is fulfilled, giving us feelings of pleasure.

Plus, certain foods provide us pleasure due to past positive experiences, like Grandma’s weekly lasagna dinner. In other words, food is an emotional experience. You will eat for reasons other than survival or hunger and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s when we place food restrictions on ourselves that we face an increased risk of binge eating, food obsession, increased emotional responsiveness, unhappiness, and distractibility when it comes to food.

Exploring your relationship with food

While emotional eating is not technically a disorder on its own, emotional eating can be connected to or exist as part of an eating disorder, such as binge eating disorder.

Even if it’s not technically a disorder, when you’re using food as a way to “numb out,” avoid your feelings, or copy with a difficult experience, it takes a toll, physically and mentally. And it doesn’t feel great.

In order to explore your relationship with food, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you have a hard time processing difficult, hard, or uncomfortable experiences or emotions? If yes, do you find yourself often turning to food?
  • Do you feel like you often use food to “numb out,” distract yourself, or so you don’t have to feel anything?
  • Do you feel like you frequently turn to food to comfort yourself or to hide?

If emotional eating feels like it’s weighing you down

Food is meant to be emotional. We gain pleasure, comfort, and nourishment from the foods we eat, and the experiences we have centered around food, like birthdays and holidays. Enjoyment of food is part of a healthy relationship with food, so emotional eating isn’t a bad thing.

However, if you feel out of control or like you turn to food frequently in order to cope with difficult emotions and experiences, and you feel like it’s a problem, here are some ideas to help.

  • Keep a journal (or use the notes app on your phone): Before an eating experience, write down your emotion and your hunger level on a scale of 0-10 (0 = empty; 6 = satisfied; 10 = so stuffed you feel sick). Begin to observe (not judge yourself) of how food relates to your emotions. Sometimes simply creating awareness of how you truly feel helps.
  • Begin truly listening to your body: Often, we don’t realize how disconnected we are from our bodies. We don’t make times to even check-in with ourselves or our hunger, fullness, or cravings. The next time you feel like using food to cope with a difficult emotion or experience, take a pause, breathe, and ask yourself, “What it is that I really need right now?”
  • Don’t let yourself get too hungry: Keep your body well nourished. Eat something within an hour of waking and every 3 to 4 hours after that. If you let yourself go over 5 hours without eating, you’re setting yourself up to make decisions from an emotional hungry place.
  • Explore other emotional outlets: It’s so important to have a way to process emotions. Nightly journaling, therapy, yoga, exercise, and meditation are all very helpful ways to explore emotional release. Experiment and see what works for you.
  • Get support: If you need support, get it. There are therapists and registered dietitians who can help you. Getting support isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.

The most important ingredient of all

As you navigate throughout your nutrition and wellness journey, please remember the most important ingredient of all, self-compassion. In my practice, the clients who learn this beautiful skill, are resilient and brave, and they keep showing up for themselves no matter what. You can absolutely do this too. As self-compassion researcher, Dr. Kristin Neff notes, “Unlike self-criticism which asks if you’re good enough, self-compassion asks what’s good for you.” Because there’s a difference.