Emotional Eating: An Explainer

Written by Andrea Butler

Andrea manages all social media and content for Nati’s Health. She is also a freelance content specialist & writer, and holds an MA in Political Communications. Originally from New York, she is currently enjoying life on the other side of the Atlantic.

19 Mar, 2021

We’re thrilled to be partnering with Ksoni, makers of sustainable, natural, and ethically-produced hair & skincare, for their Sustainable Self-Love Series. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be talking about some of our favourite self-love topics here and other at Ksoni’s blog. Be sure to check out their website and their amazing products!

Sustainable self-love doesn’t have to always equate with purchasing something new to treat yourself, or making a massive lifestyle change.  Rather, it can simply mean learning more about yourself, and tending to your emotions in a way you haven’t before.  

At Nati’s Health, a wellbeing coaching brand, we help people understand how their emotions impact their eating habits.  We want all members of our community to be free of self-judgement and to feel at peace with themselves.  This starts with understanding what emotional eating is. 

Emotional eating is something that most people deal with at one time or another. When we experience uncomfortable emotions, we often turn to food for self-soothing, and shame around eating “too much” or “the wrong thing” can make these negative emotions even stronger. 

Why do we often turn to emotional eating?

Primal Behaviour: Nourishment of the body is a basic primal need; the urge to stock up on food and eat more “just in case” all stem from fear. When we feel grounded, we have a sense of safety and security and a general trust in life. When we lose this grounding and feel fear,  we reach for the first thing that is available and will give us comfort: food.

Deprivation/Dopamine: When we’re feeling sad, anxious, stressed, or otherwise badly, our brains crave dopamine, a chemical that directly affects the reward and pleasure centres. Food, especially junk food, stimulates this reward system. Our bodies will always crave the most energy-efficient food to survive, so even though an apple or a steak will also release dopamine, the effect is nowhere near as powerful as a tub of ice cream.

Boredom/Mindless Eating: When we’re bored, our brains and bodies crave stimulation. When we’ve exhausted all our other options for entertainment, or simply do not have the energy to do anything else, food is an easy way to get that stimulation fix. 

Emotions: Generally, emotional eating relates to not wanting to feel things.  We try to avoid the surfacing of difficult emotions by stuffing them down with food. It’s much easier to cope with physical discomfort (such as an overly full belly), than emotional discomfort.

Remember: there is nothing inherently wrong with emotional eating.  It’s a natural, human response, and nothing to be ashamed of.  However, if you want to try to move your coping mechanisms away from food, here are some great ways to start:

  • When you feel a craving come up, try to step back and look at the craving/emotion with curiosity, not judgment. Think of it as a riddle to solve, not a mistake that needs fixing. Ask yourself “Why am I craving______?” and “What could be the reason?” How would it make you feel if you gave in to the craving? How would you feel a few hours later or the following morning?
  • If you notice the urge to eat, acknowledge it. Take a breath, and give yourself a moment to reflect on the feeling. If you decide to act on that craving, make sure it is a conscious decision, and that the decision was made mindfully. If you still decide to eat that piece of cake or two, make sure you don’t judge yourself for it.
  • Ask yourself the following questions: What is it I actually want? Am I anxious, bored or tired? Do I need a break from my computer? Would a walk outside help? From what am I trying to distract myself? Tune into your body and trust that you will come up with the right answer.
  • When you’re experiencing strong emotions, sometimes it’s best to get out of your head and into your body.  Get on the floor and do some quick yoga stretches, or simply close your eyes and take five, deep belly breaths.

Eating is not one size fits all. There are no set rules for how to eat, just like there are no set rules for how to cope with stress.  However, by being more mindful of our emotions, and our response to those emotions, we can understand, accept, and love ourselves even more.  

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