All About Emotional Eating

DietingIntuitive EatingNutrition
October 31, 2022
When it comes to emotional eating, concerns from our clients often sound something like…
“Why do I turn to food when I’m tired/sad/overwhelmed/excited?”
“How can I stop overeating to soothe sadness & loneliness?”
“Why can’t I stop eating out of boredom & procrastination when working from home?”
“How do I resist the urge to binge when I’m stressed out?”
Do any of the above resonate with you? If so, then this article is for you. We are aiming to answer your questions including:
  • What is emotional eating?
  • Reasons why you may eat emotionally
  • Strategies to manage emotional eating, and cope with your emotions without always turning to food

What is emotional eating?

Eating does not occur in a void and is inherently an emotional experience. Ever since you were a newborn, food has been comfort. Think about a mother giving milk to her infant to soothe them when they are crying. Just the smell of certain foods can evoke nostalgia and a sense of comfort. The smell of fresh bread baking, a curry simmering on the stove or a roast dinner in the oven.
There is a lot of diet culture messaging out there that would have you believe something is wrong with your for turning to food to soothe yourself. But actually this is a very normal human thing to do, and something that all of us do, regardless of body shape or size.
So, all of us eat emotionally. It’s when eating is our MAIN or ONLY method to deal with difficult emotions, that emotional eating can become problematic.
If this sounds like you, please know that you are far from being alone. So many of us have never learned the mechanisms we need to sit with and cope with tough emotions. And so it makes sense that you are turning to food. It’s all you know and it is serving a purpose right now.
The exciting news is that with the right tools, education and support, you can learn new ways to cope with tough feelings, without always turning to food.
“Food is love, food is comfort, food is reward, food is a reliable friend. And sometimes, food becomes your only friend in moments of pain and loneliness” – Evelyn Trible & Elyse Resch

Are you dieting or placing restrictions on how much or what you can eat? This can contribute to emotional eating…

If you are eating less calories than what your body needs, this can result in feeling very out of control around food. This is a common experience amongst our clients who are often engaged in weight loss attempts, which leave them feeling deprived and undernourished. No matter what myfitnesspal says, eating less than 2000kcal per day as a grown adult human is typically going to leave you feeling crazy around food. We have plenty of research to prove it. This is a survival mechanism. It’s your body saying, “There is a famine, my food supply is inadequate and unpredictable.” It does not know you are on a diet. What happens is that you then experience “backlash” or “out-of-control eating” as your body’s attempt to get the calories it needs. And this occurts regardless of body fat stores, shape or size. This “backlash” eating can often feel very emotionally driven when in fact, it is not comfort eating but rather your body’s attempt to survive a perceived famine.
Or perhaps you actively avoid “bad foods” or try to “eat clean”? But then when you are feeling uncomfortable or distressed you end up diving uncontrollably into all the foods you usually try to avoid? Sometimes emotions get in the way and interfere with your restriction. Interestingly, research shows that former or current dieters have higher emotional eating than do people without a history of dieting.
This is just something to be mindful of before reading the next sections of this article. Because often, when our clients learn how much food their body actually needs (not the crazy low amounts that years of dieting have instilled) and begin to nourish themselves, perceived emotional eating resolves (food for thought, maybe it wasn’t emotional eating, maybe you were just hungry?).

Strategies to overcome emotional eating

1. You’re going to have to stop beating yourself up about it

It is no use saying to yourself “uh, I’m such a pig for eating that tub of ice cream”. That will only make you feel worse. Research shows that harsh and negative self-talk actually demotivates us and prevents positive behaviour change. This is why we teach our clients to tools of self-compassion and non-judgemental self-dialogue. This helps them to approach their behaviours from a place of curiosty, which leaves space to learn about their behaviours and how they might change them.

2. When you feel the urge to eat emotionally, delay for 1 minute and check in with yourself

You can still go ahead and eat if you want after the minute is up. But first pause and start a 1 minute timer on your phone. Take a moment to close your eyes and check-in with yourself. Take a couple of deep breaths and try to name how you are feeling. The wheel image below can be a helpful tool for this. Research shows that being able to name our emotions can help us to better cope with them.
Emotions wheel
For many, this is not a simple task. If you grew up in environments where you were not encouraged to express your emotions freely, it can be tricky at first to know what the heck it is your emotions even are. You are not alone and with practice you can learn. If this is tough for you, professional support can be particularly helpful in learning this important life skill.

3. Ask what do I NEED?

Use the emotions you identified to figure out what is is you TRULY need in the moment.
Say you realised you are feeling lonely, then what you are needing is connection. Perhaps you can reach out to a friend on the phone.
If you are feeling sad, then you need joy. What activities can bring you joy? Petting a dog, watching a funny video, dancing to a feel-good song?
If you are feeling bored, you need stimulation.
And so on.
This is the life-changing magic of tuning into our emotions. Once we learn how, we get a gateway into our NEEDS and once we learn to recognise & meet our needs, life usually gets a lot smoother.

4. Make a list of ways to soothe yourself, that aren’t food

For example:
  • watching a show on netflix
  • painting your nails
  • calling your friend
  • going for a walk around the block
  • dancing to some happy music
  • deep breathing into your belly for 10 counts
  • a 10-minute yoga video like this one
Anything that makes you feel distracted and/or comforted. Write the list in your phone notes or stick the piece of paper somewhere you can easily refer to it when you need.

In Summary

Emotional eating isn’t inherently bad and there are many worse things you could be doing for your health than eating in times of stress and anxiety. Try looking at it through a different lense… this is an important clue that your body is giving you about your unmet needs. What are you really feeling? And therefore, what do you really need? All if this can be a treasure trove of information when we are equipped with self-compassion and able to view it from a curious lense.
If you’re looking to improve your relationship with food, feel more in control of your eating, and manage emotional eating, the evidenced-based approach Intuitive Eating can help. Enquire with us today or have a scroll through the rest of the blog to learn more.


Accredited Practising Dietitian + Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor


Accredited Practising Dietitian + Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor