How to stop emotional eating - but wait, do you need to?!

06 Nov 2019

Why do we eat to soothe?

There are a million reasons why sometimes we turn to food to give us comfort. Many of these reasons are instilled in us when we’re growing up. It makes sense really, did you have a favourite cuddly toy you turned to when you were upset? I’ll bet you have similar memories of certain foods which made you feel cozy, loved or nurtured. Below are just some of the reasons why eat to soothe…

To escape from self


This is sometimes referred to as the stress paradigm, where we do something which we rationally know might not benefit our long term health (like smoking or eating a whole tub of ice cream every night) but we do it anyway because it gives us a chance for some ‘me-time’ or a chance to escape what’s going on in our lives at the time.

Learned strategy to cope

For many of us we learn to use food (like I said before, often from a really young age!) as a coping mechanism. When we’re younger we don’t always have access to coping strategies that we do as adults (e.g. someone to talk to, mindfulness practice etc) but food might be readily available meaning we can use this to soother easier than we can other things.

Poor interoceptive awareness (awareness of what’s going on inside us)

When we’re very disconnected from our internal feelings of hunger, fullness, satisfaction and enjoyment from food it can be very easy to over/under consume foods. Lots of us experience patterns of disordered eating which relates to our cultural and social obsession with the thin ideal and also fat phobia. This tells us that our bodies are wrong and that we can’t be trusted around food. But, when you put your trust in external factors (diet books, diet plans, diet TV shows) it can be really hard to unpick whether you're eating for hunger or for other reasons.


Negative emotions interfere with our control of eating

Sometimes we might be feeling something which makes us not want to eat anything. Other times we might want to eat a lot. Both of these steer away from how we’d usually eat during the day and are a very natural reaction to our emotions.

Why it might sometimes be bad…

Eating to soothe results in short-term improvement of emotions, but this is temporary and doesn’t actually fix the problem we’re facing or get to the root cause of our emotions. It can also have negative consequences for longer term eating behaviours and wellbeing. Negative emotions nearly always result in preference for fun foods (e.g. chocolate, crisps, cake etc) 

and that’s a pretty normal response. Eating fun foods is exactly that FUN, but if we’re ignoring our fullness and satisfaction it can be easier to feel sick or unwell when consuming these types of food. This is especially true if you feel guilt or shame anytime you eat to cope with what's going on in life.

Why it’s not so bad!!

But what if we started to think about emotional eating in a different way? What if we saw it as a gift in disguise… 

Stay with me now. When you acknowledge that you’re not physically hungry, but you still have the drive to eat this can tell you that there’s something else going on in life that needs addressing. It can be one of the first indicators that you might be in need of some extra self-care or that you need to take a step back and re-assess how you’re doing.

We can’t reduce ALL stress in life (and some is definitely good) but we can change our perspective to them or cope with stress better.

How to cope with food AND other strategies

Intuitive eating can help us to stay aware of when we’re eating for reasons other than hunger. This can be hard to disentangle and seeking support from trained professionals might be helpful. But, some methods of coping you might want to try out are…

* Breathing exercises *

* Meditation *

* Being in nature *

* Reading a book *

* Listening to a podcast *

* Moving your body *

* Talking to someone *

* Sleep! *

It’s important to remember that it’s 100% OKAY to eat for emotional reasons, especially if this is your main coping strategy. But having other tools at your disposable to help you through difficult times (which are unavoidable for all of us) alongside food can be better for sustainable coping and can help you feel better quicker.

"Eating is emotional. Food is not just nutrition and fuel for our bodies; it is part of our history, our culture, our family" - Alissa Rumsey