Unpacking emotional eating

March 11, 2018


For many of us, food means a whole lot more than just fuel for our bodies.


Growing up in cultures where food is often synonymous with celebration and the prevalence of marketing messages coming at us from every device, it makes sense that we often grow to associate food with feelings, even on a subconscious level. We have all seen this in movies: the girl eating ice-cream in bed after a break-up, the guy getting drunk in the pub after a hard day at the office, the mom furiously eating biscuits while her child sleeps... or sipping hot chocolate to remind you of childhood moments. 




When we start to rely on what we eat to manage our moods, alleviate stress and anxiety, avoid difficult times and accompany all our happy moments, we’re engaging in what’s known as emotional eating.





At first, it can be challenging to wrap our heads around what exactly is the pitfall of this particular behaviour. After all, getting pleasure and enjoyment from our diets hardly seems problematic. But like most things in life, this is all about degrees. There is absolutely a healthy way to savour our food, enjoy it and even occasionally indulge without any issues, but it can also be easy to subconsciously cross that line and enter into emotional eating territory.


Unpacking our attitudes around food can take a lot of time, effort and attention - because we do it so habitually, sometimes it can be hard to identify what behaviours verge into being unhealthy for the body and mind. Think about your own relationship with food and consider these questions.


> Do you feel out of control about what you eat and when?


> Do you tend to turn to food in times of stress, conflict and anxiety?


> Do you find it hard to stop eating when food is available, even when you start to feel full?


> Do you tend to obsess about food and fixate on what you’re going to eat, or what you’ve eaten?


> Do you find your self-talk around food is healthy and balanced, or do you tend to beat yourself up about what you eat?


> Do you ever eat out of a sense of obligation, because of where you are, what you’re doing or who you’re with?


Emotional eating can pose a problem if left unresolved, and at its worst can result in a range of disordered eating behaviours. At its core, emotional eating can have a negative impact on our lives because it robs us of a sense of autonomy and control. Rather than thinking of nutrition as something that can free us and allow us to enjoy life to the fullest, we can feel bound to food habits that don’t serve us.


To understand the cause and effect of emotional eating, it can be helpful to think of it as a chain of events that starts with a trigger and repeats itself in a loop-like way.


  • Triggers: These are cues that cause us to use food in a particular way, in a particular situation. Usually it relates to the time of the day, where you are, who you are with, what you are doing or how you are feeling. Despite the context, the events are similar in that they both result in an eating response that isn’t triggered by a genuine nutritional need (i.e being hungry, requiring calories for energy etc), but by an emotional one.


  • Habit Loops: Things start to get more serious when those behaviours become habitual. As your body and mind become used to a particular trigger, you are more likely to repeat that same behaviour, even subconsciously. Over time, you begin to rely on that particular food, or habit to cope with emotional situations, especially when they involve conflict, stress or anxiety.


  • Results: The more you turn to food as your crutch in both positive and negative situations, the more the emotion behind the behaviour continues to be obscured and remains unresolved. Beyond this, you then must confront the physical implications of eating beyond your body’s nutritional needs - this can include disordered eating and obesity, among many other conditions.






1. Learn your own triggers:


Consider your own life. In what situations do you find yourself turning to food, for celebration or for comfort? In these instances, are you acting in line with what your body truly needs, or is the food serving another purpose? Become aware when you are practising hungry eating vs non-hungry eating and if it’s the latter, consider what emotion may be beneath the surface. The more you observe situations that catalyse this kind of behaviour, the more control you will have over them in the future.



2. Be curious:


Why does a particular food hold certain associations for you? Why is it that you feel a celebration is not complete without desert? Why do you feel driven to eat around certain groups of people - or not at all in others?


Once you become mindful of the trigger and can reality-check the thought process behind the habit, it’s time to consider how you can resolve the emotion itself. Sometimes, our culture can dictate that we should avoid anything that doesn’t make us feel good and happy, because certain emotions = discomfort. I’d challenge you to reality-check this thought and learn to sit with the feelings that we might typically use food to mask. If your particular trigger is stress-related, how can you acknowledge that stress and express it in a more productive way?



3. Replace with healthier habits:


Only once you’ve dealt with the emotion behind the food trigger, can you make room for healthier, more productive habits. One of the most important ways to do this is practise mindful eating. When you are eating…just do that. Ditch the tv, the phone, and simply savour the healthy, nutritious food you fuel your body with.


The more conscious you are, the more you will be able to tune into your own unique hunger cues. As you connect back to what your body is telling you, you can more confidently stop eating when you feel full, take control of your portion sizes and make sure your environment is conducive to truly enjoying the meal in front of you. Make sure that your own eating is not mandated by other people - be aware of how certain company can affect your food choices and resolve to own your own decisions, rather than giving into peer pressure and feeling negative afterwards.


There’s no doubt that unpacking emotional eating is a deeply personal process. It requires us to step outside of our daily routines which are so often on autopilot and question WHY we make certain decisions without even knowing that we’re making them. It takes bravery and honesty, and depending on your situation, it may be best explored with the support of loved ones and/or trained professionals, who can provide a safe place for you to sift through your triggers, analyse your habit loops and create healthier behaviours going forward.



And most importantly, remember that this is a long process and progress is made by consistently paying attention to the strategies listed above. 





If you think you could benefit from exploring emotional eating and building healthier, more resilient habits, then you’ll want to learn more about NAILING NUTRITION


NAILING NUTRITION is a six-week online course that supports you to turn that intention into inspired, practical action.


Combining nutrition fundamentals, with a whole host of topics around healthy habits, emotional eating, mindset, budgeting and more, you’ll access educational video modules, targeted live Q&A calls, and an exclusive online community.


Interested? Find out more.


We kick off April, 9th and you can take advantage of early-bird pricing for a limited time only.


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©2017 by Juliana Lisboa - Dietitian, APD.