I used to call myself an Emotional Eating Coach. Mostly because it was a big part of what I helped women with. But what’s funny is that when I would tell people what I do, I would get a very interesting reaction. A reaction like I was helping lost souls who had a food problem. Like, “wow you are truly doing important work.” Don’t get me wrong, my clients completely change their lives in my program. But, I realized I was getting this reaction from people because most people I encountered never considered themselves an emotional eater.
It’s much more common than people think. And many of us don’t know we’re doing it in the moment. Not only is it common, it’s pretty much celebrated in our society. So you might be an emotional eater. Because most people are.
A Misconception About Emotional Eating
Most people hear emotional eater and think, kind of the same thing. A woman sitting with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s eating her feelings. And yes, that’s one form of emotional eating but it isn’t the only way it shows up in people’s lives.
That’s why most people don’t think of themselves as emotional eaters. They only see it as one way of eating.
What Is Emotional Eating
I like to simply define it as using food to enhance your emotional state. It’s any form of eating where you are using food to control your emotions. Whether that be to stop feeling a negative emotion or to use food to make yourself happier or more relaxed.
Different Types of Emotional Eaters
- The Sad Eater – Think the Ben & Jerry’s break up scene that’s in hundreds of Rom Coms. This is what most people associate emotional eaters with. “I’m sad so I’ll eat my feelings away.”
- The Stress Eater – As you probably guessed, this is the emotional eater who doesn’t want to feel stress. This was me with my snack draw at work. “I have a lot on my plate right now so I just need a few bites of something tasty to take the edge off.”
- The I Just Need To Unwind Eater – You’re coming home on Friday after a long week. You think, I just need a treat to unwind after the long day and proceed to order takeout.
- The I’m Bored Eater – The bored eater typically only has a few bites here and there. Or snacks while watching tv to enhance the experience. It doesn’t count if it’s a few bites right?
- The Eating Is The Fun Part Eater – The most common emotional eater. Usually big into overeating or indulging in unhealthy foods at events because they view food as one of the main sources of fun.
Eating to Enhance The Fun
Although I had been guilty of every single one of those examples, it was the last one that I had never questioned. Most of us don’t even consider that to be emotional eating. Because food has to be around in times of celebration, right?
Imagine your birthday is coming up. And I said you can celebrate any way you want but there isn’t going to be food or alcohol at the party. For most people, this suggestion would be sacrilegious. So, I pose this question to you, why do you need food and alcohol to celebrate your birthday?
Maybe your answer is that the day won’t be special without a fancy dinner or a night out with booze. But it’s not the food or drinks that is making the day feel special, it’s your thoughts about what the alcohol or dinner means to you.
How do I know it’s your thoughts and not the food itself that makes you feel special? Because there is someone out there who celebrated their birthday in a way that wasn’t focused on food or alcohol and had a great time.
Maybe this other person went skydiving for their birthday. And their thought was that skydiving would make the day feel special. They may think that dinner or an alcohol loaded party is a boring way to celebrate their birthday. If someone out there can disagree, then you are looking at a thought not a fact.
But before you say, this lady is crazy and has no fun…
Let me say that I do like to celebrate with food and drink sometimes. Just because I enjoy it. But, when you recognize that you can create that special or celebration feeling without food, you have so much more freedom. You can show up to any celebration having a good time without the need to use food to enhance it. Because you’ve learned the power of creating emotions with your mind. And you learn to create fun in your life outside of just drinking and eating (which used to be my only hobbies in my early to mid 20s).
Eating to Avoid Uncomfortable Emotions
How you approach emotional eating with negative emotions will be different than how you approach positive emotions. Because you likely don’t want to create more stress with your mind. It’s the exact opposite. You just want a break.
Now that I walked through the fact that we create emotions with our minds, you can use this to your advantage. You can explore what thoughts are causing stress, for example, and question whether these thoughts are true.
I’m going to get fired for this mistake probably will make you feel stressed. But you can question any thought like, maybe I won’t get fired and thinking this way probably doesn’t benefit me. So the need to eat away the feeling of stress won’t be so strong.
Clearly what’s just a thought will also lead to another form of empowerment. If you stop eating and notice all of the thoughts that are stressing you out are about work, you know where to focus your effort on changing. You can make work less stressful so you don’t have to focus on stopping the stress eating as much,
Feeling the Feelings
Another way to nip the stress (or boredom or sadness) eating is to realize that the worst case scenario is experiencing this emotion. You may feel some tightness in your chest and a queasy stomach from your stress but that’s the worst of it. So when you’re experiencing a negative emotion, you can acknowledge that eating will help you escape it for a little. But also eating when you’re not hungry is only going to compound your negative emotion. Because then you have to deal with the consequences of overeating (weight gain) on top of the emotion coming back once the food is gone.
Emotional eating is giving away your emotional wellbeing to food. It disempowers you and leaves your happiness in the hands of a bag of chips. But you can take back your power from food by acknowledging that your thoughts create your emotions. And then deciding to be intentional about how you want to continue to think and act.