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Emotional Eating Decoded: How to Stop Stuffing Your Feelings Down With Food

May 16, 2023

Self-Paced Course: Non-Diet Academy


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A Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) with a master's degree in dietetics & nutrition. My passion is helping you find peace with food - and within yourself.

Meet Katy

Your feelings are there to communicate important things to you, so we’re going to look at how to “decode” and decipher what it is that you are actually needing in those moments when you want to eat but you’re not hungry. 

In fact, I have a worksheet that is going to help you with this and you can download it for free here. It’s perfect for figuring out what it is that you’re feeling and needing besides food so that you can connect with your feelings and address them more directly. 

A Change in the Conversation About Emotional Eating

In the original Intuitive Eating book and workbook there was a chapter called “Cope With Your Feelings Without Using Food.” The authors have since updated the language to say “Cope With Your Feelings With Kindness.” This is a really important shift that has taken place in the intuitive eating space and the way that we view food and feelings. 

We used to view it as any type of emotional eating was something to steer away from because it wasn’t in response to hunger – and this got taken too far where people were labeling emotional eating as this terrible thing. What we’ve come to recognize and embrace is that eating in response to emotions is a perfectly normal thing to do at times. And that we need to take more of a compassionate approach to how we respond to our emotions. Because “cope with feelings without using food” has a very different undertone than “cope with your feelings with kindness.” You can see where we are bringing in more of the self-compassion framework into the process. In fact, I’d venture to say that self-compassion is one of the unsung heroes of making peace with food, and we’ll talk more about that later in this episode. 

Essentially what we’re talking about here is emotional eating, and those reasons that we turn to food when we aren’t physically hungry. And I really want to set the tone for this discussion by emphasizing that it’s not a bad thing to eat in response to emotions. We ALL do it at times, and it’s part of normal eating and being a human being. 

When Emotional Eating Becomes a Problem

That said, there are times it can go too far and it can become a problem. A lot of us use food to cope with feelings. And when I say “using food,” I mean that sometimes we eat certain foods in response to emotions, but I also mean that sometimes we restrict or withhold food in response to emotions. And sometimes we diet as a way to try and cope with how we are feeling. Often we don’t even know we are doing this. These food and dieting behaviors become such a normalized part of our lives that we aren’t even aware that we are using it to distract from or numb ourselves from feeling our feelings. 

I want to reiterate that I’m not pathologizing emotional eating. It’s just that when this becomes the only way we have to cope, or when we are actually using it to avoid our feelings, then it becomes a problem. Same thing with online shopping and buying yourself something to feel better – it’s not a problem if you do it every once in a while, but if you’re buying things constantly in response to emotions then it becomes problematic because you’re overspending or buying a bunch of stuff you don’t truly even want or need. 

So with intuitive eating we are working on finding different ways to connect with our emotions, and to view them as messages from our soul. Our emotions aren’t something we need to be afraid of. They serve an important purpose in terms of telling us what we need. With intuitive we practice noticing our feelings, naming them and giving language to how we’re feeling (which is sometimes harder than you think it will be because most of us weren’t raised with a very good emotional vocabulary), and then we must learn how to cope with our feelings in ways that are more kind and compassionate towards ourselves. This is why it can be super helpful to work with a therapist AND a dietitian when you’re going through this process because intuitive eating is one of those things where it is about the food, but it’s also NOT about the food and we need to address it from both angles. 

Checking In With Yourself Before You Eat

Let me share one of my best tips for this. For the next few days try to make a really conscious effort to pause and check in with yourself each time before you eat. And you’re going to ask yourself: “Am I hungry?” 

If yes – then of course we want you to eat. Ask yourself:

  • What do I want to eat?
  • What does my body need in order to feel good?
  • What do I have available to me?

And then eat your food and enjoy it while listening to your body to tell you when you’ve had enough.

If you ask yourself that question “Am I hungry?” and the answer is no, then that’s where we are going to decode your desire to eat emotionally. I want you to ask yourself:

  • What am I thinking? (or avoiding thinking about)
  • What am I feeling? (or avoiding feeling)
  • What do I need?
  • What can I do for myself right now? 

The act of slowing down long enough to ask yourself these questions is therapeutic and valuable in itself. You will find with practice that you get better and better at noticing when you are having emotional hunger or unmet needs outside of food and the urge to eat. 

This would be a great time to pull out your journal or the worksheet I talked about earlier. 

Food Cravings Can Be Symbolic of Our Needs

Sometimes the types of food we are craving in those moments are symbolic. Think about the food you’re wanting and whether there’s any significance to it in your life. If you are wanting cake maybe you’re craving fun or celebration – because we often have cake for birthdays, weddings and other celebrations. If you’re wanting chips, maybe there’s something about the crunching that is helping crush your anger or frustration. If you’re wanting sweets, perhaps you’re needing more metaphorical sweetness in your life. I know this sounds cheesy, but there’s something to it. Anita Johnston is a psychologist and she talks a lot about the symbolism with food and feelings. I highly recommend her book Eating in the Light of the Moon

In an ideal world, you would notice what you are feeling or needing and you could directly respond and get that need met. For example, let’s say you’re at your computer working and you find yourself wanting to eat and you check in with yourself and realize that you’re not hungry and that what you are actually feeling is stressed and tired, and what you are needing is a break from your work and your computer. So instead of getting a snack, you decide to honor your need for a break and you walk away from your computer for 5 minutes of fresh air outside.

What to do When You Can’t Get Your Needs Met

Now, sometimes we can’t directly get our needs met in that moment. Let’s say that I had been needing a break, but I couldn’t take one for some reason. Like maybe I had to get through the rest of the course, or I was in a meeting that I had to be present for. I could acknowledge the need for a break, and give myself compassion for the fact that I wasn’t going to get that need met in the moment. 

This is something that I don’t want to just drive by because it’s easy to overlook it. Let’s slow down and talk about this second part of what to do if you can’t get your needs met in that moment that you’re wanting to eat. Like I said, if you can directly meet the need, do that, and make sure you are registering in your mind that your need is being met. Sometimes even when we are getting our needs met it doesn’t fully register and we still want to turn to food, so help your brain connect those dots when you are meeting your needs more directly. It might not feel as good as eating. It might actually feel worse than eating. Often we are so used to not getting our needs met that it feels uncomfortable when they are.

Giving yourself compassion for unmet needs. 

This is huge. And it’s essential for making peace with food. In fact, it’s in the self-care module of my course Non-Diet Academy where we talk about this and I always explain to people that self-care and self-compassion are the least obvious and most overlooked tools in the intuitive eating journey. Giving yourself compassion is an active process. And it’s not about feeling sorry for yourself or “letting yourself go.” 

There are two sides to self-compassion: the yin and the yang.

The yin is the tender side of self-compassion. It’s when we say to ourselves, “This is really hard right now.” And we offer ourselves gentle comfort and care.

The yang is the fierce side of self-compassion. Kristin Neff (the self-compassion researcher) calls it our “mama bear energy.” It’s when we become our own cheerleader and say, “Yes, this is hard, and I am going to take care of myself.” It’s saying no to things that aren’t in your best interest, and saying yes to things that are for your own good. 

Let’s use a food-related example. Perhaps you are at work and you are wanting to grab some chocolate from the vending machine. You check in with your body and realize you aren’t hungry, and that the reason you are wanting chocolate is because you are in shame over making a mistake on something at work. You are pretty full from lunch, and you realize that eating chocolate wouldn’t be “bad” or “wrong,” but that it also isn’t going to make you feel very good physically, and it’s not what you are needing anyway. As you check in with your feelings and your needs outside of food, you identify that you are needing comfort and reassurance and to know that it’s ok to make mistakes and that the error can be fixed and you will still be seen as a competent and valuable employee. 

So you’ve identified the need, and here’s how you can apply self-compassion:

Yin – You could place your hands on your heart and take a few deep breaths, and tell yourself, “It’s ok. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. It doesn’t mean I’m stupid or incompetent. I’m human, and everything will be ok. In the grand scheme of things this is not that big of a deal.”

Yang – You might think about your next steps. You could fake being sick and leave work for the rest of the day, but that’s not really the compassionate thing to do, right? Instead the fierce self-compassionate thing to do might be to talk with your boss or your coworkers about the mistake and what can be done to fix it, and to prevent it from happening again. To look at it without judgment towards yourself, but rather with the attitude of improving the process you use to get your job done and to deliver high quality work. In fact, your boss and coworkers might even respect you more because of this. Fierce self-compassion allows you to lean into what next steps need to be taken without shaming yourself. 

And you can see that nowhere in the yin or yang of self-compassion did you eat your feelings. Now, later that afternoon when you’re hungry for a snack you might still be wanting chocolate, and you might decide that it would be a really satisfying and comforting snack that day, and you choose to eat it mindfully. That’s SO different than inhaling chocolate as a way to numb your shame and anxiety. 

Coping With Kindness After You Emotionally Eat or Binge

Let’s look at another example. Perhaps you realize after the fact that you ate in response to emotions, or maybe even that you binged. How can you cope with kindness afterwards? 

With our society being so obsessed with having control over our food and weight, we tend to feel like a failure if we lose control.

But what if you didn’t see emotional eating or binging as a failure?

What if instead you saw it as an indicator and a signal that you need to check in with yourself?

Think of it like the warning light coming on in your car. It’s signaling you to check in and address an issue or a need.

Get curious about what you might have been thinking/feeling/needing outside of food. (Journaling is great for this!)

And give yourself some TLC. You might need to put a heating pad on your belly and watch Netflix for a while as your food digests. Your body knows how to handle the food – you just have to give it time. And then forgive yourself and move on.

No need to punish or try and “fix” it. Let your body do the work.

Your job is to treat yourself with the kindness and respect you inherently deserve just for being you.

This shift from punishment towards kindness is important. And powerful. But it will take practice.

3 Key Steps to Follow After Emotionally Eating

So here are 3 steps to remember after you emotionally eat or binge:

  1. Pause and give yourself compassion
  2. Get curious about what happened
  3. Make a pact with yourself that you will eat again when you are hungry (and that you’re NOT going to punish yourself.)

Some people find it helpful to have a list of things they can do to cope without using food. I encourage you to make a list that includes a variety of things that will work in different situations. What might work when you’re lounging on the couch at home is different than when you’re at work or driving in your car. 

If you’re at work you might take a quick bathroom break or grab some fresh air, or distract yourself with the thing you’re working on. Studies show that if you can distract for about 15-20 minutes the urge often passes. We just want to be careful not to use distraction as a way to avoid – you still want to check in with the emotion and be curious about that.

When you’re driving in your car and you’re wanting to hit the drive thru or the coffee shop or the gas station and it’s an emotional thing, maybe you have a special playlist that you turn on, or a podcast you can listen to and really engage with to distract your mind. Maybe you take a new route to where you’re going. Driving a new route forces us to be more mindful of where we are, so it’s a good distraction. 

So you get the point – think about different ways to cope that will work in different situations. I encourage you to have this saved as a list on your phone so you can pull it up when you need it. Sometimes when our emotions or our urges are high it’s hard to think clearly or to be creative with finding alternate solutions, so having that list on your phone can be like a menu of options to choose from. 

That’s my homework for you here – to make that list. It will only take you 5-10 minutes so do it right after this before you forget. In fact, I want you to make the list on your phone and then DM me with some of your ideas. If you need help coming up with ideas I’d LOVE to brainstorm with you. 

Don’t forget to grab the worksheet to help you identify what you’re feeling. Click here to download for free

And above all, my friend, be kind to yourself. This work takes time, patience and a LOT of practice. But it’s 100% worth it when you get to the point that you feel confident in trusting your body and your emotions. So much of this is about being connected with ourselves and trusting ourselves. And that’s my hope for this podcast. I am sending you so much love and support. We’ll talk again soon!

Resources Mentioned:

Eating in the Light of the Moon by Anita Johnston, PhD

Did you know you can listen to all this information in audio format?

I covered it all in episode 77 Emotional Eating Decoded: How to Stop Stuffing Your Feelings Down With Food

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Search for Episode 77 – Emotional Eating Decoded: How to Stop Stuffing Your Feelings Down With Food

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