Is emotional eating okay?
When there is talk about emotional eating, the conversation tends to go that emotional eating is good or bad. To know if emotional eating is supportive to your health, it depends what type of emotional eating is happening. In today’s post I wanted discuss the 5 types of emotional eating that Intuitive Eating lays out. Emotional eating is not a component of biological hunger, but of emotional hunger. The 5 types of emotional eating move from mild and harmless to intense and harmful. Here’s the continuum from Intuitive Eating:
Intuitive Eating states that pleasure is, “the mildest and most common feeling that food can call forth.” Finding pleasure from food is a necessary part of a healthy relationship with food. We should all seek out pleasure and enjoyment from food on a regular basis. To turn off the drive to eat, that is, to not be left ruminating about food between meals/snacks, food needs to provide fullness and satisfaction. One thing that comes to my mind with finding pleasure from food is ending a meal with something sweet. You have your meal and then have something sweet to put a natural boundary around the meal until your body says it’s time for a snack. Eat food that is pleasant to your palate should be an expected, enjoyable, and a natural part of feeding yourself.
Pleasure from food gets corrupted in diet culture where pleasure and guilt start going hand in hand. If you find pleasure in something, there’s talk of, “oh I’m so bad for having this” or “oh I shouldn’t.” That meme of the Karen freaking out about cake comes to mind when her friend is like, “For goodness sakes, Karen, it’s just a piece of cake, not murder.” Pleasure from food must be involved to have a healthy relationship with food. Since food is not addictive*, finding pleasure from food, once a person has a healthy relationship with food – which means, full permission to eat all foods and one has access to hunger/fullness/craving cues – will not drive you to need or want more and more. Finding pleasure in food will instead help you arrive at satisfaction and fullness and will turn off the drive to eat.
[*There is a difference between chemical addictions and process addictions. Food can be a process addiction, but as far as we know, food does not have the ability to transform one’s brain, which would make it a chemical addiction. Comparisons between the addictive nature of drugs and food are therefore unhelpful and inaccurate. If you’re interested, here is a slightly dated, but well done, review of the sugar addiction research. Addictive appearing behaviors with food are driven by mental or physical restriction from food.]
Nothing tastes better than the taste of nostalgia. When I think of comforting foods, I think of my mom making spontaneous dinners of artichokes and focaccia for dipping as we all huddled around our coffee table for dinners growing up. I think of salmon + sourdough + salad + wine eaten in Laguna. I think of my dad making queso on vacation. I think of any meal my mother-in-law makes for us. I think of my Tata dipping chips into her frozen margarita (don’t knock it ’til you try it).
Food has the power to bring forth comfort, connection, and heartfelt memories. Intuitive Eating says, and I agree, that, “eating comfort foods can be a part of a healthy relationship with food, if you do it while staying present and without guilt. If, however, food is the first and only thing that comes to mind to take care of you when you are feeling sad, lonely, or uncomfortable, it can keep you from getting to the core of your feelings.” It’s supportive to your health to have a variety of ways to care for yourself outside of food and drinks.
If trying to distinguish if a particular type of comfort eating is supportive to your overall health, a question to ask yourself is: With this food, am I adding more joy to my life, or am I cover up a negative emotion? This may be hard to distinguish it at first, but over time it will become more clear.
Intuitive Eating states that, “food can be used to distract you from feelings you choose not to experience. Using food to cope in this way can become troublesome, as it can be a seductive behavior that blocks your ability to detect your intuitive signals. It can also inhibit you from discovering the source of the feelings and taking care of your true needs.”
The appeal of distracted eating does still call to me. Disordered eating behaviors are predictable and we can use that predictability to gain control. Here’s how the predictable call to eat for distraction goes for me:
Something really overwhelmed me (maybe I’m aware of this overwhelm or not) and by the end of the day I find myself in the kitchen after dinner going from the fridge to the pantry to the pantry to the fridge, but nothing sounds satisfying and I’m not hungry. If nothing sounds satisfying and there is no hunger present, that is typically a sign that what I’m looking for from food is distraction (if you are in eating disorder recovery, if nothing sounds satisfying and you are no hungry…talk to your treatment team about how to address this. You may still need to eat). The idea here is to open a space between stimulus (i.e. overwhelm and being pushed past limit) and response (i.e. going to food to distract), and realize that in that space I have a choice of how I want to care for yourself. I acknowledge I’m seeking distraction and sometimes I have a couple pieces of chocolate and other times I just say UGHHHHHHH THIS DAY SUCKS and I go do my replacement distraction behavior instead, which for me is: take a bath. With kids, delayed gratification for parents is a thing. Sometimes I have to delay my distraction behavior until the kids are in bed if it’s my night to do bedtime/bathtime or if Andrew is at his limit too and needs support. The desire for me to be distracted mainly pops up in the evenings, so a bath makes sense. In the bath I read, watch a youtube video, scroll social media or listen to a podcast…the point is to distract me until I can do something that actually meets my needs (like go to bed).
I also want to talk about discontentment leading to a desire to distract. I like that topic a lot, so I’m going to save it for a future post instead of cramming it in here.
Eating to the point of numbness or sedation is also a type of emotional eating. Disordered eating behaviors are to regulate emotions. Instead of being with the difficult emotions inside, it feels safer to feel the feeling of fullness.
After this type of eating happens, the most powerful thing you can do is, as Isabel Foxen Duke recommends, take care of yourself like you would if you were hungover. Understanding the function of that disordered eating behavior and doing something kind for yourself or refreshing, even though it won’t feel natural is important. To nurture yourself and move forward into new caring behaviors, instead of falling into a shame spiral, which is more likely to lead to sedation-type eating in the future.
The way this type of eating typically presented for me in the past was undereating in the first half of the day, so I could eat to numb at the end of the day. A big part of my recovery looked like eating roughly the same amount in the morning as in the evening to address this behavior, as well as working with a therapist to understand the root issues at play. This type of eating can be very appealing to dissociate you from the pain inside. It can be hard to give up this coping mechanism, as it is a log keeping you afloat.
Intuitive Eating states, “Sometimes, eating for the purpose of sedation becomes so frequent and intense that self-blame ensues and ultimately triggers punishing behaviors. Clients find themselves eating large quantities of food in an angry, forceful manner that allows them to feel beaten up. This is a severe form of emotional eating and can lead to loss of self-esteem and self-hatred. Clients who use food to punish themselves report no pleasure in their eating and actually begin to hate food. Fortunately, this type of eating behavior disappears when the Nurturer voice can be cultivated to give understanding and compassion.” No one self harms for no reasons. No one has an eating disorder for no reason. There is healing for you and I pray you get access to it. There are so many wonderful eating disorder clinicians and trauma processing clinicians who can support your healing.