There’s a dirty little secret that no one wants to speak out loud: most people eat emotionally. You’re not weak and you’re certainly not alone if you turn to food when times get bad. And, no, you’re not doomed to gain weight. You’ll still be able to lose weight and keep it off if you eat when you’re sad. But instead of trying to stop emotional eating, you need to learn how to work with it.
Let’s face it: most of us aren’t great at self-soothing. It’s a skill that the modern world just doesn’t seem to teach children. Our parents console us for any minor upset, which feels wonderful and loving. But then we get out into the real world and find we’re ill-equipped to deal with the emotional fallout of troubles ourselves. Instead of processing emotions and moving on, most of us either bottle them up, let them take complete control, or ignore them altogether.
That’s where emotional eating comes in. Eating when you’re upset is actually a coping mechanism, a way to self-soothe. It’s not the only one, but it’s also not any worse than the other tactics for controlling emotions. If it’s the only one you currently practice, you’re going to want to expand your emotional toolkit. But that doesn’t mean trying to stop emotional eating is the right answer, either.
Let’s talk about ways to self-soothe
If our coping mechanisms make up our emotional toolkit, most of us have pretty sparse collections. We’re Andy and April from Parks and Rec who think a sack with a hammer in it is a toolkit. Your goal is to acquire new tools and learn how to work with them, not throw out the one you do already have. I’ll get to how to work with your eating instead of trying to stop emotional eating altogether in a minute.
I struggle with the same thing, but I’m making progress. I worked with a therapist for a long time on figuring out how to self-soothe. File me under people who bottle up emotions until they explode. I’m not going to tell you it’s an easy process to learn how to self-soothe, but it is worth the work.
In order to expand my emotional toolkit, my therapist had me think about ways I could comfort myself across all the different senses. Putting on your favorite sweatshirt was tactile, listening to music that calmed you down was auditory. She asked me to come up with as many as I could think of for each sense. And, yes, taste was a welcome category.
Not everything you come up with will work, or calm you down in every situation. You’ll likely have to experiment, and find a toolkit for each emotion. Your toolkit for working through sadness will almost always be different from the one you use for anger. Slowly but surely, though, you’ll build an arsenal of go-to methods for easing whatever emotion is taking hold.
If I’m sad, I now know exactly what blanket to grab, what sweater to put on, what candle to light to make myself feel most comforted. (I also have a hot chocolate on my list of my go-to products for anxiety management.) I no longer feel that horrible build-up that happens when you have no outlet for strong emotions. Instead of sitting with it and waiting for it to explode, I can essentially ease off the gas of what I’m feeling. Then I can examine it, and actually get to the root of what’s bothering me and find solutions. Sometimes the solution is just comforting myself for a while. But this toolkit has been essential for actually allowing me to learn from my reactions instead of just trying to manage them.
Why trying to stop emotional eating is the wrong answer
Eating can be a fantastic coping mechanism in your emotional toolkit, but you have to learn to work with it. You probably want to stop emotional eating because you feel like you have no control over it. But there’s a way for you to not only control this reaction but also use it to your advantage.
Food is comforting. There’s no way around that. Why do you think we have comfort food? But you need to identify what foods actually bring you comfort and soothe your emotions. You probably associate “emotional eating” with foods you use to try to stuff down emotions. Few of the foods you reach for are actually comforting. That’s where you need to put in work: identifying which foods actually ease your emotions and bring you to a place of comfort and safety.
My therapist always suggested having a dish of my favorite hard candy from childhood. That’s not going to work for everyone, and not everyone likes hard candy. Heck, it didn’t even work for me. But the root of it is sound. What foods do you associate with happier times? Favorite childhood foods fit this role perfectly since many of us were fortunate enough to feel happy and safe growing up.
How to work with your emotional eating
Once you identify the foods that actually ease your emotions, figure out how they fit in your daily diet. Is your comfort food conducive to a snack, or is it more of a meal? Then, much like an intuitive eater, your job is to work these foods in when you need them. Realize you’re upset, validate how you’re feeling, and plan ahead for the next meal or snack. Then, this is key, be mindful when you’re eating. Actually take time to savor it so it has a chance to do more than just fill your stomach. Acknowledge that you’re eating in order to soothe what you’re feeling.
You’ll end up eating less and what you eat will be more effective for making you feel better. But you have to stop thinking about emotional eating as something “bad,” otherwise you’ll never let yourself sit with what can be a valuable tool. Stop trying to stop emotional eating. It just isn’t the answer.