I was inspired to write this post this week after receiving an unexpected message from someone asking for help with this topic. While this is one of the issues I work with on a daily basis in my job as a clinician, this message reminded me just how many people who are not in treatment are struggling with the issue of emotional eating and may not even know the first place to start. I would venture to say that the number of people in the U.S. alone who struggle on some level with emotional eating is in the millions. While the obesity numbers are easy to find (if you agree with the particular metrics being used — and if it’s BMI, count me out), it would be impossible to get an accurate count of emotional eaters because it’s so common that it’s both normalized and underreported.
It’s important to acknowledge that emotional eating is not always a “bad” thing. In this culture and many others, we eat to celebrate, we eat to connect, and we eat to comfort. And you know what? That can be good and soul-nourishing. There’s the old saying, “You should eat to live, not live to eat” — and I only partially agree with that. Food is a great joy in my life, and while my relationship with it has been very out of whack at points in my past, I am now a proud “foodie” and also feel like food has its rightful priority in my life: not too low, not too high. Food no longer has the power to control or ruin my day, or to save the day.
So when do we need to watch out for emotional eating? I’m a firm believer in assessing all things for how workable they are in your life. Behaviors and thoughts are not inherently “good” or “bad.” There will be times that eating based on emotion may take you closer to a rich and fulfilling life — defined in YOUR terms — and there may be times it takes your farther from it. (This concept of “workability” is big in ACT, one of the therapy models I love.) And of course, you can’t really take a step back and ask yourself that question without mindfulness of what you’re feeling and needing in the present moment, which is why mindfulness is a critical skill for this and all parts of life.
If you’re like most of us, there will be times when you know damn well that you’re emotionally eating and that you’re going to feel badly about it later because it does not align with your values or what you truly need in that moment. So what to do when you feel that urge coming on, or catch yourself halfway through a bag of Lay’s?
This is where tangible, actionable strategies come in. Other ways to give yourself the comfort you need in that moment without making things worse for yourself by doing something you’ll regret later. There are tons more than the ones I’ve listed below, and I made some of these a little outside the box because you already know of some of the more obvious ones (though none of us consistently do what we “obviously” know works when we’re struggling in the moment, right?!) like calling a friend or taking a bubble bath.Read More