Many of us who are not happy with our bodies also have a challenging relationship with food. We are so convinced that we can shape and control our body through our actions and our food choices that our relationship with food has become an emotional and moral landmine on a cultural level. In that landmine, emotional eating – a common human experience, is something many of us have become wary of and are ashamed to admit to.

While many people do suffer from their experience of emotional eating (we’ll get to that later), I do not believe eating emotionally is intrinsically a bad thing or something we need to banish from our lives. Do any of us want our experience of eating to be completely devoid of emotion? Do we want to be like Seven of Nine on starship Voyager who was content to get her nutrition in the most efficient form possible (bland, porridge-like supplements), not seeing the point in enjoyment and savouring of food? I’m guessing not. Food is one of life’s great pleasures, a central feature of most of our celebrations, not to mention essential to life.

But Sydney, I hear you say, there is a difference between having an enjoyable (and thus emotional) experience of eating and eating as a tool for coping with emotions. You are right. And it might be tempting to say that here is where the line is drawn. Yes, an emotional experience of the enjoyment of food is fine, even something to be celebrated. But food as a coping mechanism is bad – a sign of ill mental health. But I don’t think it’s that cut and dried. I think there is a space for food to be a comfort to us when life gets’s rocky. Like so many things it is a matter of balance and mindset. Crying into a pint of Hagen Daaz after a bad break up or finding comfort in mom’s cinnamon buns after a tough week at work can be part of what Ellen Satter calls normal eating.

“Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good.”

Read Satter’s full definition of Normal Eating here:

But for some, emotional eating becomes an emotional crutch that can have ill-effects on our mental and physical health. So how do we know when our experience of emotional eating may problematic? Here are some indicators of problematic emotional eating* to watch out for:

-food is our default or only way of self-care/ coping with challenging emotions
-we feel out of control when we eat
-we experience feelings of deep shame when we eat
-eating for comfort is something that is done in secret – we may hide treat / food stashes
-we spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about food and the emotional eating we’ve engaged in

If you are someone who experiences these struggles, the challenge is to a new way to cope with rocky emotions and relate to food. Here are some steps you can take to make that shift:

1: Do Not Diet. If food is our only source of comfort when we are in pain, then the answer isn’t to suddenly strip away our only safe haven with a restrictive diet. Sadly this is the path many people take to come to terms with their emotional eating, instead of digging deep to address the root causes of their pain. In many ways a diet plan can seem like a sane foothold – a step by step way to get our lives back to together. We think “If I can just follow these food and ‘lifestyle’ instructions, I will lose weight and get my life together”. But it is an illusion. Even for those who do (if temporarily) lose weight most often find that their pain has followed them into their new thinner body. If we do not take the time to explore what is really going on and address our emotional issues, a diet is doomed to fail and we are left feeling even more emotionally scarred because we feel like we are the failures. And the cycle continues.

Exploring an approach like Mindful or Intuitive Eating is a better option for building a healthy relationship with food while addressing emotional eating.

2. Treat the Cause, Not the Symptom – be willing to explore and address the causes of your emotional distress. Our problems with food are rarely actually about food. When we practice mindfulness and open our eyes to what is going on inside us, we are more able to see what is causing us pain that compels us to turn to food for comfort again and again. This isn’t easy work, so find supports for the journey. Read, reflect, engage in self care. It may be helpful see a mental health professional. Especially if you think you might be suffering from a disorder like Binge Eating Disorder -BED (see links to helpful BED info below).

Dr. Anita Johnstone’s Eating in the Light of the Moon can be a helpful resource in this work.

3. Expand Your Mental Health Toolkit. We don’t need to banish emotional eating. We just need to allow ourselves to find additional ways to engage in self-care so that we don’t rely on food as our sole source of comfort or self-care. Ask yourself what else can you do to show care to yourself when times are rough? It can be anything that offers you a space to breathe and practice mindfulness. Movement, art, spending time with animals. This weekend on a walk with my partner and dogs we spotted an usual insect with beautiful black wings that looked like a cross between a dragonfly and butterfly. With a little googling I found out what we saw were called damselflies, a name that delighted me. The time I spend observing, wondering about and researching that little insect I found immensely enjoyable and was definitely a path of self-care.

4. Open to Self-compassion – self-loathing is one of the hallmarks of problematic emotional eating, which often leads us into a cycle of emotional/binge eating and severe food restriction. If we can find compassion for ourselves when we do engage in emotional eating we have a greater chance of disrupting the cycle and perhaps engage with other forms of self-care. I think self-compassion is one of the most potent tools we can have in our self-care kit. If we spend time cultivating it we can support ourselves in navigating rocky emotions, reducing our reliance on food.

All of this to say, emotional eating is nothing to be ashamed of and that I believe it can be a part of our normal experience of food. I invite you to show yourself compassion and let food be a joy and a comfort in your life.