Hi there, and Happy New Year! We are back to business after the holiday season to continue recapping the Principles of Intuitive Eating (IE), and today we are on to #7, “Cope with Your Emotions without Using Food” - so let's dive in!
First and foremost, it is important to note that emotional eating is not inherently bad. But it is imperative to find other ways that we can soothe, nourish and distract ourselves outside of food. Feeling negative emotions is simply part of life, and food can not fix these things. If you find you are eating frequently not in response to biological hunger, there is a good chance emotional reasons are driving you to eat. It is also important to add that regardless of anything else about you, I am sure there are certain foods that have an emotional connotation to them for you. Food can conjure memories, act as a reward, or make us feel happy or comforted just to name a few experiences.
Eating in general can evoke feelings. Overeating can especially do this, and especially prompt feelings of guilt or shame. Food and eating is not morally wrong; unless the food you ate or the money you used to buy the food was stolen, morality should not be part of the equation. If you can try to replace feelings of shame after emotionally eating with feelings of compassion, you will have more of a keen ability to hone in on the underlying feelings, which is the first step to understanding and tackling them. Being an Intuitive Eater means letting go of the guilt you may relate to emotional eating, and being gentle with yourself as you learn how and why you use food to cope with emotions.
There is a continuum of emotional eating, as food can be used to soothe in a litany of ways.
← Sensory gratification Comfort Distraction Sedation Punishment →
Sensory Gratification: This is the mildest and most frequent way that food can induce pleasure, simply by providing gratifying feelings related to the taste, aroma, texture, etc of the meal, (Principle 6, “Discover the Satisfaction Factor” may be of use here).
Comfort: Simply thinking of certain foods may help to bring forth memories of a more comforting time or place. Some examples include: chicken noodle soup when you’re sick, hot chocolate you’re cold, and cookies around the holidays just like you used to bake with your grandparents. You can certainly honor your hunger with comfort foods. If you still pay mind to comfortable satiety levels and eat without guilt, there is no reason that “comfort foods” can’t be part of a healthy relationship with food and eating intuitively. But it is essential to remember that if food is the only coping method that you have to deal with negative emotions, it can become guilt-ridden and destructive.
Distraction: Food can also be used to distract you from feeling things you do not want to feel. This can be a precarious slope as you are no longer eating intuitively or paying attention to the underlying issues you want to distract from. This is not to say that the desire to distract yourself from feelings is wrong as it can be exhausting feeling all day long, but to remember that food is not an appropriate distraction in itself.
Sedation: As we continue on the spectrum, a more extreme form is using food for the purpose of numbing or to sedate yourself. This prevents you from feeling anything for a longer period of time, which also numbs you to internal signals of hunger and fullness and deprives you of the pleasure that food can bring. Engaging in this kind of behavior may also mean you are isolating from life or feeling out of touch in general.
Punishment: The most serious form of eating to cope is when eating for the purpose of sedation becomes habitual and so intense that self-punishment occurs. This may look like eating large amounts of food in an angry, forceful way that can bring forth feelings of beating yourself up. This form of emotional eating can induce feelings of decreased self-esteem and self-hatred. The Nurturer voice is of great service here as it can be used to provide self-compassion and understanding; if you have not committed a true crime, punishment need not be given.
In addition to general emotional reasons for using food to cope, there can also be triggering feelings involved as well, which can include: boredom and procrastination, bribery and reward, excitement, self-soothing, love, frustration/anger/rage, stress, anxiety, mild depression, a sense of connection, and “loosening the reins”. If you believe that any of these apply to you, I recommend reviewing the Intuitive Eating text to hear each description in more detail.
So how can you cope with emotional eating? There are four key steps and questions to ask yourself:
“Am I biologically hungry?”
If the answer is yes - please proceed to honor your hunger!
If the answer is no - continue to question 2.
“What am I feeling?”
If you are not biologically hungry, take some time to review what you are feeling at that moment. This is not such a simple task! It may be helpful to journal, call someone you care about and verbalize your feelings, talk to a therapist or counselor, or simply sit with the feelings and experience them if you can.
“What do I need?”
Many people eat to satisfy an unmet need related to the emotional or physical feelings being felt.
These unmet needs can include: adequate rest, intimacy or sensual pleasure, expressing your feelings, being heard/understood/accepted, being intellectually or creatively stimulated or feeling nurtured.
“Would you please…?”
By asking what you need, you may find that you need to next ask for that need to be met.
It can be very normal to feel conflicting feelings when food is no longer the only way to comfort, nurture, distract or resolve feelings. You may feel strange or uncomfortable feelings (and perhaps feel them stronger without the crutch of food), while also being satisfied and secure becoming an Intuitive Eater. The go-to of food is no longer there, which may have felt extremely comfortable and an easy pattern previously. It may be normal to also feel as if you are grieving the loss of food as a comfort and nurturer. Just remember, when you are able to use food constructively instead of to cope you will continue to create a more positive relationship with food, that will allow food to be what it is meant to be: a source of pleasure and nourishment.