Why Emotional Eating Is Totally Normal, According to a Dietitian
It’s okay to eat your feelings sometimes.
To say that the term “emotional eating” has a bad rap is an understatement. Diet culture has long gone out of its way to convince us that food is the absolute last thing we should turn to in times of stress or sadness. How many times have you read that if you feel like eating a cookie after a bad day, taking a warm bath and doing some deep breathing is a “healthier” choice? Or that if you’re stressed and feeling snack-y, you should drink a few glasses of water instead? I know I’ve seen and heard that stuff more times than I can count.
And sure, sometimes a candle-lit bubble bath is a nice way to decompress. But as a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and takes a non-diet approach to nutrition counseling, I can confidently say that relying on food for comfort isn’t inherently bad or wrong. Sure, eating gives us energy and nourishment, but it also plays a huge role in our social and emotional lives.
I’m not saying that food should be the only thing you turn to when you’re having a hard time, or that eating to numb out your feelings is a great way to go through life—avoiding emotions, whether that’s through drugs, alcohol, overexercising, or, yes, food, isn’t ideal. What I am saying, though, is that demonizing emotional eating in all forms isn’t good for you either.
Of course food is emotional!
There are a lot of people—namely fitness influencers—out there trying to convince us all that food is nothing more than fuel. (Soylent, Silicon Valley’s favorite “drinkable meal,” wouldn’t exist otherwise.) But for most of us, that will never be the case—and that’s a good thing.
Food doesn’t just give your body energy; it “can also taste and smell really good, and even the texture can be extremely satisfying, resulting in pleasure and enjoyment,” Ayana Habtemariam, MSW, RDN, a dietitian based in Washington, D.C., who helps clients heal their relationship with food, tells SELF. In other words, the satisfaction you feel when eating your favorite foods isn’t just physical, it’s mental and emotional too—and the fact that something we do several times a day can bring us a burst of happiness is pretty fantastic if you ask me.
We also tend to associate food with positive emotions like connection and comfort. So many social occasions, whether it’s a traditional family gathering or a quick ice cream date with friends, involve food. This might be partly out of convenience—we all have to eat, so why not do it with others?—but the association between food and human connection goes much deeper than that.
“We know how important the feeding process is for infants, and that’s obviously not just because the infant needs nourishment,” Kim Daniels, PsyD, a psychologist and emotional eating coach based in West Hartford, Connecticut, tells SELF. “That’s a time for close contact, coddling, and connecting—all of that is happening while the baby is eating.” So of course, Dr. Daniels says, a sense of comfort gets tied to food in our heads.
Throughout our lives, we also start building our own food memories. If you used to eat Italian ice every Friday after school to celebrate the end of the week, you probably associate it with positive feelings. The dessert your family ate every year on your birthday probably brings up certain feelings for you as well, as do the foods that were part of your favorite holiday meal growing up, the childhood snacks you would reach for when you were sad, and the late-night pizza you’d order to your college dorm room after a party.
Using food to cope with emotions isn’t inherently bad.
According to Dr. Daniels, emotional eating can serve different purposes. Sometimes we use food to distract ourselves and avoid uncomfortable feelings. “Eating is an enjoyable activity that can make us feel good for a time, so that we can forget about whatever it is that’s upsetting us,” she says. Other times, we may eat simply for a pick-me-up. Not only is food delicious and tied to positive memories, but there’s some evidence that eating can stimulate the release of serotonin in the brain, a neurotransmitter that can boost mood and make us feel calm, although the research isn’t conclusive or robust.
All of this is natural. “People shouldn’t be worried about eating that is influenced, in some way, by their emotions,” Habtemariam says, adding that feeling guilty or ashamed about emotional eating only contributes to the negative feelings you were trying to counteract. If you reach for food when you’re stressed out, for example, and you feel like you’re doing something wrong, you’re going to pile on more stress. “Folks are dealing with so much right now; eating to cope shouldn’t be an additional stressor,” she says. Feeling bad about emotional eating can also make you more likely to eat past comfortable fullness.
That said, food probably shouldn’t be your only coping mechanism.
While food can be a helpful way to regulate your mood, it’s certainly possible for emotional eating to become unhealthy. If you’re regularly avoiding your feelings by eating until you feel stuffed as a way to numb out, that’s probably a sign there’s an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. Dr. Daniels says that this type of emotional eating can sometimes take the form of binge eating—consuming large quantities of food to the point of physical discomfort, while also feeling out of control and unable to stop. If you’re eating this way often, that could mean that you’re struggling with binge eating disorder, in which case it’s a good idea to reach out to a therapist and/or dietitian who specialize in disordered eating and can help you recover. (The National Eating Disorder Association’s provider database is a great place to start.)
Even if you’re not experiencing full-blown binges, emotional eating can be a problem if it’s the only way you deal with your emotions. “We live in a culture that generally does not value experiencing emotions, so many of us have no idea how to sit with our feelings,” Dr. Daniels says. When you ignore your feelings, you can’t learn from them, she adds; addressing your emotions, on the other hand, can help you realize that you’re unhappy in a job or relationship, for example, or that you need to take time for self-care.
Instead of turning to food every time something uncomfortable comes up—sadness, stress, anxiety, boredom, loneliness—Dr. Daniels recommends trying to “sit with” your feelings. (Meditation and other mindfulness practices can help you learn how to do that.) Dealing with your emotions without using food can also mean developing alternative coping strategies, like listening to music, making plans with friends, reading a good book, trying grounding techniques, or doing something else that feels fun or calming.
Also—is it emotional eating, or are you just hungry?
Another huge but often overlooked piece of the emotional eating puzzle is that sometimes, you might feel out of control while you eat not because you’re emotional, but because you’re dieting and hungry. Eating beyond what feels comfortable is a common response to not eating enough throughout the day. “Because we live in such a weight- and diet-focused society, a lot of people just aren’t eating satisfying food,” Habtemariam says, whether that means not getting enough of a certain nutrient (like carbohydrates) or not eating enough in general. “And if they ever eat beyond fullness, they might label that experience as emotional eating because of the guilt and shame they feel in response.”
It’s also not uncommon for people to deprive themselves of a certain food that they love until they are craving it so intensely that they literally lose control around it. In fact, one study published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that current and former dieters are more likely to identify as “emotional eaters” than their peers who don’t have a history of food restriction.
Instead of worrying about emotional eating, give yourself permission to eat what feels good.
Frankly, there’s no reason to feel guilty or ashamed about eating for comfort and enjoyment, and trying to separate food and emotions is, in my opinion, an impossible task that will likely leave you even more stressed out. A better approach, to me and my fellow non-diet dietitians, is to give yourself permission to eat all foods without guilt, so you can figure out a way of eating that feels best for you—physically and emotionally. “It is absolutely possible to eat a nutritious diet and to also rely on food for comfort,” Habtemariam says. “In fact, I’d say it’s impossible to have a peaceful relationship with food if satisfaction and enjoyment are not a factor.”