Emotional eating: 4 steps to break the pattern with self-compassion

When faced with difficult emotions, eating is a normal coping mechanism. But if we rely excessively on food alone, it may not allow us to truly explore the root cause of our emotions

Happy woman eating a doughnut

Emotional eating is when we eat for emotional reasons without (or perhaps disconnected from) physical hunger. The first thought here can be that emotional eating is harmful and we should try to stop, although this is not completely true. As humans we not only eat for obtaining nutrition but also eat for the social, cultural and emotional connection around food.

Food is shown to help relieve stress levels, to provide pleasure and stimulate production of hormones that make us feel happy. It has been shown, at least in the short term, to be an effective coping tool during high stress moments. This is not something we should try to disconnect from—it is simply a part of being human.

When we treat emotional eating as bad and something we should stop, we create a sense of guilt and shame over these eating experiences. As a result, we can end up with an added burden of even more stressful emotions, often leading us to find a way to cope with these new difficult feelings. And when other coping tools can be more difficult to access, food is often there, again, to help us through these difficult emotions.

How self-compassion can break this cycle

Imagine for a moment that you are experiencing difficult emotions and you turn to food to cope. But rather than feeling an intense sense of guilt and shame, you are aware that this experience is, in fact, a part of being human. You are aware these difficult emotions come from a deeper place and that perhaps there is a more effective way to cope than using food, but this does not mean that food, in itself, is the problem. You are able to reflect on your experience, explore how you feel and ponder if there are other coping tools that might be more helpful in the situation.

When faced with difficult emotions, eating is a normal coping mechanism. But if we rely excessively on food alone, it may not allow us to truly explore the root cause of our emotions. There may be some other coping tools that are more effective and when we practise self-compassion in these moments, we unlock space to explore the deeper issues and broaden our coping toolkit. Let us look at ways to break the pattern of emotional eating with self-compassion.

4 steps to break your emotional eating pattern with self-compassion

1. Letting go of unhelpful self-talk and beliefs about emotional eating

The feeling of failure from emotional eating can feel like a direct consequence from the eating behaviour itself. However, as explored by Dr Albert Ellis and Dr Robert Harper, pioneers of rational-emotive psychotherapy, there’s a middle step: our self-talk. If we change our self-talk, we can change our beliefs about a situation and our feelings and behaviour will follow.

Let’s imagine the eating experience itself: why do we perceive it as bad? A moment of eating in itself is not actually good or bad; however, we are surrounded by messages telling us we “should” eat a certain way and we are bad if we don’t. Having these beliefs surrounding food being good or bad can trigger the unhelpful self-talk that leads to sabotaging behaviours.

Consider your self-talk during these moments. Is it compassionate? Does it allow you to explore where the difficult emotions are coming from and encourage more helpful behaviours? If your self-talk, instead of being helpful, triggers a cascade of unhelpful feelings and behaviours, write down helpful phrases you can say to yourself next time and gently replace your harmful thoughts with more compassionate and helpful thoughts. [Also read » The high cost of beating yourself up habitually]

2. Nourishing your body and soul to strengthen your wellbeing

In today’s busy age, managing a busy career or juggling a hectic social life may feel like important tasks. These might be important and may add to our overall sense of wellbeing but often we end of neglecting our most basic needs in our pursuit of satisfying more complex desires.

One of our most basic needs is food and for this reason we have strong biological and psychological drives to ensure we are nourished with enough, and with satisfying, foods. Dieting can prevent us from properly nourishing our body by creating rules around what food we are allowed to eat or how our bodies should look like. Even if we are eating according to a diet or a meal plan, we may not be getting enough nutrition. In fact, studies have shown dieters are more likely to describe themselves as emotional eaters than non-dieters (Peneau et al. 2013).

The best way to know if you are eating enough is to listen to your body’s own hunger and fullness cues. This can sometimes be challenging if we are used to following external rules. If we have gone through a stage of not eating enough for our body, we may even find we are extra hungry to start with, which can make the process difficult. But, if we consistently listen to our body’s biological signals and nourish it accordingly, we are more likely to satisfy our basic need for food and eating pleasure and, therefore, less likely to turn to food during emotional moments.

3. Practising mindfulness during and after an emotional eating moment

During an emotionally charged moment, we are often in a state of distress known as the fight or flight response. During this stress response we are geared to seek a fast comfort. This is a helpful evolutionary response if we are about to get hit by a car, but when it comes to the more chronic stress that we find ourselves dealing with today, it’s not only unhelpful but often detrimental.

Chronic stress cannot be solved by finding immediate comfort. It requires the more complex regions of our brain to get involved so we can explore and find a long-term solution. These complex regions of the brain are not used during a fight or flight response but we can learn to get them involved so we are better able to explore an enduring approach to managing the underlying drives toward emotional eating.

Practising mindfulness can move us from a place of high stress to a calmer place where we can make these informed decisions. When we feel caught up in an emotional moment, taking a few minutes to practise some deep breathing, noticing the breath moving in and out of our body can bring us to a calmer place. We can also begin to tune into different areas of our body, noticing where we feel sensations that, in turn, can help explore the emotions we are feeling and also discover long-term coping strategies.

4. Broadening our coping toolkit to better cope with emotions

Imagine the tools you use to cope inside a toolkit. What different tools do you have in there? If food is one of only a few tools you use, of course you are going to turn to it more often. There’s nothing innately wrong with this, remember it is a valid coping tool, but we may be missing out on other, more helpful, ways to cope.

As Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch say in Intuitive Eating, “Food can comfort but it won’t solve the problem, you will ultimately still have to deal with that”. A diverse toolkit is important to cope with the diverse range of emotions and the underlying triggers that we experience from time to time. The more diverse our toolkit, the more likely we are to find a tool that will be helpful. As a result, the need to turn to the same short-term tools such as food will be much reduced.

Rather than trying to remove food from your toolkit (because if we remove a coping tool, how can we expect to cope?) we can start to add some new tools in. To do this, start to brainstorm some different behaviours or activities that might be helpful when you feel emotional. Next time you feel a strong emotional drive to eat, practise deep breathing to find a calmer place and then consider trying a new activity from your list. If anything helps, you can move it into your coping toolkit.

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Emma Townsin is a UK Registered Dietitian, a Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor and founder of Food Life Freedom. She acknowledges the complex nature of health and the importance of both physical and mental wellbeing. She works with women, through her online Intuitive Eating coaching, to overcome a stressful relationship with food and body, reclaiming their confidence and energy in life.

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