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Gentle Nutrition: Rethinking Emotional Eating with Intuitive Eating Practices

We all know that food serves a necessary role for survival, but food also serves a much deeper, emotional purpose. Celebrations, accomplishments, grief, and stress are just some of the many reasons we might turn to food for more than just fuel for our physical bodies. This is a deep-rooted human practice. We love to share food with others, and sometimes a stressful day calls for a nice comfort meal with family or friends. These practices have been vilified by diet culture: The widespread belief that in order to be happy with ourselves, our outward appearance needs to meet a certain standard, no matter the health or emotional consequences. Diet culture breaks food into “bad” and “good” categories, and you’re either “bad” or “good” for eating them. This black and white thought process regarding food is why emotional eating has become a health problem for more than 60% of American people. It has created a cycle in which you are triggered, you have the sudden urge to eat or a craving, you feed that urge or craving and find yourself “zoning” or tuning out any cues of fullness or satisfaction, and then feel guilty and shameful. If this sounds familiar to you, then it’s time to make peace with your relationship with food through Intuitive Eating.

Emotional Eating is not Bad

Despite diet culture’s propaganda, emotional eating is not a bad thing. It’s part of being human! What is harmful is the cycle that so often ensues when you do emotionally eat. The emotional eating cycle can make you feel out of control with food, disconnected from your body, and numb. It’s important to mention that there is a distinct difference between occasionally and intentionally using food to help cope with difficult emotions and having food be your instinctive reaction to numb yourself. The problem with emotional eating as a primary reaction to difficult emotions is that it’s often a subconscious behavior. You may hardly notice what you’re doing until it’s too late, you’ve eaten an entire box of cookies, and now feel more horrible than when you started eating. In the present, emotional eating can be a great way to numb pain. In the long run, it can create a disconnected, unhealthy relationship with food, your body, and your emotional wellbeing.

There are a few things that can put us at higher risk of eating emotionally:

  • Lack of Sleep

  • Inadequate nourishment

  • Over-exercising

  • Lack of Work-Life Balance

  • Poor stress management

  • Specific emotional triggers

The cycle of emotional eating can feel like a roller coaster you can’t get off of. If you’re tired of riding, there is an exit: Intuitive Eating can help heal this disconnection between food, your body, and your emotions.

How Intuitive Eating can Help

Originally founded by registered dieticians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Intuitive Eating is composed of ten principles, all dedicated to helping you make peace with food and your body. Principle seven specifically addresses emotional eating: “Anxiety, loneliness, boredom, and anger are emotions we all experience throughout life. Each has its own trigger, and each has its own appeasement. Food won’t fix any of these feelings. It may comfort for the short term, distract from the pain, or even numb you. But food won’t solve the problem. If anything, eating for an emotional hunger may only make you feel worse in the long run. You’ll ultimately have to deal with the source of the emotion.”

It’s important that we have a variety of coping mechanisms to turn to because food won’t change our underlying emotions. It may distract and comfort us momentarily, but we need to develop other practices for dealing with emotions if we want to learn how to manage them in a healthy way.

Put it Into Practice!

Taking the time to cultivate several coping skills is like putting together your own internal toolbox. Similarly to those moments when you need a wrench or a hammer to help you fix something, your coping toolbox allows you to reach inside for healthy ways to deal with hard emotions and situations. Please know that even with the best toolbox in the entire world, you will have moments of dysregulated emotional eating. Acknowledge what happened, dig into your toolbox to take care of yourself in that moment, and move on. If you’re ready to start building your toolbox, here are some ideas:

  • Splash cold water on your face, or grab a cold, wet towel to place around your neck: Cooling sensations can help slow the release of cortisol and adrenaline during a triggering event.

  • Practice deep breathing: An effective deep breathing exercise is to breathe in as deep as you can and then hold your breath for 5 counts; release your breath completely and hold for 5 counts. Repeat as many times as you need to feel better.

  • Sniff some calming essential oils, or any smell that helps you feel grounded: Some examples include, coffee, lavender, your favorite body spray or perfume, etc.

  • Doodle or journal: Putting your emotions into words or pictures can help release difficult emotions and thoughts from your body and mind.

  • Get Moving: Exercising for just a few minutes can do wonders for your headspace and also helps release feel-good hormones. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated. A simple walk around the block or some light stretching works great.

The above coping skills are just suggestions for your toolbox. Everyone's emotional needs are different, so you might need different tools. As you try new coping skills and find what is helpful, you can start adding more tools to your toolbox. Whenever you feel triggered to numb yourself with food, you can reach inside for a healthier coping skill! The more you reach inside for help, instead of outside with food, the more you will learn to trust yourself- including your hunger.

Final Thoughts

Diet culture has made emotional eating out to be a shameful act. In all reality, it’s a perfectly normal human reaction to tough emotions, or even pleasant situations! It can become harmful if you feel that you are losing control over your eating habits, you know that you’re using food to numb yourself, and/or you have feelings of guilt and shame when you eat. Practicing a more Intuitive Eating mindset can greatly improve your relationship with food, including struggles with emotional eating. In addition, building a toolbox filled with healthy coping skills can help you heal your relationship with food and yourself as well. To find out more about Intuitive Eating, please visit the Intuitive Eating website by clicking here. If you’re not sure if your emotional eating has become a personal wellness concern, please take this brief emotional eating survey by clicking here.

The road to healing your relationship with food takes time and it can be a bumpy one! You never have to go it alone. If you feel that you need someone to talk to about your emotional eating, or more guidance on your journey, please seek the help of a licensed therapist.

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