As a dietitian, I get countless questions about emotional eating. And in my work with clients, emotional eating is certainly something that we talk about. What often surprises people is the fact that eating for pleasure or comfort isn’t bad. And people who identify as “emotional eaters” are oftentimes just reacting to extreme restrictions. Here’s more about emotional eating and how to think about it in your own life.
Almost everyone I talk to about food tells me they have a problem with emotional eating.
It’s become an umbrella term that’s almost meaningless. It covers any kind of eating that exists outside the very strict rules of diet culture. (Which can vary based on which particular diet philosophy you subscribe to, but are relatively rigid no matter what.)
If someone avoids sugar and gives into a craving for ice cream, they’ll probably call it emotional eating.
When someone chooses to have popcorn while watching a movie even though they’re not hungry, they’ll might that emotional eating, too.
If someone snacks out of habit or boredom? Emotional eating.
When someone binge eats, they’ll likely blame it on emotional eating.
If someone eats a food that they love but that they deem “bad,” they’ll almost certainly term that emotional eating.
If someone simply likes the taste of a certain food that therefore chooses to eat it regularly, they might even call that emotional eating.
You get the point.
What is emotional eating?
Not all the scenarios listed above actually fit the definition of emotional eating. Or maybe they do— it depends where you look and who you ask.
One definition simply states that, “Emotional eating means that you eat for reasons other than hunger.” Another is a bit more pointed: “Emotional eating is when people use food as a way to deal with feelings instead of to satisfy hunger.”
A much more specific explanation suggests that: “People who emotionally eat reach for food several times a week or more to suppress and soothe negative feelings.”
Probably the best conceptualization I’ve found comes from psychologist Kim Daniels: “I believe that almost everyone uses food for comfort/distraction/numbness/pleasure/stress relief. But I also believe that the degree to which someone does that can range from occasional emotional eating to a full-blown eating disorder. I think most people are somewhere along that spectrum, and it can vary depending upon what’s going on in their lives.”
Eating for pleasure or comfort isn’t inherently bad. And, it’s unavoidable.
Few and far between are the people who never, ever eat for pleasure. (Or out of boredom, or loneliness, or to find comfort.) And that’s fine! Food isn’t meant to just be fuel. It’s central to celebration, social bonding, tradition, happiness, and more — it has been for millenia.
Yes, it’s true that relying too much on food for comfort can, in certain cases, be a problem for someone. If food is the only thing that you turn to in order to deal with uncomfortable feelings? Then you likely need to find other ways that you can deal with these feelings as well. Food can (and probably should) be one coping mechanism, but it shouldn’t be your only one.
But much like binge eating, that level of emotional eating isn’t usually something that just happens out of nowhere.
Often, those who identify as “emotional eaters” are the people who hold strict rules around what they “should” or “shouldn’t” eat. (And, in what amounts.) When they aren’t able to stick to these (impossible) rules, they blame emotional eating. If they eat something “bad,” they beat themselves up for being an “emotional eater.” They wish that, instead, they could think of food only as fuel. And if they eat too much? They chalk it up to emotional eating. Instead of considering that, maybe, that perceived lack of control is because they’re too strict with their intake.
I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point well enough. If you scold yourself for being an “emotional eater,” I challenge you to reframe that thinking. Consider the fact that maybe you’re just reacting naturally to a too-strict way of eating. Or, maybe you’re punishing yourself for simply enjoying food. Either way, the guilt and shame that you feel about eating for reasons other than hunger really isn’t serving you. Even if diet culture tells you otherwise.
If you feel out of control or guilty around food, I can help. I’m a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and disordered eating. I take a weight-inclusive, gender-affirming, patient-centered approach. Learn more about my nutrition counseling, offered to clients in several states. If you’re not ready to commit to counseling but want more information about the anti-diet approach, subscribe to my weekly newsletter.