Food is a source of nourishment and energy. Without food we wouldn’t be able to perform our daily activities. Our muscles would wither, our nervous system would fail. So, we all need food.
However, food also has another role in our lives: comfort and entertainment. Culturally and instinctively we prepare and serve foods to comfort those who have experienced loss, to celebrate joy or to show friendship and love.
So what exactly is emotional eating?
Seeing food as more than just a source of energy and enjoying it simply for the satisfaction it gives is not wrong. In fact science shows that food can promote good feelings by chemical reactions caused in our brains.
What is a problem is when an individual cannot experience pain, anxiety, joy or even boredom without turning to food as means of dealing with those feelings; or they are obsessed with food, weight and dieting.
Emotional eaters turn to food as a source of distraction from dealing with feelings. However, eating these foods leads to feelings of guilt which can only be soothed with more eating, restrictive dieting, excessive exercise or purging.
Emotional eaters tend to value themselves based on their weight and how closely they’ve stuck to their ‘ideal’ diet. Because of this distorted relationship with food, foods are labeled good or bad. Emotional eating can also lead to serious eating disorders and depression.
How to tell if you’re an emotional eater
Do you turn to food for reasons other than hunger? Are you obsessed with thoughts of food, whether you plan to eat it or are concentrating on restricting yourself from eating it?
Do you regularly try diets and fail, leading to guilt and further over eating? Do you think about or attempt to purge excess food by throwing up or using laxatives? Do you exercise compulsively when you think you’ve eaten too much?
If you can answer yes to any of the above questions then you may in fact be engaging in this dangerous habit.
Overcoming emotional eating
Since emotional eating is caused by looking to food as a coping strategy for emotional distress, dieting can actually create more problems.
When the emotional eater fails to stick to a diet, they suffer feelings of guilt that can only be soothed with more food. Then there is more guilt or punishment.
Instead of trying to focus on what they are eating, the emotional eater needs to learn new skills for coping with stressful emotions. Often this requires the help of a personal coach or therapist who deals with emotional eating.
It is only by finding replacements for the comfort provided that the individual can put food into its rightful place and learn healthy eating habits that last a lifetime.