When I ask women what their biggest struggle is with eating in a way that’s balanced, they often tell me it’s eating due to stress or emotion. And oh, do I feel you, mama.
If #momlife isn’t stressful enough, we just had the collectively craziest year of our lives and we’re still working on how to deal with a global pandemic, distance learning, money struggles and so much more on an individual level.
Food is delicious and comforting, it’s easily available (and well, legal) so it’s an easy and common coping mechanism when life gets tough.
Eating balanced and having a healthy relationship with food means it’s ok to eat emotionally sometimes– food isn’t JUST fuel, if it were, it wouldn’t taste good! We’re designed to enjoy food as much as use it to nourish and fuel our bodies. Food is connection, it’s culture, enjoyment- you don’t always need a reason to eat the brownie- and that’s part of living a balanced life.
But emotional eating happens on a continuum, and when we move past occasionally eating food for comfort (TOTALLY normal and natural) and into allowing it to be our number one coping mechanism, is when we start to see emotional eating becoming a negative way of dealing with our emotions.
So how do we know if emotional eating is becoming a negative coping mechanism? Here’s three ways to tell:
1. You’re eating regular, balanced meals when you’re hungry and not skipping meals or strictly portioning your food. If any of these are not true, it might not be emotional eating at all– it might be your body’s response to feeling restricted, which can make us feel like we’re eating with urgency and out of stress, but the stress is both a physical stress, from your body feeling deprived, as well as mental stress. Start by ensuring you’re eating regular balanced meals and then we can dig deeper into eating emotionally.
2. You’re regularly eating when you’re not hungry and/or regularly eating past comfortable fullness. Emotional eating happens outside of normal hunger, so if you’re finding yourself eating when you’re not hungry on the regular (remember, sometimes is normal- but ask yourself what “sometimes” means) or eating beyond fullness on more than an occasional basis, this might be emotional eating.
3. If food is your go-to, number one way of dealing with your emotions. Have a hard day at work and collapse on the couch with a box of cookies? Kids drove you crazy so it’s brownies and Bridgerton? Feeling bogged down by the world so you grab a bag of chips? If your first thought (and go-to action) when you’re feeling stressed, bored or anxious is, “I need some food”, this could be an indicator food is your emotional crutch. This requires recognizing first, and then finding more positive ways to work through your emotions.
10 Reasons you might be eating emotionally
Working through emotional eating starts with identifying WHEN and WHY you’re eating emotionally. These might not be obvious, at first, but here are ten reasons you might be eating emotionally:
1) Boredom or procrastination. Are you eating to avoid cleaning the house, doing a work project or escape the endless “Mommy-s”?
2) Reward. Is food your primary reward for completing a task, or just making it through the day (notice if you’re saying, “If I do this I can have a snack” or, “Once I clean up the kitchen I can have a cookie,”.) These can be benign, but consistently, can create an association between eating and feeling rewarded.
3) Loosening the reigns. I see this often with mamas who are bogged down with mom life, work and other life stresses that feel like they’re all on them. I see this especially in working moms balancing work/mom life, especially if they’re successful at what they do. We use food as a way to let go and release, after a hard day or a hard week, because it doesn’t feel like there’s any other way to loosen the reigns and let go.
4) Excitement. Ever feel the need to eat #allthethings before a diet starts or after it’s over? Food can be exciting! And where this isn’t always a big deal, especially when it’s around dieting, it can perpetuate the on-again/off-again cycle around food and it is a form of negative emotional eating (eating should be enjoyable, even when it’s healthy).
5) Love/Comfort. If we’ve consistently been shown love through food, or food has been our primary source of comfort from childhood, if we were not shown that comfort or love, food can be a way to distance us from uncomfortable feelings or feel love. It’s ok to not want to feel our feelings all the time, but we don’t want food to be the only distraction.
6) Connection. Food can be a way of connecting with others, if we’re feeling alone or uncomfortable in social situations, we might bond over a pizza or chips and margaritas. This is 100% ok, unless we feel like we need food as a buffer, anytime we’re in a social situation (then it becomes an emotional crutch) or we’re not honoring our bodies anymore and overeating consistently when we’re with others (it’s possible to listen to our bodies and still enjoy food with others).
7) Stress. This is an interesting one, because short term stress often decreases our appetite, making us less likely to turn to food (unless it’s already a common coping mechanism, for us). However chronic stress (not dealing with stress over time) tends to increase our cortisol levels (our body’s main stress hormone), and therefore our appetite, making eating as a form of stress release even more common. Dealing with stress eating comes down to regular self care and getting to the root cause of stress so stress can be worked through instead of just reacted to. (p.s. Dieting is a form of stress, itself and dieters have been shown to be more likely to eat emotionally)
8) Frustration. Ever felt better after eating a crunchy bag of chips? When we’re frustrated, having a physical release from food- especially hard, crunchy foods, is actually normal and natural- but if we’re frustrated and turning to food regularly, this can become something to work through.
9) Anxiety. Anxiety doesn’t feel good- and though it feels different for everyone, it often feels hard to control- and depending on where you feel anxiety (it’s often rooted in the stomach), food is something we can control, so eating food to calm anxious feelings can be a way of grasping for straws and calming ourselves (even though it’s short-lived).
10) Depression On a deeper level, if food is your number one way of working through depression (or severe anxiety), this is something you’ll want to work through with a mental health professional (Better Help is a great option because they’re remote and it’s affordable). Food is an easy way to deal with your emotions– but food won’t fix our worries, stresses or feelings!
Do any of these resonate with you? Let’s dig deeper.
This February in the Supermama Society, I’m sharing a special Emotional Eating Masterclass exclusively for Society members. This will be a full video lesson explaining how to identify emotional eating, determining your unique triggers to emotional eating (they might not always be what you think!), types of emotional eating and how to find personalized ways cope with your emotions without using food. It’s going to be a good one, mama! I can’t wait to share it with you. Click here to join for only $37.
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