While diet culture tries to convince us that food is nothing more than fuel, that simply isn’t the case for most people. Food does so much more than provide the body with energy and nutrients. It’s pleasure, community, connection, and yes, comfort.
I’m not saying that food should be your only coping mechanism when you’re feeling difficult emotions. Using food to numb yourself to what you’re feeling isn’t a great way to deal with things (but let’s be real—avoiding emotions through any coping mechanism isn’t healthy). But just because we shouldn’t eat to “numb out” doesn’t mean change the fact that not all emotional eating is bad. Emotional eating is a valid and accessible coping tool, and it’s time we stopped demonizing it.
Emotional eating exists on a continuum
If we use the intuitive eating framework to conceptualize emotional eating, we see that emotional eating exists on a continuum, explains Lindsay Martens, RD, a registered dietitian with Proactive Health Nutrition. She explains that at one end of the continuum, we have eating for sensory gratification. This is the mildest form of emotional eating and occurs when we eat simply for pleasure. As we move along the continuum, the type of emotional eating a person engages in becomes more of an unhelpful coping mechanism. Further along, we get to comfort eating. This type of emotional eating occurs when we eat to soothe emotions like sadness, anxiety, or stress, according to Martens. With comfort eating, we may crave foods that remind us of our childhood or have sentimental value (like chicken noodle soup or mac and cheese).
In the middle of the continuum, we have eating as a distraction. This kind of emotional eating occurs when we eat to distract ourselves from difficult emotions or stressful situations. It is often mindless in nature.
Next on the continuum, we have sedation eating, says Martens. This occurs when we use food to numb our emotions or escape reality. It often involves binge eating or consuming large amounts of food (often high in sugar and fat) to take the edge off temporarily.
Finally, we have punishment eating at the more intense end of the emotional eating continuum. This happens when we use food to punish ourselves for what we see as shortcomings or failures, explains Martens. It often occurs in tandem with restricting our food intake or following extreme diets.
When we look at emotional eating as a continuum, it becomes easier to see that at the mild end of the continuum, emotional eating can still be part of a positive relationship with food. After all, how many people can say they never eat for reasons other than hunger?
“Emotional eating is a universal coping skill and helps provide satisfaction from eating,” explains Martens. “When we consider it a bad thing, we create shame/blame/guilt around a tool that someone has been using to help cope with their feelings.” She adds that when we consider emotional eating to be bad, we also close the doors to open, vulnerable conversations.
You haven’t done anything wrong if you use food to cope with difficult emotions. Comfort eating is normal and natural, and it’s only when we eat to numb or punish ourselves that emotional eating becomes less helpful. Plus, emotional eating involves more than just food and emotions—it’s also closely tied to dieting and diet culture.
Emotional eating and diet culture
Much of the reason that people see emotional eating as a bad thing is due to the types of foods that people typically crave when they’re feeling stressed or sad. A cookie can make us feel better when experiencing strong emotions, but if we view a cookie as a “bad food,” we may feel extreme guilt and even more negative emotions.
Martens sees this often in her practice. “The other way diet culture is tied to emotional eating is often the foods we associate with comfort or satisfaction are foods that diet culture deems as “unhealthy,” she says. “This can create complicated feelings. So many memories and big life moments are linked to food, that again, diet culture assigns as ‘bad,’” she adds. This can complicate our relationship with food even more.
The key to seeing emotional eating as a neutral behavior is to remove the “good food/bad food” binary that diet culture assigns.
For example, imagine that you’re missing a loved one and decide to eat a special meal or snack that reminds you of them and provides comfort. This can become messy if you’re feeling out of control or shame just because you’re eating a food that diet culture doesn’t condone, explains Martens. While we engage in emotional eating to make ourselves feel better, if we feel guilt for what we choose to eat, we take away the power of that food to comfort us.
The key to seeing emotional eating as a neutral behavior is to remove the “good food/bad food” binary that diet culture assigns. If we view food as morally neutral, we’re less likely to feel guilt for eating highly palatable foods to cope with difficult emotions.
Because of its connection to diet culture, “emotional eating can feel like a very vulnerable space for a lot of us, and we’ve been conditioned to see it as an undesirable behavior,” says Martens. “If you have specific macro/calorie targets, you may view emotional eating as self-sabotage, especially when it results in out-of-control binges.”
But those out-of-control binges may not actually be driven by emotion. “The tricky thing here is that some of the reasons out-of-control binges can happen are from ignoring hunger cues,” explains Martens. In other cases, out-of-control binges are truly related to emotions. “It can be hard to distinguish between the two when you are restricting your intake. Diet culture has taken this opportunity to say that the reason you experience these out-of-control binges is emotional eating and that this is the reason you aren’t meeting your goals,” she adds. But that may not be the case.
Simply calling a binge “emotional eating” when you’re actively restricting your food intake ignores what we know about food deprivation and the reward centers of our brains. A study looking at brain activity found that when study participants followed a calorie-restricted diet, the brain regions responsible for attention, reward, and motivation increased in response to images of highly palatable food. The longer the participants were on a calorie-restricted diet, the greater the activation of these brain regions.
In other words? Calorie restriction (i.e., dieting) causes us to crave highly palatable foods. If you’ve been restricting foods, there’s a good chance that what you’ve labelled as “emotional eating” could actually be biological hunger.
Is it possible to stop emotional eating?
It would be virtually impossible to stop all forms of emotional eating. But that’s okay—we’ve established that not all eating is bad, such as for comfort and pleasure, which are completely normal. This type of emotional eating doesn’t need to be stopped, especially if it’s one of many tools we use to cope with stress.
However, when food becomes our only way to cope with uncomfortable feelings or if we’re using it to “numb out,” it could indicate that a person needs to develop other coping tools, says Martens. This is because if we’re constantly at the sedation or punishment-eating end of the emotional eating continuum, it could lead to a loss of self-esteem, self-hatred, and detachment from life.
Martens recommends identifying your emotions and emotional triggers and exploring if you can do anything to prevent or diminish how activating they are. She also suggests practicing other coping skills when possible.
Some other coping tools to help manage difficult emotions include meditation, mindfulness practices, listening to music, talking with a friend, reading a good book, or walking. Regardless of what type of coping tool you choose, it’s important to have several coping strategies you can turn to in difficult times.
Another way to reduce using emotional eating to numb your emotions is to pause when you realize that you’re emotionally eating, says Martens. “When you become aware of emotional eating…try to process your feelings for a few minutes without committing to stopping the emotional eating coping skill,” she explains. If sitting with your feelings feels too overwhelming, it’s best to work through this process with a trained mental health professional.
Once you’ve tried to process your feelings, reassess whether you still need to engage in emotional eating. If you do feel like you need to eat emotionally, try to do so mindfully. This will increase the enjoyment you get from eating and the likelihood that it will make you feel better. The key is that emotional eating can be a conscious choice rather than a knee-jerk reaction to stress. It can be a healthy part of your coping toolbox if you’re actively choosing to allow food to make you feel better.
Martens also recommends cultivating your “nurturer” voice. Within the intuitive eating framework, there are inner voices that can both help and hinder our efforts to eat intuitively. “The Nurturer” is the self-compassionate voice that tells us it’s okay to mess up or feel bad. By allowing our “nurturer” voice to lead our inner dialogue, we can become more accepting of emotional eating as a neutral coping mechanism that serves a valuable purpose in certain situations.
Diet culture has given emotional eating a bad rap, but the truth is, it’s a very normal way to cope with our feelings and relate to food. Not all emotional eating is bad; it exists on a continuum, and if we’re engaging in emotional eating for comfort or pleasure, it’s not something to worry about.
If you feel like you’re using emotional eating as a crutch or to “numb out,” be gentle with yourself. Remember, emotional eating can be a valid coping tool, but it’s important that you have other coping tools available to you. By sitting with your emotions and ditching the “good” and “bad” food labels, you can neutralize the emotional eating experience, allowing it to be one of the many ways you get comfort in times of stress.