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Emotional Eating 101 – Including Tips on How to Stop

I recently watched the SyFy show Resident Alien, about an alien who crash-lands in a small town on Earth and pretends to be a local doctor named Harry. And I’ve noticed that food features quite a bit in the show, from Harry’s unusual choice of dipping pieces of pie into oatmeal to the lack of a pizza place in the town.

The question of emotional eating also came up after Harry was shot and nearly died. Not long after, he ended up at the local café with all kinds of fried food and desserts spread in front of him. His friend Asta asked, “Did you order every kind of comfort food?”

Harry didn’t have emotions until he assumed human form, so he didn’t realize that what he was doing was emotional eating.

What is emotional eating?

I’m guessing you’ve heard the phrase “emotional eating”, but in case you’re not sure how to define it, I liked how Asta described it. This isn’t an exact quote, but she said it’s when people experience an emotion but don’t want to deal with it, so instead they eat.

I’d also add that it could be any time you eat for an emotional reason but you’re not hungry. This can include happy emotions like having cake at a wedding or ice cream at a birthday party.

And it’s important to recognize that this doesn’t mean that something traumatic happened to you. It might have, but this may simply be how you learned to cope with stress or boredom or sadness or some other emotion.

Does everyone eat for emotional reasons?

Everyone is different, of course, so I don’t feel comfortable saying that all people eat for emotional reasons. But I think it’s fair to say that most people have done this at one time or another.

Not everyone eats for the same emotional reasons, though.

I know some people stop eating much of anything when they’re sad or depressed. Then you have people like me who want to eat no matter how sad things are – in fact, sometimes more when things are sad.

And the tricky thing is, people tend to comment either way. If you’re not eating, they may try to push food on you and say, “You need to keep your strength up.” But if you are eating, they may say, “How can you eat at a time like this?” It’s a bit confusing.

In cases when someone is eating for emotional reasons, don’t judge them. And if someone hasn’t eaten for several meals, it may help to encourage them to eat but try to understand where they’re coming from.

What if you want to stop emotional eating?

The biggest drawback of emotional eating is that it doesn’t address the underlying issue. Harry experienced this, too. He felt a sort of emptiness inside him and assumed he was hungry, but the emptiness didn’t go away after he ate. It only went away when he made connections with other people.

It may not always be that clear, though, so the first thing to do is pay attention. See if you can identify when you’re eating because you’re hungry vs. eating for an emotional reason.

If this only happens occasionally, you probably don’t need to worry about it. But if it’s a common habit, here are a few steps you can follow.

  1. Identify the emotion: Before you can address the emotion, you need to identify it. That’s not always easy, but using the emotion wheel can help.

  2. Understand why you’re feeling that emotion: Sometimes this will be quite straightforward, like if you recently got a new boss who’s micro-managing you, you might well be stressed, annoyed, and perhaps worried about your job. Other times, though, it will take more work to get to the bottom of the issue.

  3. Allow yourself to feel the emotion: After you recognize the emotion and what caused it, it’s important to let yourself experience that emotion. Ignoring it won’t make it go away – the only way out is through.

  4. Find a way to express what you’re feeling: Sometimes the act of acknowledging and feeling the emotion is enough for it to lose its hold on you, but other times you need to do something more active to express the emotion. It could be some creative act (writing, painting, drawing, coloring, etc.), talking to someone, singing along really loudly to an appropriate song, or more. The important thing is not to let those feelings stay bottled up.

You may need to practice these steps multiple times, and you may need or want help to get through them. And that’s okay. This isn’t an easy process. If it was, you’d have already done it instead of turning to food.

Emotional eating isn’t something to be embarrassed about

While I don’t know if everyone eats for emotional reasons, I think a lot of us do. It might not be all the time, but it’s a perfectly natural and human thing to do (or even an alien thing to do, based on Harry).

And depending on the emotions, it can be hard to acknowledge what’s going on, but it’s important to do that. If you can identify the feeling and where it’s coming from, then find a different way to address it, you won’t feel the need to eat because of that emotion anymore. You may still choose to sometimes, but at least then, it won’t be something you do mindlessly. It will be your choice, and that makes a huge difference.


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