Emotional eating is misunderstood and often unnecessarily demonized. However, emotional eating -- that is, eating to feel good, often termed "compulsive eating" -- isn't the problem. It's emotional overeating and mindless emotional eating that can be both psychologically and physically unhealthy. Emotional eating works as a coping strategy and stress reliever if approached with mindfulness and moderation.
Emotional Eating Is Inevitable
Whether you eat or overeat, whether you eat mindfully or mindlessly, one thing is clear: people only eat what they like to eat. How a particular food tastes is a fundamentally emotional consideration.
Let's face it: your body doesn't give a hoot whether you eat something that tastes good or not so good, as long as the food isn't rotten. Taste is the business of the mind -- a matter of pleasure. Bottom line: Everyone eats for pleasure, so emotional eating is inevitable.
Emotional Eating Is Coping
Aside from emotional eating to feel good, some of us also eat to cope -- that is, to reduce emotional distress. Eating for pleasure or eating to reduce daily stresses are two sides of the same coin but our all-or-nothing minds divide this indivisible coin in half. On one hand, we are encouraged to slow down and enjoy the food we eat. On the other hand, we are told by popular culture to never eat for emotional reasons. If this sounds like hypocrisy, it is. Any pursuit of well-being is simultaneously a reduction of distress.
Why Emotional Eating Works
There are several good reasons why emotional eating is so appealing as a coping strategy.
- Eating is oral coping: From day one, feeding has been a default parenting intervention and the pacifier has been our first coping tool. Eating to relieve oral tensions -- for example, after quitting smoking -- is an intuitive soothing choice.
Leveraging More Coping Per Calorie
Given the fact that we all eat emotionally on some level or another, here are a few suggestions for making your meals more mindful, effective, grounding, relaxing and nutritionally beneficial:
- Accept emotional eating as a legitimate coping choice, not a coping failure.
Building a new habit is a process. Give mindful emotional eating a try. Fine tune this self-care strategy until you find the sweet spot of moderation. As with most life-modification plans, self-acceptance is a healthy place to start. Remember: emotional eating doesn't have to lead to emotional overeating.
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Pavel Somov, Ph.D. writes about how to use mindfulness to overcome overeating, perfectionism and self-esteem problems. He is the author of "Eating the Moment: 141 Mindful Practices to Overcome Overeating One Meal at a Time" and "Present Perfect: A Mindfulness Approach to Letting Go of Perfectionism and the Need to Control." Find out more about Dr. Somov on Red Room, where you can read his blog.