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Understanding Emotional Eating

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.
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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.

  • Feeding is caring:Many cultures explicitly equate feeding with caring. Remember grandma's home-baked chocolate cookies after a hard day at school?
  • Meal time is support time. Family meals are a family ritual, and at their best are a time of togetherness, an opportunity for social relating and belonging and as a means to emotional well-being.
  • Eating is grounding. Eating is a ritual, and as such, it's comforting in its predictability. Eating is a sensation-rich, unambiguously physical activity. As such, eating is an effective reality check at a time of uncertainty or confusion, a behavior that grounds and centers a busy or overworked mind.
  • Eating is relaxing. From the physiological perspective, a choice to eat can be seen as an attempt to directly manipulate the nervous system, by switching on the part of our wiring that is associated with relaxation and rest.
  • 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:

    1. Accept emotional eating as a legitimate coping choice, not a coping failure.

  • When eating to cope, have an appetizer of relaxation first. Take a few moments to notice your breath and smell your food. Preload on the fullness of the moment.
  • Follow a predictable eating ritual, with clear starting and ending points. Begin with breathing, focus on your food throughout your meal and end with a healthy dose of self-acceptance.
  • Use pattern-interruption techniques (such as eating with a non-dominant hand or using the wrong utensils) to keep your mind aware, guessing, present and focused during the mindful emotional eating episode.
  • If you want to binge or "veg out," to regress into a bit of mindless "hand-to-mouth" trance then consider a harm-reduction strategy: mindfully choose what you will mindlessly eat. Instead of "inhaling" a bag of M&Ms, fill up on carrot sticks. The objection that carrot sticks don't taste as good as M&Ms is irrelevant here. Remember, this "hand-to-mouth" trance isn't about taste after all, but about the soothing activity of self-feeding.
  • Know your comfort foods. Mindful emotional eating is an attempt at self-care. So, if you are going to try to self-medicate with food, you might as well use the right "medicine." Allow yourself to have exactly the experience of pleasure that you seek. Or risk filling up on what you don't want to eat and then feeling doubly disappointed.
  • Indulge on quality, not quantity. Mindful emotional eating is not about meeting your caloric quota or about how much you eat but about how much you enjoy this moment of eating. So, as you purchase your comfort foods, pay the premium price, get the top-shelf foodstuffs. This additional financial investment will likely intrigue your tongue and help you slow down to mindfully notice this moment of self-care.
  • When you eat to cope, just eat. The suggestion of "eating when you eat" is the backbone of all mindful eating know how. It is particularly important when it comes to mindful emotional eating. When you sit down to eat to cope, turn off the TV, put the reading aside. Or risk missing out on the very self-care moment you have so courageously allowed yourself to have. So, when you eat to cope, then just cope. If food is your therapist at this moment, then you have to show up for this session with yourself.
  • 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.

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