Are You an Emotional Eater? How to Navigate the Holidays

emotional eater

“I’m an emotional eater.” This is one of the top complaints we hear from the women who come to us for help. And though we’ve talked about being an emotional eater on the blog before, it bears repeating this time of year, since most women identify as such and the holidays are a time of heightened emotions … and eating. 

The holidays can be a minefield if you’re a dieter. (And if you’re a dieter you will likely also identify as an emotional eater – more on that in a minute.) With so much “special” or “off limit” foods around us, the food police tend to rage. It’s also likely that by mid-December, you’ve officially entered the “screw it” phase of the year, which is essentially an extended binge in anticipation of the great diet commencement of New Years. The ‘Last Supper’ before we get back to business in 2021. 

Don we now our baggy sweaters, you know? 

Now combine this extended binge phase with family dynamics, the added stress of getting all of the things done – at work and at home – not to mention paying for it all. And then sprinkle on top of that the fact that, well, the year is 2020. The usual holiday stress might now have an added layer of economic hardship, sickness, isolation, fear, stress, grief and quarantine fatigue piled on top. 

(Hey! We have a question about 2020. And our question is … what the fuck?) 

If You’re an Emotional Eater, This is Important 

Learning about emotional eating and how to alleviate it is going to be really important for your physical, mental and emotional health. So that’s what we’re talking about today. 

Emotional eating is one of the top complaints we hear from the women we work with. They tend to feel ashamed and alone in their coping with food. But here’s the first thing, up top, that we want to share: it is our natural inclination as humans to cherish, care for one another, connect, celebrate and seek pleasure through food. All humans are inherently emotional eaters so, let’s clip the shame wings, okay? 

The problem is that this innate characteristic in us all directly contradicts the modern collective paradigm we live in, that is diet culture. These two truths are at odds with each other inside of us, and it’s creating real dissonance.

We have to unpack emotional eating – what it is, what it isn’t and how to move away from a habit of coping with food when it’s truly become ineffective. We want to move toward habits and behaviors around food that feel empowered and good to us instead.

Emotional Eating Mindset Shifts

First, if you haven’t read Bridget’s article on emotional eating, I suggest you start there. We also have a YouTube video on the topic…

as well as a podcast episode… which you can listen to below…

But what we really need are some mindset shifts: 

  1. As discussed above, emotional eating is inherent in all humans. Anniversary dinners, birthday cake and baking Grandma’s pies at Christmas are all forms of emotional eating that are positive. Emotional eating can be a joyful, positive thing as well. 
  2. Emotional eating only becomes problematic when viewing it through our fat phobic, diet-culture glasses. At the end of the day, eating food to cope with emotions, on the spectrum of available coping skills, is benign. We only demonize or worry about emotional eating because we demonize and worry about our weight. 
  3. Or when it fails us as a coping tool. Typically what happens is that we reach for food to comfort, distract and dissociate from our emotions and it works in the short term. Usually it’s easier to just hate yourself for eating and feel like shit about your body, rather than have to deal with what’s really going on. It’s easier to call yourself fat, and believe the dieting is the answer to your problems, than face the harder, more complicated emotions that simmer underneath the surface. But not only does this not help us process and deal with our emotions or our life, it also tends to compound negative emotions by garnishing them with guilt, shame, regret, frustration, fear, anxiety, disgust – you name it – and now you are an “overeater” as well. 
  4. Finally, problematic emotional eating, as described above, only happens to dieters. Read that again. Actually, no, I’ll type it out so you can read it again: problematic emotional eating only happens to dieters. People with unrestrained relationships with food do not tend to cope with food when dealing with heightened emotions. And actually, unrestrained eaters, meaning people who do not diet, tend to be put off by food when under emotional distress. So there’s that. Many times what we believe to be emotional eating, is just a binge breaking through when our diet guard is down due to emotional distress. Our brains catch us in a ‘weak’ moment and use it as an opportunity to get us fed.

What to Do If You’re an Emotional Eater

The holidays are a ripe time for losing our shit around food. And being that it is now mid-December, and you’re reading an article about Emotional Eating During the Holidays, it might be true that you’re already freaking out. But the good news is that it’s a great time to take that first step toward food freedom and healing.

Step 1: Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. Yep. Just eat. The first step for shifting your relationship with food from being out of control and frustrating, to empowered and feeling good is to stop dieting and begin the proactive practice of shedding the dieter’s mindset. 

Step 2: Put on your anthropologist hat. Start to just notice what’s happening – in your mind and in your body. From this place of non judgemental awareness we can see the truth of what’s happening for us and actually begin to deal with and work through it. Without awareness, and without seeing things through the opaque cloud of judgement, we don’t even know what needs shifting yet.

Step 3: Begin to practice ‘the pause,’ as we like to call it. When you feel compelled to eat and you believe it may be for emotional reasons, ask yourself the following questions: 

Question 1: Am I physically hungry? If yes, then eat. This is not emotional eating.

Question 2: If I’m not hungry, what am I feeling?  What is the actual word associated with the sensations occurring right now? Many times we eat because we feel some feelings coming up that we don’t want to deal with. We know we feel like shit but we’re not exactly sure why because we just wanted to avoid it. But if we never identify the emotion, we can’t actually cope with it. 

Question 3: What do I actually need right now? Once you’ve identified the feeling: frustrated, sad, lonely, bored, anxious, etc., then figure out what you could actually do that would help to deal with it. Call a friend, take a bath, scream into a pillow, go for a jog, get organized, turn off your brain and get lost in a hobby?

Bonus: You can also just eat while you’re doing all of this. Allowing food is always a good idea. Being in choice about it though, feels much better than mindlessly eating on auto-pilot.

As for the Holidays as an Emotional Eater…

It’s helpful to think ahead, to anticipate what your needs would likely be and make a plan for figuring out how to meet them as best you can. Think through what is likely to be triggering for you and a plan of action to take care of yourself. 

Examples: 

Does your mom regularly make comments about your weight? How might you be prepared to protect yourself? What could you say in response? How could you exit the conversation, redirect, or put down a firm boundary around that? 

Do you know you have a tendency to burn out without adequate alone time? How can you plan for time alone to rest and recharge, and how can you clearly communicate your plan to manage loved ones’ expectations about activities and access to you? 

Are you feeling anxious and sad about a lack of connection this year? How can you be proactive in trying to make this year as special and relaxing or affirming as possible? What kind of fun can you plan ahead for? How can you create a ritual for this weird year specifically? What can you do to feel connected as best you can to your people if you can’t physically be with them? Can you just allow yourself to be sad?

What Emotional Eating is Really About

Anticipating and making plans to have our needs met is an important piece of self-care. And when we’re taking great care of ourselves, meeting our emotional needs and caring for ourselves in moments of emotional distress we are going to feel better than we would if we simply fall back into a habit of coping with food. But it’s going to be really hard to do any of that if you’re perpetually hungry and deprived through dieting. If we want to alleviate our reliance on emotional eating, we have to face our food restriction first.  

At the end of the day, real, compassionate self-care is a far more effective tool than eating to comfort, distract or dissociate from our feelings. But just know deep down that soothing ourselves with food is perfectly fine too. The real important piece here is to be in charge and to feel empowered.

If you’re struggling and identify as an emotional eater, we can help. Book a free Breakthrough Session with one of us and make 2021 the year that you finally reclaim your power and make peace with food and your body.

Remember how I said a lot of emotional eating is just opportunistic binge eating in disguise? We have a free class that will show you exactly how to stop binge eating in its track, which you can watch right here. 

Wishing you and yours warm wishes this weird holiday season. And holding hope for a healthier, happier new year ahead. 

emotional eater

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