“Emotional eating is the practice of consuming food — usually “comfort” or junk foods — in response to feelings instead of hunger.”
My name is Dominee and I like to eat when I feel things I don’t want to feel. I eat more when I am stressed. I eat more when I am depressed. And when I am anxious. When I am angry. I eat more when I am lacking inspiration. I eat more when I feel down and want to “reward” myself.
I am an emotional eater and I am not ashamed of it. (We all have our not-so-great coping mechanisms, here’s mine!)
I freaking love food. I’ve been fat pretty much my whole life and for a large part of that time, I hated my body. Seven years ago, I lost 70lb, hit my goal weight, and I STILL hated my body. So I ate, and ate, and ate, and gained most of the weight back. Go figure. I learned so much from that experience – loving your body is not about weight. Just because you look physically healthy doesn’t mean you are physically healthy or emotionally healthy. I’m all for loving yourself at whatever size you are regardless of what you weigh. That is the key.
So like I said, with the exception of about a year and a half – I’ve been fat since I hit puberty. I’m pretty sure that puberty was the main culprit. I remember having terrible periods and laying in bed with a big bowl of strawberry ice cream, with popcorn mixed in (it’s so good), and a bag of Doritos and feeling like if my stomach was full then the cramps would stop.
Then I started getting anxious and depressed and I used food to treat those symptoms. I always had it in my head that the shaky adrenaline feeling I got when I was anxious would go away if I just ate enough food. Like my system would be so busy digesting food that it wouldn’t have time to operate the ‘anxiety systems’. And when I was depressed – it just felt good to eat. It was something easy to look forward to.
As a teen, I gained and gained and gained weight.
I moved into my own apartment and it got worse. I could buy all the food I wanted. And I did. Pizza became my meal of the day. Or I’d cook a whole package of bacon and eat it one sitting. Then, I got into my first relationship (spoiler alert: it sucked) and I ate more. And I ate myself through the break-up too. I remember how incredibly happy a pizza in the oven would make me. It would literally be the best part of my day.
I’m a socially anxious introvert, so what’s a girl to do but stay at home, play video games, and eat herself sick? Literally sick.
There came a point where I was so deep in my depression I feared for my life. It got really bad, and I realized that I had to find a way out of it. I had to get healthy – physically, emotionally, and mentally. So I started working on all of those things. I started reading about self-love and body love, and my eyes were opened up to a better way.
I started caring about my body, and that made me want to stop eating all the things.
So I watched what I ate, I exercised, and for almost two years I felt like I had magically cured my emotional eating. Here I was, skinny for the first time in my life. Aaaand then I got stressed out. Aaaand then I let other people into my head. Aaand then I started to hate my body all over again. My body felt not-good-enough and every single one of those emotional eating impulses came back and so did the weight.
I wasn’t magically cured after all – but I needed to learn those lessons. Right now, I’m chubby, curvy, fat – what have you and I love my body. Emotionally, physically, and mentally I’m doing better than I have ever in my life, and I’m happy. I’m at a weight that works for me, I take walks almost every day, I ride my bike to work, and during the summer I’m in the pool. Do I still over-eat when I’m stressed out? Yes, it happens. But not often. Not every day, or every week, or even every month. And the most important part is that when I get those urges to treat myself with food 95% of the time I have the option to say no. And I choose “no”.
My emotional eating is not a deep dark secret. It’s not something that fills me with shame. It doesn’t make me hate myself. It doesn’t make me cry. I’m doesn’t make me a bad person. It doesn’t define who I am. That is one of the many gifts that self-love has taught me. Emotional eating isn’t who I am.
Emotional eating is a coping mechanism.
It’s not a good coping mechanism, but that’s all it is. When we allow ourselves to see those behaviors as exactly what they are instead of something that we are it becomes easier to change the behavior. There are a million coping mechanisms out there. I don’t have to choose this one. So I find other ways to cope, and you can too.
The great thing about my self-love journey is how it gave me the ability to really discover my personality. My list of interests 10 years ago was video games and food. Today I could give you a list a mile long of things I love to do. I’m never bored and when I have things to do, I don’t need to fill the space with food.
I’ve also learned the importance of intuitive eating. That means feeding your mind and your body, not your emotions.
When you cultivate your hobbies and interests, and then you make time for them – those things become the thing that makes you feel better instead of food. You get excited about buying a new houseplant, or gardening things, or art supplies instead of pizza. You have other things to look forward to and those things make you feel good in a way that’s fuller than the way food fills you up.
When I feel like I want to go binge on food, I do one of those other things instead.
I would ignore the fact that I was eating for my emotions. I wouldn’t think about it, or I would justify it using other reasons. I’d tell myself I wasn’t emotionally eating, I was treating myself. Or I was anxious and it’s my go-to cure for anxiety (that never works), or I was depressed and needed to make myself feel better.
When I’m self-aware about it, when I face it head on – it loses its power. Eating something delicious helps me to ignore what I’m feeling in the moment but when I face up to that being the reason why I’m doing it – I then give myself other options.
“I feel x. It makes me want to do y, but instead, I’m going to z.”
I love that formula, so simple but it packs a punch. And if I decide I’m going to eat anyway? At least I’m acknowledging that there’s something that I need to deal with emotionally – even if I don’t feel able to do it at that moment. The majority of emotional eating happens when you aren’t dealing with what’s going on in your life. The only way to fix that is to acknowledge it and work through it.
Recognize real hunger. Emotional hunger is usually a feeling that comes on suddenly due to an emotion or boredom.
Feed the emotion instead of the body.
9 times out of 10 if I practice emotional self-care when those feelings and cravings hit I’m able to focus on taking care of those emotions instead of using food. The other day I was feeling lonely, sad, and a bit down on myself and I decided I was going to treat myself to a pizza. First, I took a walk and listened to music and then a podcast, then I got home and journaled, and then I settled for something in the kitchen because I no longer felt that urgent need to erase those feelings because I’d spent time processing them in other ways.
By the time I’m finished self-caring the cravings get to a point where I don’t feel the need to have ice cream and cookies for lunch.
The secret it scraping together the energy to do those good-for-you things. Don’t throw up your hands and let the cravings win just because it’s easier. I realize that a lot of us suffer from depression, anxiety, and other illnesses that limit our “spoons” or the energy we’re able to expend on tasks. It’s like it takes one energy to order a pizza and 6 energy to go on a walk – sure that walk would make you feel better but you only have 3 energy, so what do you do?
You have to make the conscious choice to do something different. Have a list of 50 things you can do with varying amounts of energy costs and go through those things before you give in to your urges. (See the self-care battery worksheet!)
You know binge eating isn’t going to really make you feel better long-term, so you’ve got to find that thing that does.
The most important aspect of dealing with eating issues is to love your body no matter what. No matter how far away you are from your goal weight, (my advice: you don’t need a goal weight) whether you are too fat or too thin – love your body.
It becomes monumentally easier to take care of something that you love. It becomes second nature to treat yourself with kindness and compassion when you love yourself. Beating yourself up never solves anything, it just overloads you with guilt and shame.
Even if it helps you in the short-term it’s not a long-term solution. The book The Body Sacred helped me so much to see my body in a different and magical way.