I want to talk about a topic that comes a lot for my clients and it deals with learning to honor your emotions without using food.

Yikes. Feelings? Emotions?

Yes. This is something I talk about regularly with clients, as almost each person who sits on my couch seeks guidance for.

Honoring your emotions

It’s one of the key concepts in intuitive eating, but as a society, we’re not very good about doing this; but that’s not our fault.

Somewhere along the line, many of us were taught that emotions are a sign of weakness, they’re not to be trusted, or, in my case, you’ll get stuck in whatever you feel. Or, you may simply just not like feeling down.

You also may have discovered that food can be a great comforter, distraction, and keep your mind busy or preoccupied so that you don’t have to feel what’s really going on.

Overtime, turning to food for these purposes again and again teaches your brain to continue to seek food when emotions are felt, leading to the creation of HABITS.

And while some of you may not necessarily feel like you seek food to purposefully distract, you may have created a neural pathway that keeps getting triggered with any form of emotion that comes up.

So a crappy day at work, anxiety, bad news, or a fight with your spouse and you go right for the ice cream, chips, and wine. And here’s the thing… from time-to-time, this is NORMAL, and sometimes food CAN be exactly what you need to help ease the pain and comfort you.

It’s when we seek food in order to cope with or distract from our emotions on a consistent basis that it can begin to work against us.

Because while the food may help us in the moment, not tending to what’s really going on, will keep it coming back; often making it bigger and bigger. Hands down one my most favorite quotes is, “What you resist, persists” and this couldn’t be any more true.

Eating to escape feeling sad

One of the services I provide is phone and text support in between sessions, because as my clients begin the deep dive into healing their relationship with food and their bodies, I want them to know that can reach out to me at any time of the day for help.

I hear things such as,

“I want to binge, what do I do?”

“I feel guilty about what I just ate….”

“I’m having a bad body day…”

“I can’t seem to stop eating…”

A couple weeks ago, I got a text from a client shortly after her parents left after a long visit from their home in Europe, and said,

“My parents are gone, but all I can think about is I want to watch TV and eat some comfort food….”

So I started to talk through this with her and after a few texts discovered that her desire to binge was to escape from the sadness she felt about her parents leaving.

“I know that I just want to numb myself and stop thinking. But I know that doesn’t help”

So, I invited her to allow her sadness to be felt, suggesting that a good cry might help.

She texted me several minutes later.

“Well, I just had a cry and a hug and I feel better. The urge to watch TV and eat is a lot less intense. I hate crying. I don’t like feeling bad.”

Food can be the quickest way to dull, soothe, numb, avoid, and distract

For many, eating might have been your only way to cope or it may have even served as a survival mechanism to keep you safe in a dysfunctional or unsafe environment (it did for me).

Food might also represent a way that you connected to others, feels nostalgic, or was used as a reward by your parents. I had another client tell me a few months back that food was what brought her family together, so eating floods her with warm memories of being with loved ones. She has discovered that her mindless snacking was a way for her to continue to feel the happiness she did as a child.

This is why eating can be so much more than a matter of willpower and discipline, and why it may take a lot of time and tenderness to gently explore and begin to shift the behaviors, feelings, and beliefs around it.

Honoring your emotions without using food

So, the first thing I want you to know is that emotional eating is nothing to be ashamed of, nor is it a defect or sign of weakness. While it may be a misguided attempt to soothe yourself, you’re not doing anything wrong.

In fact, when you eat, or have a desire to eat, it’s a sign from your mind and body that they want to be comforted or protected in some way. 

Secondly, you need to figure out what emotion it is that you’re running from

And why in fact you’re not wanting to feel it. It will help to start exploring your beliefs and feelings around emotions by asking yourself things like:

  • What am I believing about emotions?
  • Why am I’m trying to escape from feeling it/them?
  • Am I afraid of getting stuck in them?
  • Am I afraid of being judged?
  • How has not feeling them benefited me?
  • What do I think will happen if I feel or express my emotions?
  • Does expressing emotions feel scary or unsafe?
  • What are some of the factors that may be playing a role?
  • What was my relationship with food as a child?

When you allow for exploration and curiosity, you open up to what’s really happening; often times revealing the exact answers you’re looking for. However, most of the time emotional eating is met with feelings of guilt and shame, which blocks us from the truth, and keeps us stuck in the cycle.

Thirdly, don’t create a rule about not eating

As you continue to work with your emotional eating, understand that it’s going to take time, and will not change quickly. Which is why I ask that you do not create a rule about not being able to eat when you’re emotional– this will only backfire. In fact, I want you to expect that you will continue to eat emotionally WHILE you begin to navigate this behavior and response.

Expecting yourself to stop cold turkey is unrealistic and unnecessary, and will work against you. Instead, see if you can begin to just start putting some awareness around when you might be turning to food when you’re not hungry so that you can find out what it’s doing for you:

  • Is it entertaining you?
  • Does it calm or nurture you?
  • Numb sadness, anger, or resentment?
  • Act as a distraction?
  • Provide a temporary escape from something you don’t want to feel or think about?

Discovering Non-food alternatives

Once you figure out what food is doing for you, you can start exploring non-food alternatives that can also provide for us in ways that we need, while you begin to embrace the emotions that come up.

For example, perhaps you discover that you snack throughout the evening in at attempt to alleviate the anxiety that accompanies this time of day (a very common thing I hear). First of all, recognize that your eating is only an attempt to protect yourself.

Next, try to determine what this food is doing for you- perhaps it’s distracting you from feeling the anxiety. Now, see if you can discover some other things you can do to help settle some of this anxiety that doesn’t involved food.

Some clients have shared with me that they have started knitting and coloring, and it’s almost completely replaced the desire to eat. For others, it’s getting out of the house for a walk, meeting up with a friend, or even just popping on a really good show or movie. Others share that a hot cup of tea, music, or a good book or podcast work as well.

It’ll take some time to figure these out, and you’ll also have to experiment to see which ones work. And here’s the thing, a lot of times this practice won’t work and you’ll go back to the food and that’s okay! You’re likely working with something you’ve carried for 20, 30, or 40 years, if not more.

But little-by-little, fueled by compassion and curiosity, you’ll begin to honor your emotions without having to use food.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic!