It can take a long time to understand that eating because you’re feeling emotional doesn’t warrant self-flagellation. In fact, it may even be coded in our DNA. Rather than being overly restrictive, you can learn to understand your cravings, make healthier choices, and honor your hunger.
Why Do We Eat Emotionally?
Emotional eating is complicated. It can stem from childhood experience, when a certain food may have been used as a reward (think chocolate because you cleaned your room). But eating is actually associated with love and nurturing from birth, owing to the mother-child bond formed during early feeding. So, the desire for food during periods of heightened emotion isn’t as abnormal as one might think.
Another important factor to consider is that dieting can actually increase cravings and binge eating. Ironically, the more you try to restrict your diet, the more you may crave the foods you’re cutting out of it. That’s why I recommend balance over strict rules to my clients.
Having a piece of chocolate after dinner every day will satisfy your craving, and should keep you from thinking about it all day. If you aren’t feeling deprived, you’ll find you can actually stop after just one piece.
Dr. Matthew Goldenberg, an addiction psychiatrist in Santa Monica, California, says, “The cause and trigger of emotional eating can be positive or negative.” In his experience, people emotionally eat for a variety of reasons.
“Some of my patients will eat to reward themselves,” he says. “They have learned that success and celebration centers on food. Other patients cope with negative emotions, like anxiety, fear, stress, and trauma, by escaping through food.”
People eat emotionally because they’ve developed a connection between an environmental trigger or emotional state and food, Goldenberg explains. “Some is genetics, some can be learned and modeled from what we saw growing up, and some may have become a part of our routine as we developed.”
Healthier — But Still Comforting! — Alternatives to Eating Your Feelings
Let’s first make it clear that food is a great source of pleasure and is meant to be enjoyed. It’s part of life and it’s normal to occasionally eat for comfort, celebration, or other non-hunger-related reasons. This is something that needs to be destigmatized. I often recommend that my clients eat the food they’re craving, especially during social events.
However, if it’s a typical day and you have an urge to grab a common comforting food like chips or sweets, try turning to something that will nourish your body instead. There are so many nutritious versions of your favorite foods out there that really do taste just as good. Not only can finding healthier swaps for foods that are lower in sugar and higher in nutrients help your body physically, but it can also help relieve you of at least one cause of anxiety during times of stress.
Here are some common foods we all like to indulge in, paired with healthier alternatives. Treat yourself while treating your body and mind with these still-indulgent healthier swaps!
|Cake||Bake a healthier version using fruit at home|
|Brownies||Swap avocado into your favorite cookie recipe to intensify the chocolate flavor (recipe) while adding richness, moistness, and heart-healthy fats|
|Cookies||Oil-free cookies (recipe) made with higher-fiber oats and lower-carb almond flour|
|Ice cream||Coconut milk– or cashew-based ice cream (recipes), or nice cream (fruit-based, vegan, dairy-free soft-serve)|
|Chocolate||A square of high-quality dark chocolate (70 percent cacao or higher) is higher in heart-healthier flavonoids than milk chocolate|
|Soda||Zevia, sparkling flavored water, or kombucha|
|Sliced white bread||Lower-carb cauliflower bread (recipe). One slice equals a full serving of vegetables!|
|Pizza||Lower-carb zucchini, mushroom, or cauliflower crust topped with veggies|
|Pasta||Higher-fiber whole wheat, black bean, lentil, or chickpea pasta, or veggie pasta made from spaghetti squash, zucchini, sweet potato, beets, or other vegetables|
|Rice||Lower-carb cauliflower rice|
|Chips||Nutrient-dense kale chips (recipe), spicy sweet potato fries (recipe), or zucchini fries (recipe)|
|Cheese||Lower-fat nutritional yeast or dairy-free cheese|
|Microwave popcorn||Low-fat air-popped popcorn|
|Cheese puffs||Lower-fat, higher-fiber, and higher-protein chickpea puffs|
|Instant noodles||Lower-carb zucchini noodles in higher-protein bone broth|
|Fruit-flavored snacks||Fresh fruit|
|Sorbet||Frozen fruit, eaten on its own or blended into a sorbet|
|Juice||Mix in one part orange, apple, or cranberry juice with two parts seltzer for one-third the sugar of whole fruit juice|
|Mall smoothie||Homemade smoothie with high-protein Greek yogurt|
|Cream-based soups (ex. cream of broccoli)||Splendid Spoon and Daily Harvest|
|Whipped cream||Dairy-free coconut whip|
|Standard peanut butter (made with added palm oil and sugar, e.g. Skippy, Jif)||Natural peanut butter (no added oil or sugar). Make your own in five minutes!|
How to Manage Emotional Eating
Dr. Goldenberg says, “The first step is getting honest about needing help. The next step is accepting that help, and surrendering that you cannot do this alone. Fear, stigma and shame often keep individuals from reaching out for the help they need.”
It’s important to know that you’re not in this alone, and some degree of emotional eating can even be normal. However, if you find that you’re eating for non-hunger-related reasons more often than not, or if you’re turning to food as your main coping strategy for difficult emotions, it’s time to address it.
Andrea N. Giancoli, MPH, RD, Nutrition Manager at Openfit and registered dietitian, says, “A healthful and balanced diet is important for our overall health, and mental health. This in itself can help us manage stress better. Sleep is also very important as part of a multipronged approach that includes a balanced diet and exercise.”
Managing emotional eating can be a long journey, but the rewards, health benefits, and improved life balance are well worth it.