Most people would agree that animals eat to live. There is no connection to food beyond survival for animals. Humans, however, create a relationship with food. We celebrate with it at birthdays, weddings, new homes, job promotions, and more. And we mourn with it, offering our condolences via casserole or cake in times of loss and devastation.
The relationship we form with our food is complex and is developed early in life. At some point or another, whether as children or adults, almost all of us have turned to food as a means of coping with our emotions. We might reach for ice cream or pasta when we are feeling down; chocolate when we are stressed or anxious. Or maybe we reach for crunchy foods like chips to chomp down on when we are angry or frustrated. And even if it’s not a clear emotion, most of us are guilty of prowling the kitchen cupboards purely because of boredom or loneliness.
Regardless of the type of emotion, food can unconsciously become a coping mechanism for managing feelings for many individuals. I find I catch myself perusing the fridge and freezer for nibbles of food out of anxiety, or when I’m feeling vulnerable in a stressful situation.
Reaching for food may seem like the right idea at the time. For example, during those periods of vulnerability and stress, food becomes both my grounding force and my magic wand to heal the cracks within my spirit. Food has the power to make us feel better. In the moment, what better friend to pour sadness into than a pint of ice cream?
As a dietitian and nutritionist—and as someone who has used food (and still occasionally does) to cope with uncomfortable emotions—I find these statements to be true for both men and women. We hold an abundance of emotion within our hearts and physical bodies and we often turn to food for coping and comfort.
However in the long run, reaching for food as a means of dealing with bubbling emotions does not serve us well. Eventually we have to deal with the emotions and side effects that may come from overeating. The most apparent side effect is changes to weight. But other, more subtle, side effects can creep up. These may include: changes in hormones, blood sugar levels, and metabolism.
Recognising the use of food as a coping strategy is challenging. It is even more difficult to break the cycle. I have found that what works best for my body and mind comes from the power of pausing. I may not always be able to prevent the action of hunting through the pantry, but I can recognise what I am doing before I start emotionally eating. After that, I have a choice: I can choose to continue what I am doing and eat to pacify my uncomfortable emotions, or I can choose to change the outlet.
The truth is, the power lies with us to alter an outcome. The act of emotional eating gives away one’s personal power. It makes us a victim of our emotional terrain.
There are better outlets for emotions—ones in which we can respect our bodies and honour our hunger and fullness. For myself, pranayama, or breath control, which is the fourth limb of yoga, has been immensely influential in curbing emotional eating. When practised regularly, pranayama helps me to smooth my inner emotional terrain and both process and release my uncomfortable emotions.
When pranayama isn’t enough, I turn to nature for guidance. Walks in the woods, playing with my dog, or watching the sunset have all helped me to appropriately diffuse the tension in my body and reconnect with something greater. Reaching out to family members and friends is another effective way to get support in particularly difficult times.
Even with these other outlets, I wouldn’t be human if I said I didn’t have moments of emotional eating. Moments that only a chocolate brownie or large bowl of pasta can pacify. And, mind you, I am a dietitian—a registered and licensed professional trained in the field of food, nutrition, and eating!
Humans are emotional creatures deeply connected to food through culture. Emotional eating in celebration, mourning, or as a means of coping with everyday stress is going to happen.
The key is to recognise it when it happens and use other outlets when possible. Recognize the need to cope. Keep your power by deciding on an alternative to emotional eating. Choose your inner terrain and give yourself permission to feel, process, and release difficult emotions.