Emotional Eating: Breaking The Myth That Holds Us Hostage

In our efforts to achieve and maintain an “ideal” body weight (however that’s defined), an issue that frequently surfaces is “emotional” eating. And quite frankly, I believe it’s a lot of hogwash. That’s not to say that the pain we suffer as a result of our dysfunctional relationships with food is not real. That pain is very, very real. However, this pop psychology, pop culture notion of “emotional eating” only serves to confuse and complicate the issue.

In an effort to build my case, I searched the internet for a definition of “emotional eating.” Out of the countless search results of sites claiming to help us with emotional eating, there wasn’t a single search result dedicated to a definition. Even the Wikipedia search result redirected me to the entry on “compulsive overeating.”

Thus, the first argument in my case is already made. We don’t need a definition of “emotional eating” because we all already think we know what it means. We think emotional eating is eating for reasons other than physical hunger. And…we think it’s “bad.”

Why do we believe emotional eating is bad? For the most part, we believe emotional eating is bad because we believe that our bodies are a balance sheet – a sum total of calories consumed and burned. And if we consume calories because we are sad or angry or lonely or bored, we will impact that balance sheet in a negative way. (Heck we try hard enough to maintain that balance sheet simply when eating for physical hunger!)

Well, the first flaw of that argument is the idea that our bodies are a balance sheet. This cultural idea – reinforced by constant marketing and media attention – that we can (and should) control the size and shape of our bodies by manipulating that delicate balance of calories in/exercise out is a faulty premise. Yes, we are responsible for what we eat. And yes, we are responsible for how we choose to move our bodies. But what we choose to eat and how we choose to move our bodies, does not, by definition, result in a specific size or shape. (If that were true, a given diet and/or exercise program would work the same for everyone.)

So let’s ditch that faulty premise. Let’s ditch the idea that our bodies are a sum total of calories consumed and burned. Now, if we are no longer trying to balance a caloric equation, why would “emotional” eating be bad? What’s wrong with eating to feel better?

Did you notice my definition? My definition of “emotional eating” isn’t eating for reasons other than physical hunger. My definition of emotional eating is eating to feel better. And in that context, all eating is emotional eating. Even eating for physical hunger is “emotional” eating because being hungry doesn’t feel very good! In fact, being hungry hurts. Therefore, “emotional eating” is simply “eating.”

So we don’t need to draw the distinction between eating for physical hunger and eating for emotional reasons. The distinction that needs to be drawn is the distinction between eating to feel better and eating to not feel bad.

These two scenarios might sound the same, but they are vastly different. And the distinction is not between better and bad – it’s between feeling and not feeling. Eating to feel better is great! Eating to not feel bad will never work because we can never “not feel.”

And from this perspective, virtually all relationships with food are healed.

Most of the time, when we are struggling with “emotional eating,” what we are really struggling with is this notion that we are a balance sheet. We want to eat something that tastes good, but deny ourselves the pleasure because it isn’t “good for us” because it will “make us fat.” Or if we do eat that tasty tidbit, we feel guilty and fearful of the caloric consequences. Some of us even get into cycles of a rebellious binge followed by a starvation penance – believing that we must “pay a price” to eat. We get angry at our families and our friends for having food be the centerpiece of celebration. Why must society tempt us like that? Why make food part of a celebration? Don’t they know we can only eat for physical hunger, lest we upset the balance of that caloric equation?

So when we look at eating from the perspective of feeling better, all of this becomes a non-issue.

Even when we have traditionally used food (or starvation) to “cope,” much of the dysfunction is healed when we come from the perspective of feeling better. If we’re feeling down and we reach for a cookie to feel better, that’s great! And as soon as the cookie(s) no longer helps us feel better, we stop. Not because of some external force telling us that “we shouldn’t eat that,” but because continuing to eat the cookie(s) no longer feels good.

Again, it’s not about this idea of using food as a “coping” device. It’s about really understanding what “coping” is! Attempts to feel better are very healthy and very sane! Attempts to not feel bad – as heroic or dysfunctional they might be – will never work because we can never “not feel.”

So yes, this takes practice. It takes practice to get and stay off our cultural caloric balance sheet. And it takes practice being fully conscious and fully present and fully connected to our bodies in each and every moment. And when we practice eating to feel better, we free ourselves from the bondage and myth of “emotional eating.”