Why “Emotional Eating” Is Smart Eating

Many years ago a “Mood Magnet” fad swept through the cubicles of office workers around town. The magnets featured 30 cartoon faces expressing emotions that ranged from ecstatic to enraged. The magnets came with a little secondary “window” magnet with the words, “Today I feel…” to highlight which emotion the person wanted to feature at that particular moment.

Those “Mood Magnets” seemed to be a fun way for people to express themselves and their feelings in a manner that was appropriate given the boundaries of corporate culture.

It’s been over a decade since I left corporate America, so I have no idea if those magnets are still popular. But they illustrate a very important point – we feel.

Which brings us to the topic of “emotional” eating.

People are often surprised to hear me say that eating to feel better is a good thing. I am very familiar with the “Are you crazy?!?” look. But walk with me for a moment.

Eating to feel better is great! Eating to not feel bad will never work. And the distinction is not between “better” and “bad.” The distinction is between “feeling” and “not feeling.”

We can never not feel. That’s why eating, drinking, shopping, gambling, fill-in-the-blank to not feel bad always backfires. We cannot not feel.

We feel – period. So let’s go back to that idea of eating to feel better.

Most people assume that eating to feel better or “emotional eating” is a “bad” thing. They assume this in part because they are coming from the perspective of the “diet and exercise” model for wellness and weight-management.

The “diet and exercise” model basically treats your body as a caloric balance sheet. You are allotted a certain amount of food to eat each day. If you eat more than your allotted calories, you will “pay a price.” The price? Your choice: exercise or weight-gain.

So of course, from this perspective, eating for any reason other than physical hunger would create an unnecessary risk of “breaking the caloric bank.” But in the Happy Calories Happy Exercise® approach, we don’t think in terms of caloric balance sheets. (That’s one of the reasons Happy Calories Don’t Count!)

But even if you don’t agree with the fundamental premise of the Happy Calories Happy Exercise® approach, I still argue that eating to feel better is a smart idea.

First off, how do we know when to eat in the first place? We get hungry. And being hungry doesn’t feel so good. So even when we eat to sate hunger, we are eating to feel better. (Thus all eating could be considered “emotional” eating.)

And how do we know when to stop eating? We get full. How do we know when we’re full? When continuing to eat begins to feel bad – it not longer feels good.

And I’m talking physical sensations here – being connected to your body and physically feeling it. I recognize that people often have a whole lot of mental and emotional drama about “good” food and “bad” food and “guilt” and “too much” etc. But I’d like to point out that much of that dysfunction and pain comes from that core perspective that the human body is nothing more than a caloric balance sheet to be controlled. Furthermore, all of your mental and emotional drama contributes to your physical disconnection from your body.

Connecting to your body is key. When you are connected to your body, happiness and joy are your natural “self-regulating” mechanisms. Whether you eat for physical hunger, for fellowship and celebration, or to soothe a sorrow, eating to feel better is your unerring guide. You will know when to eat. You will know what to eat. You will know when to stop eating.

“Emotional” eating is smart eating. Eating to feel better reflects a congruency with yourself and your body. And this translates into physical results – results that are sustainable.