It’s no secret that comfort food comes by its name honestly. It feels soothing to eat it when we’ve had a rough day.

We can all succumb to emotional eating at times. Certain foods we love from childhood or happier times in our lives often helps us decompress or release stress. Have you ever felt that you are able to breathe more deeply, let your body relax and slow down your heart rate with a pint of ice-cream or bowl of buttery pasta? This is called the “rest-and-digest” response.

A snack or meal like that is okay in moderation. However, if you find that you “need” ice cream or a heavy meal often to soothe emotions rather than satisfy physical hunger, you may need to reevaluate the role food plays in your life.

Are you using food to fix your problems, negative feelings, or fears?

Identifying Your Emotional Eating Triggers

Many of us use food for comfort or connection when specific circumstances, events, or emotions trigger us. They may be positive or negative. Either way, we must be careful not to rely solely on food for self or relational expression.

To ascertain whether emotional eating is problematic, review your food habits and pay attention to when and how the urge to eat strikes you.

1. Do You Eat Your Feelings?

We spend lots of time trying not to feel bad, bored, or lonely. Negativity is difficult to deal with if you lack the emotional tools. However, zoning out with food often only feels better for a while.

2. Was Food a Reward or Punishment During Your Childhood?

If cookies, ice cream, or other goodies were withheld or awarded based on your behavior as a child, you may want them as rewards now that you’re in charge.

3. Are Body Image and Emotional Eating Closely Tied?

You may be trapped in a negative cycle of eating your feelings and wrestling with a body image that pains you.

4. Does Food Replace Self-Care and Stress-relief?

To stave off emotional eating, you need to be strong, healthy, supported, and rested. Take measures to get routine physicals, set sessions with a counselor, and meet your daily needs for relationship, nutrition, and rest. Being alone too much and overly stressed often contribute to emotional eating.

Cultivate Foodless Coping Methods

Consider some viable alternatives to snacking when boredom, depressive thoughts or anxiety sneak in.

Make time for others: call an understanding loved one. Volunteer. Meet a friend for brunch or coffee.
Work off nervousness or irritation: walk your dog. Exercise. Organize a room or closet.
Comfort with self-care: journal your feelings. Take a hot bath. Light candles and meditate.
Ward off boredom: take a regular class or find a hobby.

Eat Your Meals Mindfully

Essentially, mindfulness, or remaining present, is a practice that can help you pay attention to emotional eating too. Try these tips:

• Pay close attention to actual hunger. When you’re hungry, enjoy every morsel.

• Make a habit of being grateful for your food. Appreciate the opportunity to eat well.

• Slow down. You may find you eat less when you savor the meal.

Remember, You Are in Charge

Your approach to food should not be about rules and restriction. It’s about goals for your life and health. Look to achieve balance. Eating for comfort or indulgence is perfectly fine sometimes. Keep those moments aligned with the more prevalent need to eat for survival. Learn to identify your emotional eating triggers. Explore and experience pleasure by other means.

You may find that you are much more able than you think to process feelings. Let a trained counselor, like me, help you take back the power to soothe yourself without a trip to the refrigerator or to the grocery store.

Take the first step…

When you are ready to address an eating disorder or issues with food that may be impacting your life, I would like to help. Please contact me via phone or email so we can discuss how we might work together to achieve your therapeutic goals as quickly and effectively as possible.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Linda K. Laffey, MFT