Emotional Eating (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly)

If you’re like me, pretty much every diet book you’ve ever read warns against the risks of emotional eating. But, is eating according to our emotions always such a bad idea? In my opinion, the answer is no. It all comes down to effective coping skills and finding the root cause.

A few months ago, I shared a story in my newsletter about emotionally eating chocolate chip cookies. [If you’d like to sign up for these monthly newsletters, you can do so here.] I had spent the day with my sister and her kids (aged 5, 3, and 1) and by the time I got home at around 9 pm, the exhaustion was real. During the car ride, I started thinking that a chocolate chip cookie sounded really good. I didn’t feel hungry, though, and I was wary of eating in case I felt worse instead of better. But by the time I walked in the door, I was so tired, and so comforted by the idea of a cookie, that I decided it would actually be a healthy and satisfying choice for me to have one as a snack. (A cookie is just as good as any other type of late night snack.)

But when I opened the freezer, I was very disheartened to realize that my husband had finished off the bag of cookies. I was so exhausted that I almost felt like crying. If anything, that should tell you just how emotional I was in that moment. So, I did what any other self-respecting woman would do, and I baked a new batch of cookies, ate one, jumped in bed, and immediately passed out.

If you’d read that story in a diet book, it would probably come with a subheading of “a key example of why emotional eating is bad.” But, was it? Was I harming my health by eating the cookie to soothe my emotions and exhaustion?

I don’t think so. The fact that I was so exhausted at only 9 pm, and my emotions were so fragile meant that for me, my blood sugar was probably low. That means I needed to eat a snack.

Some people get hangry when they need to eat. I get hanxious. Or hungry-emotional. For me, a symptom of declining blood sugar is feeling panicky, easily becoming upset, and wanting to cry. I used to think that was a sign of weakness or was overly emotional or something, but I’ve since learned that it actually is a strength to be able to recognize my body’s own cues. But, I digress.

In the past, a feeling of anxiety paired with the sensation of hunger would derail me a little bit. In my disordered eating days, eating was already a stressful experience…counting calories, worrying about weight gain, and plotting ways to “burn off” my indulgence. Ugh. The anxiety and hunger only compounded when I’d start worrying about food, my blood sugar would drop further, I’d become even more anxious, and the whole cycle would spiral out of control. I can remember more than a few times when that triggered a total emotional meltdown.

So, all that is to say that sometimes, emotions are a symptom of hunger. Avoiding hunger in emotionally-heightened states would only make the emotions worse. Sometimes, emotional eating is exactly the right thing to do! Of course, binge eating a pint of ice cream to cope with a stressful day at work probably isn’t the best form of self-care a person can choose. In fact, binge eating in general isn’t great, and usually comes with a whole host of side effects like guilt and shame. But realistically speaking, a few extra servings of dessert isn’t even the worst thing a person can do for her health every once in a while.

The thing to keep in mind when it comes to emotional eating is that in some cases, (unlike my late-night cookie scenario,) it doesn’t address the root cause. The risk in those cases is that the root cause is left to fester, and can possibly worsen over time. Cookies don’t cure broken relationships, they don’t take away work stress, and they can’t fix a pattern of sleep deprivation. But they can boost your mood when you need a snack and are feeling a little down in the dumps. It’s also important to remember that eating while in an emotional state is not the same thing as eating in an attempt to cure emotions. It’s okay to eat when you’re happy, sad, angry, and anxious. Even when emotional, you still need to eat and nourish your body. It’s not “bad” or “unhealthy” to choose satisfying, delicious, or comforting foods during times of heightened emotions, either. In fact, if choosing a richer or more decadent type of food in those times makes you feel a little better, that’s great! A cookie really can make a world of difference.


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