Cope with Your Feelings Without Using Food
The next principle of intuitive eating is to learn how to deal with negative emotions other than by eating.
I recommend completing this module over the course of a week, taking some time to review the material a couple of times, and to complete the journal exercises each day.
Start by listening to the talk below. When you're done, scroll down for the notes, journal exercises, and audio meditation.
Audio: Cope with Your Feelings Without Using Food
PDF Workbook (New!)
Module 8 Notes
We all “eat our feelings” sometimes—even the most seasoned intuitive eaters. Emotional eating can include both using food to help you cope, and relating to food in a positive way—for example, eating to bond with friends or family.
But when does emotional eating turn into a problem?
Only when it becomes the primary or sole coping mechanism you use for your negative emotions.
Here we’ll look at the whole continuum of emotional eating, identifying how to work with wherever you fall on that spectrum.
The Continuum of Emotional Eating
As Tribole and Resch explain in Intuitive Eating, emotional eating is triggered by feelings rather than physiological hunger, and it exists on a continuum. At one end is a completely healthy and very common emotional response to food, and at the other end is a style of eating that's always problematic. In between are ways of eating that can cause varying degrees of distress.
Sensory gratification is a style of emotional eating that’s actually very healthy and normal. It’s about taking pleasure in food, which is an essential component of intuitive eating (as discussed in Module 7). When you enjoy your food and allow yourself to receive gratification from eating, you are caring for yourself and supporting your intuitive eating abilities.
Eating for comfort is another style of emotional eating that’s part of a normal, healthy relationship with food. We all have favorite comfort foods—think of the ones you loved growing up, or the foods you gravitate toward when the weather is cold and gloomy, or the ones that make you feel better when you’re sick. Intuitive eaters can allow ourselves to eat comfort foods when we’re hungry for them, without guilt, and to the point of fullness and satisfaction.
Comfort eating is only a problem when eating is the primary or only source of comfort, and/or if you’re regularly eating for comfort without following the other principles of intuitive eating (including eating without guilt and paying attention to hunger, fullness, and satisfaction).
Eating for distraction is a style of emotional eating that takes you away from your intuition and blocks you from feeling its signals. We all need to distract ourselves from difficult emotions now and then, but eating is not a particularly effective way to do that. If you often find yourself eating for distraction, practice choosing other coping skills from the list in the "Deconstructing Emotional Eating" PDF below.
Eating for sedation is a more serious form of emotional eating. It completely blocks your ability to tune in to your inner signals, and if it becomes habitual it can lead to feeling disconnected, isolated, and hopeless. This is a style of eating that probably began as a coping mechanism for extremely difficult feelings or events in your life, but it ultimately leads to feeling worse and more out-of-control than ever. Learning other coping skills, in addition to taking care of your hunger, will help you overcome this style of emotional eating.
Eating as punishment is the most severe, most detrimental style of emotional eating. This type of eating happens when you feel so badly about your eating that you end up eating large quantities of food in a painful, self-punishing way. The antidote to this type of emotional eating is to draw upon your inner caretaker and practice self-compassion, as well as to learn other coping skills and take care of your physical hunger.
As you think about the styles of emotional eating that you engage in, be sure to practice self-compassion. You aren’t “bad” or “wrong” for relating to food in this way; on the contrary, at certain points in your life, eating may have been the only coping skill you had, and you were absolutely right to use it. We all need ways to cope with hardship, and if that’s all you had, of course you were going to use it.
Granted, you’ve probably come to realize that eating is not the optimal way to cope with feelings—and now you’re in the position to change that. But have compassion for yourself as you try to change, because the patterns of eating for comfort may be very deeply ingrained. And have compassion for your former self, who was just doing the best it could to cope.
The role of restriction
Another thing to keep in mind is that dieting often causes emotional eating. That’s because being hungry or restricting your food intake—either inadvertently or deliberately—can trigger both physical hunger and emotional responses such as anxiety, irritability, and sadness.
So when you find yourself eating emotionally, look for restriction in various forms. Ask yourself:
- Did you wait longer than usual to eat?
- Was your last meal or snack not very satisfying or filling?
- Were you already feeling a high level of hunger when you began feeling emotional?
- Could your emotional reaction have been caused by hunger, e.g. “hanger” or anxiety from low blood sugar?
- Were you restricting yourself from eating certain types of foods, either inadvertently or deliberately? Remember that restriction can lead to psychological as well as physical deprivation, and that in these cases you may feel compelled to eat “forbidden” foods even in the absence of hunger (see Module 4).
Whether or not you’re at an objectively high level of hunger when you turn to food for emotional reasons, it’s important to have coping skills other than eating.
Many times you may need a snack or meal and something else to deal with the emotion—but it can be difficult to identify what else you may need.
Download the PDF here to see a list of questions to ask yourself, along with lists of possible emotions and coping skills. Refer to this list anytime you’re thinking of turning to food for comfort, and see if you can get closer to identifying your emotions and meeting your needs with other coping skills (after taking care of any hunger you may notice).
Be sure to give yourself compassion in the process; it will get easier and easier with practice, so keep trying even if it's challenging at first.
Asking yourself to identify your feelings and needs is a way of connecting to your inner caretaker (as discussed in Module 5). This is a very important practice, because as you develop a better connection to your inner caretaker and a better sense of what you actually need in a given moment, you'll stop reaching for substitutes (like food) as often.
Instead, you'll discover the coping skills other than eating that truly nourish you in emotional moments, such as journaling, calling friends, taking naps, watching movies, or even having a good cry.
As you reduce your dependence on food as a coping skill, you may continue to experience occasional bouts of emotional eating. Try to view these moments not as failures, but as messages from your unconscious—“strange gifts,” as Tribole and Resch call them. These messages help point you toward the need for greater self-care—perhaps you’re doing too much and taking on too many responsibilities, and you need to find a way to slow down and tune inward again.
Whenever you find yourself starting to use food to cope, just come back to asking yourself the same core questions: How hungry am I? What am I feeling right now? And what do I need right now? The meditation below will help walk you through this process.
Meditation: What am I feeling? What do I need?
JOURNAL EXERCISE 1: Emotional Eating Styles
In your journal, keep track of any patterns of emotional eating you engage in.
- On the continuum of emotional eating, which styles do you engage in most often?
- Which styles of emotional eating cause you the most distress?
- Do you notice yourself engaging in healthy forms of emotional eating (e.g. sensory gratification and occasional comfort eating)?
- Are there particular emotions that tend to trigger your desire to use food to cope?
- Are there particular levels of hunger that trigger negative emotions in you?
- Do you engage in emotional eating out of psychological deprivation, e.g. if you've slipped back into an old habit of restricting particular foods?
- Intuitive Eating by Tribole & Resch, chapter 11
- Kelsey Miller's fabulous piece about emotional eating for Refinery29's Anti-Diet Project (with quotes from yours truly!)
Journal Exercise 2: Post-Lesson Reflection
In your journal, reflect on what you learned in this module.
- Are there particular aspects of coping with your emotions without using food that seem more challenging for you than others?
- Did anything seem easier than you'd expected?
- How will coping with your emotions without using food help you move closer to your goals and intentions?
Please provide your feedback to help us improve this module.