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Overcoming emotional eating

Written by Dannielle Illingworth | Wednesday, 27 October 2021


As a naturopath and kinesiologist, I’ve worked with hundreds of women who want to change their eating habits and lose weight. And one of the biggest barriers in all of those women is emotional eating.

Emotional eating is basically a tendency to use food as a source of comfort; a habit of eating to soothe your emotions. So why do we do it, and how can we break the habit?

So often as young children, we are soothed with food — when we scrape our knee, or when we get a needle at the doctor’s office, or when we’re having a meltdown. Caregivers and other adults will often offer us a “treat” of some kind in an attempt to calm us down and soothe our emotional outbursts. We’re basically being trained from a young age that food equals feeling better.

As children, we’re also taught that some emotions are good, and some emotions are bad. Meaning, you’re allowed to laugh and smile and be happy, but you might have been punished or disciplined for showing emotions such as anger, frustration, or even sadness. And then you grow into an adult who still labels emotions as “good” and “bad”, so when a “bad” emotion does arise you don’t know what to do with it. So you eat to numb the feeling and avoid processing it or expressing it.

You might have also observed adults in your life who were emotional eaters, and picked up similar habits just by watching them do it.

The reason it’s so important to look at why we emotionally eat is that awareness of where the habit came from is your starting point in changing the habit.

So if that’s why we do it and where it all started from, what’s next? How do we stop emotionally eating?

It’s not about willpower, restriction, or anything like that. It actually needs to start with emotional awareness.

The process to overcoming emotional eating looks like this:

  1. Feel the urge to use food as comfort (i.e. “emotional craving).
  2. Acknowledge that this is an emotional craving, not physical hunger.
  3. Notice the emotion or feeling you are experiencing, and give it a name. It might be sadness, loneliness, anger, frustration, rejection, fear… there’s no right or wrong, just give it a name so we can work with it.
  4. Find a way to express and process that emotion, without using food.

Step number four takes some practice, but over time you’ll start to develop a kind of emotional “toolkit” - a list of things you know will help you to process and express your emotions in healthy and helpful ways, without food.

Here are a few of my and my client's favourites:

  1. Journaling
  2. Meditation
  3. Exercise or stretching, some kind of physical movement
  4. Call a friend
  5. Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT/tapping)
  6. Take a bath or shower
  7. Get outside in nature
  8. Singing loudly to one of your favourite songs

And sometimes, just naming and acknowledging the emotion can be enough to help you process it.

As with all healing, overcoming emotional eating is not a linear process. There will be ups and downs, triumphs and setbacks. It’s all part of the unlearning you need to do, especially considering how long you have had the habit of ignoring your emotions and turning to food for comfort.

I know for myself, in my own journey, I started with just naming the emotion, and then I’d usually have the food I was craving anyway! And I just allowed myself to go through that phase until I eventually was able to feel safe in expressing and processing my emotions without food.

Because food isn’t really helping you express or process your emotions at all, it just suppresses them. Quite literally, the food pushes your emotions back down into your body. Food is a way of numbing yourself against emotions, and the antidote to emotional eating is learning to acknowledge, accept and allow your emotions — all of them.

Interested in learning more about natural health?

Discover our range of natural health courses or zone in on the subject matter of this blog via our Nutrition Short Courses or Food Psychology: improving relationships with food.

Dannielle Illingworth

Dannielle Illingworth is a kinesiologist, naturopath + author. Whether it’s in business, relationships, weight loss, career, health, or just general happiness – Danni helps her clients identify and let go of any fears, limiting beliefs + memories that are holding them back from what they truly desire. You can find out more at her website or follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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