Five second exercise: What immediately comes to mind when I say “emotional eating”?
…Maybe visions of spooning cookie dough ice cream directly from the container with your best girl friends?
…Or ordering pizza after a tough day at work?
…Or eating when you’re not hungry, mindlessly moving from the chip bag to the cookie container to the bowl of gummy candy without missing a beat?
Chances are good you’ve encountered this “problem” at some point, or have overheard women strategizing their way out of it as if they were secretly plotting a getaway at midnight.
Chances are even better you’ve heard health coaches, nutritionists, dietitians, and so on talk about “overcoming emotional eating” or “solving the emotional eating problem.”
Programs have been created to deal with it.
Books have been written on it.
Articles have been published on it.
The diet industry has developed tools for it.
I’m here to set the record straight: it’s a made up problem.
To clarify, the feelings you have when you eat “emotionally” are real.
The shame and guilt you feel when acting or behaving opposite to how you feel you should be acting or behaving is real.
Eating what you want, when you want, and in the amount that you want when you are not straight-sized is pathologized, often perceived as “anti-health” or “letting go” or “giving up”, even though these phrases are truly sexist and/or healthist propaganda, not “facts.”
But “emotional eating” as a specific problem to be solved would not exist if it weren’t for the diet industry and fatphobia.
To be honest, “emotional eating” doesn’t really exist outside of restriction. When food is just food, it doesn’t necessarily comfort the way it may have in the past. That doesn’t mean intuitive eaters never eat pizza, cookies, or ice cream; it just means they eat it and move on (aside: I’ve noticed most intuitive eaters have poor meal and snack recall.) Food ceases to have any kind of charge, and you feel completely neutral whether we’re biting into an apple or eating a meatball sub.
So many of us — at least those of us who have or who are currently struggling with “eating difficulties” — have internalized the belief that we should always choose the healthiest option available, lest we be “bad.” Or, if we’re having a cheeseburger or some chips, it must happen on a “cheat day” or during the holidays or at some other socially acceptable time or place. This is diet culture in action.
Diet culture dictates that if you reach a point when you can no longer “resist” the ice cream or muster “willpower” to avoid the chip bowl, it must be because you’re an “emotional eater” (or “addicted to food”) and need to be “controlled.”
If you cope with your feelings by eating pizza, it must be because you are an inherent “emotional eater.”
If you gave up cupcakes only to find yourself elbow-deep in a store-bought cake, it must be because you need help with “emotional eating.”
But you are not an “emotional eater.” You are someone responding to effects of dieting.
These faulty narratives regarding “emotional eating” drive guilt & shame and fuel self-loathing. They don’t offer the “motivation” we hope will “cure us” of our bodily flaws and render us thin, gorgeous model-types.
In reality, there’s nothing wrong with emotional eating. Many of our food decisions are emotional, from what we feel like having for breakfast to celebrating the end of the workweek with takeout. This is “normal”, expected human behaviour, not pathology. While you may want to find additional coping mechanisms for processing challenging emotions, taking your feelings out on a piece of chocolate cake is pretty natural, too. Deriving pleasure from food and enjoying all that it has to offer isn’t wrong — it’s wonderful and healthy.
You don’t need to be controlled, tamed, or “cured.”
Instead, I would argue you need the space, freedom, tools, and support for self-acceptance. Legalize emotional eating!
What do you think about emotional eating? How do you feel about the way “emotional eating” gets depicted? Leave it in the comments below!