Northern Beaches Mums Group
Northern Beaches Mums Group

Emotional eating: it’s not about food

Emotional eating is incredibly common – so common, in fact, that it’s starting to be accepted and even celebrated on social media. But it’s not actually about the food at all, so why do we do it?

Emotional eating is the tendency to eat, or over-eat when we feel emotional in any way. This can be any emotion, even happiness or joy, and it’s a habit of using food to soothe those emotions. It’s using food as a source of comfort.  

I used to be an emotional eater myself, and I have worked with hundreds of clients who emotionally eat, too. So I can tell you with 100% certainty that using willpower to stop emotional eating is not the answer.  It just doesn’t work! Because the food you eat when you’re feeling emotional is not the biggest issue.

Whether you turn to chips, chocolate or cheese when you’re feeling emotional – the food is not the issue.
The way you cope with your emotions is the issue.

Brene’ Brown talks about in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, this tendency we have to ‘numb’ from our emotions. This is our way of avoiding our emotions, ignoring how we feel, and distracting ourselves from it all. Food is one way to do that – other ways of numbing include alcohol, shopping, and scrolling mindlessly on social media.

So it’s not the food that’s the issue, and that’s why willpower won’t solve anything. Food just happens to be your ‘numbing agent’ of choice when you’re feeling emotional. So to break the cycle of emotional eating, you have to change the way you cope with your emotions.

Why do we numb ourselves from our emotions?

Lots of reasons. Most of us were raised in households where we were told things like “stop crying”, “don’t be silly” and “calm down” when we displayed big emotions. Some of us might have even been isolated in a time-out or naughty corner when we were feeling emotional. So we grow up believing that emotions are bad, and we should hide them rather than express them.

Even as adults, most of us have the initial response of “don’t cry!” when someone we care about is upset. We’ve created a society where emotions are seen as uncomfortable, and so we practice ways to avoid them and “numb” ourselves from them.

How can we change the way we cope with emotions?

Most of us are so out of touch with our emotions that we don’t even stop to recognise how we are feeling at any given moment. That’s why it seems so easy to reach for the packet of chips, rather than taking a moment to recognise that you’re feeling sad, lonely, or rejected. Particularly as mums, we are so used to putting ourselves last and forgetting about our own needs and feelings.

The first step I always recommend when overcoming emotional eating is to start to name your emotions. This can be as simple as taking a deep breath in and checking in with yourself internally. How are you feeling?  Is there an emotion, and can you give it a name? This will get easier the more you practice, and you’ll start to feel a lot more connected to yourself as you start to validate and listen to your own emotions and needs.

The second step, which is important because most of us are uncomfortable with our emotions, is about feeling safe to feel that way. And it’s as simple as affirming to yourself: “It is safe for me to feel this way”.  This affirmation is going to help you re-wire your brain, and change those old beliefs that you learned through childhood so that you can start to feel safe and comfortable with your emotions.

After this, you can do things like journalling, moving your body, talking to a friend or loved one, or anything else that helps you to process and move through that emotion. But often, naming the emotion and reminding yourself that it’s safe to feel that way is enough to break the cycle of emotional eating.
Because when you realise your emotions are safe and valid, there is no need to numb yourself with food or any of the other coping mechanisms.

If you can relate to emotional eating, give the above a go and see how it changes your habits. And remember, this is a new skill that you are learning, and it takes time to un-learn the years of numbing, avoiding and distracting yourself from your emotions. So go easy on yourself, and give yourself a whole lot of patience and compassion as you walk this new path of emotional awareness.


Dannielle Illingworth is a kinesiologist, naturopath and author of “Quit Stressing About Food!”. Spurred by her lifelong love of learning, Danni has spent over a decade delving into the self-development world and shares her professional and personal experience in 1:1 coaching and group programs. You can connect with Danni through her website (www.dannielleillingworth.com), on Instagram (www.instagram.com/dannielle.illingworth) and on Facebook (www.facebook.com/dannielle.illingworth).

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