Effective Emotional Eating

By Cindy Dallow, PhD, RD

Say what? Emotional eating can’t be effective, you say. What kind of dietitian would ever say something like that?

An enlightened one!

Most people think it’s wrong to eat for emotional reasons because they think they will eat way too much and gain weight. Many people also feel that they should be able to control their emotions and not let them get in the way of achieving their goals.

But of course, they do get in the way and in an effort to “squash” the feelings, people tend to eat fast and in a chaotic way, stuffing the food in as fast as possible. This helps to anesthetize the feelings, which is good, but that often leads to feelings of guilt and shame afterwards.

It often goes like this: Jon is passed over for a promotion at work and feels unappreciated. When he gets home, he stands in front of the refrigerator and grabs the leftover pizza, eating several slices in a short amount of time, while experiencing intense anger and frustration. He shoves each piece into his mouth, one right after the other and grabs a Pepsi to wash it all down. He then grabs a bag of chips and plops in front of the TV, eating almost the entire bag without realizing it.

When he gets up, he feels stuffed and uncomfortable. He regrets eating so much and feels disgusted with himself. He sees the Oreos on the counter and thinks “what the hell? I’ve already gone off my diet”. He proceeds to eat the entire package of cookies while standing at the counter and then goes to bed promising himself he will get back on the diet tomorrow.

Is this emotional eating? Yes. Is it a positive experience in which Jon gains insight into his emotional distress? Absolutely not.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Emotional eating can be a positive and helpful experience. Really it can!

The problem isn’t eating in response to emotions, it’s how the eating is done. Ellyn Satter, RD MSW, describes a different way of eating called “eating competence” that teaches people how to eat for emotional reasons so that they feel satisfied and happy with how they handled the situation.

Here are eight steps to being a competent emotional eater according to Satter.

  1. Identify what emotion you are feeling and why. Are you mad, sad, or just bored? Pinpoint the exact feelings you are having and why you are feeling that way. Put your thoughts on paper if it helps.
  2. Put in a delay. Before reaching for food, try going for a walk or calling a friend. Anything that will help you process your thoughts and work through the emotions.
  3. If food is what you really want, go ahead and get the food that you want. Put it on a plate and sit down at a table. This is key!
  4. Take a deep breath and exhale slowly. Center yourself. Pray, meditate, or just sit there quietly for 30 seconds or longer and notice your feelings, almost like you stepped outside of yourself and were looking at yourself from the outside.
  5. Tell yourself that this food will not take away the problem that is causing you to feel emotional but it will help you feel better temporarily.
  6. Take a bite and put your fork down. Taste the food! Chew slowly. Do not read or look at a screen. Eat the food very slowly and taste every single bite. Tell yourself you can have as much as you want.
  7. Pay attention to how full and satisfied you feel as you eat the food. Remember to eat slowly. As soon as you feel satisfied – not stuffed but comfortably full – put your fork or spoon down and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths.
  8. Check in with yourself, as to how you are feeling. This is often when we gain insight into the problem at hand. Thoughts and ideas will often pop into our heads that we hadn’t thought of before, because we hadn’t allowed ourselves to be quiet and mindful.
  9. Sit quietly for a few more minutes, breathing deeply. Notice your feelings and when possible, jot them down on paper.
  10. Put your plate and eating utensils away. Clean up and leave the kitchen.

If you haven’t already guessed, this is called mindful eating. When you eat in a mindful way, it’s easier to pay attention to feelings of fullness and to stop when you get to that point.

Mindful eating also allows you the time and space to hear yourself think and to realize what you are feeling. This realization then helps you decide what you are going to do about the situation that brought on the emotions and how you will handle these feelings in the future.

Eating for emotional reasons is not a bad thing and when done right, it can be a positive and enlightening experience. Give it a try!


Cindy Dallow, PhD, RD

My Body My Life Nutrition and Fitness, LLC





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