Is it wrong to eat your emotions?


Eating your emotions as portrayed in the media

I’m watching a movie, one of these evenings, and this is the scene:
A young woman has just been left behind and is devastated. She returns home, puts on some cozy pajamas, opens the freezer, grabs the tub of ice cream, then eats it, crying the state of her love life.
Do you recognize this great cinematic cliche? Eh yes! This woman eats her emotions.
If this scene has been replicated so many times, it is no coincidence. Whether it’s to console yourself from a breakup, distract yourself from loneliness or recover from the stress of the day, eating your emotions is rather universal for anyone who has access to food.
But not all emotional eaters are considered equal! Have you noticed that the perception that we have of eating our emotions can vary according to appearances? Many of my clients tell me that they live with the guilt of eating without hunger, but that this would not be the case if they lived in a slimmer body! Like it’s wrongdoing only if you don’t fit the thinness standards. What a double standard…
Is it surprising when you consider the messages in the media?
On the big screen, thin people who eat their emotions will often be presented more favorably. We may feel compassion towards them, as opposed to being judgmental towards plump people who do the same thing.

Do you actually eat your emotions?

These biases transfer to reality, and it becomes dangerously easy to judge people who eat “comfort” foods by their waistline. Yet we all have the same right to eat, for whatever reason.

Emotions (obviously)

Some will eat for comfort and relief during a moment of sadness, but will have their appetite suppressed in times of great stress. Others will treat themselves to a “food trip” to reward themselves, for example after long hours of study for an exam.

Cognitive restriction

If I tell you not to think of a polar bear, what is the first image that comes to mind? A polar bear, perhaps? We can try to ignore our favorite foods, but often the more we try, the more we obsess over it and we usually end up eating even more of them.

Physiological Hunger

We need food to survive. The body therefore puts in place strategies to eat and meet our needs, against our will if necessary! Hunger is THE most common cause people confuse with emotional eating, especially for those who have never learned to trust their hunger cues and only know about dieting, guilt and restriction. We come to normalize deprivation and demonize “loss of control” when this is sometimes the way our body uses to communicate its need for fuel to us.
In the end, even if you manage to identify that you are eating your emotions, is it so wrong to do so?

The role of eating your emotions

When we eat foods high in fat or sugar, an interesting effect can be observed in our body: a decrease in the level of cortisol, the stress hormone. So it’s a natural way to find peace.
Still think this is a bad thing? Would you think the same for other activities that help you reduce your anxiety such as painting, music, the outdoors or physical activity? Why then would eating be less virtuous than doing a yoga session to manage momentary stress?
It’s all about balance and context. If we eat our emotions sporadically, but we also have other ways of managing and experiencing these emotions, that is not a problem. On the other hand, if our only way to experience joy or comfort is to eat, this can become a way of avoiding our emotions. This form of avoidance can also apply to other disciplines often considered more virtuous. For example, physical activity can reduce our stress, but also become excessive, obsessive and negatively affect our physical and mental health.
That said, if you feel like you’re constantly losing control over food and food is dominating your life, don’t hesitate to talk to us. We will help you find peace with food.
Danya Beauregard, Nutritionist, Dt.P., RD
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