First Foods

food freedom in motherhood

Is Emotional Eating Bad?

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This last Friday, our family unexpectedly lost our family dog, Otis. Otis was a black lab and we sometimes called him ‘Otisaurous’ because he was so big! He had these giant big flappy ears and massive paws.

Trevor and I had talked about getting a dog, but to me it was very hypothetical. To my surprise, Trevor brought home a puppy in August 2022, and that’s when our family met Otis. Anyone who talked to me about Otis over the past year knows how I felt. I was pretty overwhelmed with a puppy a lot of the time. I found it really stressful to try to take care of him and his needs along with the kids.

But, what a lot of people didn’t see, was how much Otis grew on me over the past year. We have an unfinished basement and that’s where Otis would sleep and eat. We also have workout equipment down there. On the mornings where I’d wake up to workout, the whole house would be sleeping, but Otis and I would workout together. He’d insist on playing with a toy or jumping along with me, right beside me. I’d feed him and let him out before going upstairs and it was in those tiny moments, just he and I that I began to tell him, “You’re a pretty good boy. You’re not so bad”

Boy did our kids love him. He was such a good dog, especially being so young. He never barked and was so patient when the boys insisted on ‘petting’ him, not always as gently as they should have.

He was a hunting dog and my husband manages a hunting lodge. He was guiding a pheasant hunting group this weekend when Otis had a medical emergency. He hung on through most of the night, but slipped away that morning. Man, what a shock.

Big, uncomfortable feelings

I’m feeling so many feelings. Of course I feel sad, I feel grief, I feel shocked. But I also feel guilt. I feel anger with myself for not being more loving towards him, for not giving him more attention or being more forgiving of him just being a normal puppy. I also feel surprise, “why am I still so sad?”

All of these are normal to feel, I’m sure. But, I can’t help but notice how these emotions have impacted my eating and exercise routine over the past few days. So, I thought it seemed like a good opportunity to explore emotional eating.

What is Emotional Eating?

When we talk about emotional eating, it seems we usually talk about it as a negative thing. We describe it as some weak act without willpower or discipline.

But, emotions aren’t all bad. How often do we eat out of joy, fellowship, celebration, love? Is that bad? I don’t think so. I think food was meant to bring us some joy and I think that it’s more than okay to allow it to be that for us.

But, I think it’s also important to view eating and foods in their rightful place. Food can’t actually bring me lasting happiness, maybe some momentary comfort. The only problem food can have a lasting solution to is hunger. So, if eating is the only thing I know how to do if I feel a big feeling (positive or negative), I’m going to be let down. It’s not going to do it for me.

Often our culture’s solution to emotional eating is to swing to another side of the pendulum and try to rid eating of any emotional experience whatsoever, but I don’t think that’s totally necessary either.

Instead, I like to ask myself, “what could I do ALSO?”

For example, maybe I really want a cookie. I recognize that I’m not feeling hungry. I recognize that some of that cookie might simply taste good to me, and I can tune in to what I’m feeling as to not eat it to the point of feeling too full and not good. But, I’m eating the cookie for a momentary feeling of pleasure, of comfort, recognizing that that’s the only thing the cookie will give me. So, I think, “what else could I do in addition to eating this cookie? What else do I need right now?” maybe it’s talking with my husband, maybe it’s doing my Bible study, maybe it’s going to bed early, maybe it’s taking a walk.

It’s okay that food elicits some emotions, but the takeaway is to make sure we know what food can and cannot do for us.

When emotional eating becomes a problem

That all sounds pretty straightforward, but the truth is that emotional eating can also occur on a spectrum, and in some cases requires professional care to work through. If you’re experiencing any of the following, be sure to reach out to your healthcare provider to discuss support. (also remember that this blog post is for educational and informational purposes only, and is not meant to diagnose or treat any medical or mental illness or disease)

In the Intuitive Eating book, there’s a wonderful description of the ‘continuum’ of emotional eating, where again, some forms of emotional eating are relatively uneventful or inconsequential, but others aren’t.

Sensory gratification– mild and common, natural and normal.

Comfort– discussed above in part, but again if this is the only thing I know how to do when I have a feeling of discomfort, it won’t address the whole problem.

Distraction– distracting from the feeling itself. It happens to many of us, but if this is a constant way of avoiding what it is you’re feeling, it may be time to address that.

Sedation– more serious form of using food to numb, can escalate into a routine that isn’t helpful toward coping with emotions.

Punishment– when eating for sedation becomes frequent it can trigger eating for punishment. This is serious and should prompt the care and support of a mental health or medical professional.

Seeking the care of an eating disorder-trained counselor or psychotherapist and eating disorder registered dietitian is recommended for frequent and severe emotional eating.

Is emotional eating bad?

So, as a blanket statement, emotional eating isn’t bad. It’s part of life and frankly, thank goodness! We can get pleasure and sensory gratification from eating, and I personally don’t want to live a life without some enjoyment from my food, right? Instead of shaming yourself the next time you reach for ice cream because you’re stressed, what if you gave yourself space to explore what else you could do to address that stress? What if you gave yourself permission to explore that feeling in other ways? Again, for many of us this may take support from a therapist or mental health provider and that’s okay.

I miss Otis, and I’m still working through a lot of big, uncomfortable feeling. Here’s to giving myself permission to feel them and space to explore ways to cope with them.

2 responses to “Is Emotional Eating Bad?”

  1. Niamh - Grab a Cuppa Avatar
    Niamh – Grab a Cuppa

    I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your beloved Otis. It’s clear from your words that he meant a lot to you, and the bond you shared, especially during your morning workouts, was something truly special. It’s okay to feel a mix of emotions during this time – grief, sadness, guilt – they’re all part of the process of saying goodbye to a cherished companion.

    Your insights on emotional eating are also quite valuable. Food can indeed bring joy and comfort, but it’s essential to recognize its limitations and explore other ways to address our emotions. Your approach of asking “what else could I do ALSO?” is a thoughtful way to navigate emotional eating.

    Remember, it’s okay to grieve and to seek support when needed. Otis will always hold a special place in your heart, and the love you shared will never fade. Wishing you healing and comfort during this time. 🐾❤️

    1. Mariah Reil Avatar

      Thank you so very much! Your words are so encouraging to me during this time and I’m so glad to hear that you found value in this conversation on emotional eating.

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