It truly goes without saying, but 2020 was as a whole, an emotional year beyond all other recent years. We started with the COVID-19 pandemic, then moved through economic uncertainty, lockdowns, quarantines, online schooling and working, continued displays of white supremacy, a polarizing presidential election, and countless deaths as the pandemic rages full speed ahead. There was constant talk of emotional eating during this time, even discussion of a “quarantine-15” and town-wide diets to combat this emotional eating.
Many people were eagerly awaiting the end of 2020 and the start of 2021. The hope was that the new year would be much different than the last; that somehow we could go back to a more “normal” way of existing (that’s never going to happen FYI). However, just six days in we were met with an attempted coup which further displayed injustices in the United States of America. As folks were glued to the news or social media, there were countless messages that normalized emotional eating. One such social media post by eating disorder dietitian Justine Roth contained a letterboard that read “Emotional eating has a time and a place. That time is now and that place is here” with the TV tuned into the news in the background. Many folks in the comments shared the foods they too were emotionally eating that day.
If you’re working on becoming an Intuitive Eater, or if you’re familiar with the principles, you’re probably aware that emotional eating is not an inherently bad thing or something to overly concern yourself about trying to stop. Eating with emotion or in response to emotion is a fully human experience. However, you may be wondering, isn’t it bad if I’ve been eating emotionally every day since March 2020 and it doesn’t seem to be getting better now that it’s 2021?
Here’s the thing, you’ll never be totally without emotion. Even post-pandemic, we’ll have a whole lot of emotional triggers that’ll come up on a day to day basis. So let’s chat about some nuances of emotional eating and alleviate some fears about emotional eating in 2021.
What Even is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is quite literally eating food for an emotional reason instead of eating because you’re hungry or need food. Emotional eating can happen as a response to sadness, loneliness, joy, boredom, anger, fear, and many other emotions, both positive and negative. Emotional eating can serve as an important coping mechanism or as a shared experience with others. As a coping mechanism, eating is pretty harmless compared to something like coping using drugs or alcohol. However, everything in moderation, right? If eating is the only coping mechanism we have, we’ll be turning to food for every single emotional experience we have and then things start feeling imbalanced, especially when it turns out that food was not the thing we were needing after all.
Diets Fuel Emotional Eating
Diets are dysregulating. What that means is that we begin to operate outside of our body’s cues and turn towards specific rules about what to eat and when to eat instead of trusting our body to tell us those things. It’s why many folks on a diet feel hungry all the time, but won’t eat all day or will turn to bingeing at night or on the weekends. Additionally, since many diets eliminate or limit foods that are typically super tasty and might be higher in certain nutrients like fat, carbs, salt, or calories, these are usually the ones people eat emotionally or in excess. We aren’t usually grabbing the celery sticks during an emotional time; it tends to be more comforting foods like a hearty meal or dessert or snack foods. If we’re not dieting or entrenched in diet culture, this wouldn’t feel like such a big deal. We eat all food and it’s normal, so we don’t carry around extra guilt or shame if we eat emotionally at times.
When in diet culture, we’re somehow “bad” for eating emotionally and we need to then work harder to make up for it. But, given this past year, emotional eating keeps coming up and hence we keep feeling bad about ourselves.
Keeping Your Body Adequately Fueled Will Help Regulate Emotions
Can you remember how you feel when you’re under-nourishing your body or get to a place of extreme hunger? Do you recall snapping at people, feeling unexplained rage or annoyance? Have you ever overreacted to something then realized later it was probably because you needed food?
We’ve all been there at some point in our lives, but if you notice this is a pattern for you, it’s probably a sign you might be skipping meals, going too long in between meals, or not getting enough nutrients daily.
Do you notice the emotional eating mostly coming out when you get home (or get off of WFH) or when you’re alone at night? Again, probably a sign you need to eat more satisfying foods during the day. And no, eating diet or low energy foods all day is not satisfying!! Your body is smarter than that.
Focusing on the Eating is Great, But You Might Need Therapy Too
If you’re having really strong and difficult feelings coming up pretty regularly and eating or other coping mechanisms aren’t really helping them, it’s probably going to be helpful to consult with a trained psychotherapist who has knowledge of intuitive eating (aka is not someone who will just say to avoid food/go on a diet) to help you explore where the emotions are coming from in greater detail.
Connect With Others About the Emotions of 2020 and Beyond
In the year where social distancing and quarantining became common vernacular, it’s more important than ever to connect with others. We’re all experiencing the events of 2020 and beyond for the first time and in real time, and being able to acknowledge the emotion and join in with others who are feeling the same thing can change the way you act out that emotion.
So What are the Steps to Take to Manage Emotional Eating?
If you were hoping for a how-to, you’ve finally gotten to it. This won’t eliminate emotional eating (again, not a bad thing!), but will help to regulate it.
Step 1: Eat regular, balanced meals. Don’t diet. Seek out an intuitive eating dietitian if you need assistance with this.
Step 2: How big are your emotions? Do you have a history of an eating disorder or other mental health condition? Do you need to speak with your therapist and/or go back into therapy?
Step 3: Am I getting all of my other needs met other than nourishment? Do I need more sleep, water, movement, enjoyable experiences, or connection with others? Can I check off some of these even if there are some I know are not possible right now?
Step 4: What emotions are you feeling? Can you identify them? What are some things other than eating that might help with these emotions or getting needs met? Can you try out different ways of coping and/or do these in tandem with eating?
Step 5: Can you show yourself compassion and grace as you embrace your humanity and imperfection? Can you thank yourself for coping with some really tough feelings?
If you or someone you know is struggling with food or body image during the COVID-19 pandemic, please reach out to me, Christina Frangione, MS, RD, CDN, RYT, a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor based in Centerport, NY, for assistance finding peace with food and your body during a chaotic time.