My intern, Ally, is taking over my blog to bring you a 10-part Mini training teaching you about the ten principles of Intuitive Eating. Each week, a new blogpost will go live summarizing the key elements of the principle while also giving you actionable steps to bring the principle into your life. Ally’s written several posts in this series already, including:

If you haven’t already, make sure to check out those posts to get up to speed!

This week, Ally is teaching you all about Principle 7: Cope With Your Emotions With Kindness. To make sure you don’t miss any posts from this series, click here to subscribe to my weekly newsletter.  

Take it away, Ally!

Consider an instance in which you’ve mindlessly snacked to kill time between meetings, reached for a bowl of ice cream to reward yourself after a challenging day at work, or procrastinated your homework by preparing a snack. Even when you’re not physically hungry, you may still turn to food to assuage your feelings of anxiety, loneliness, boredom, or anger. Although the emotional experience of eating may comfort these feelings at first, food ultimately won’t solve any of these needs. Principle 7 of Intuitive Eating, Cope With Your Emotions With Kindness, is about compassionately understanding how you use food to cope with your emotions, letting go of guilt, and getting to the source of your deeper unmet needs.

Food is so much more than fuel for your body: food is love, community, tradition, pleasure, and comfort. Although it’s certainly not bad to eat in response to emotions (i.e. curling up with soup when you’re sick, baking cookies for someone you love, enjoying hot cocoa on a chilly day) using food as your only coping mechanism could result in episodes of eating past comfortable fullness.

Diet culture suggests that emotional eating should make you feel guilt and shame… so when you emotionally eat, you end up feeling bad about it and in turn might reach for food to soothe those guilty feelings. The guilt and shame ultimately can cause you to spiral deeper into binging episodes. From the Intuitive Eating approach, emotional eating isn’t bad so when you experience it, you know that there’s is no reason to feel guilt or shame. In this blog post, I’ll be diving into how you can replace guilt with self-compassion and address the sources of your emotions rather than relying solely on food.

“A study of more than 35,000 men and women found that former or current dieters have more emotional eating than those with no history of dieting (Peneau et. al 2013)” (Intuitive Eating page 178)

It’s no wonder that dieters struggle more with emotional eating than non-dieters. Years of dieting triggers a loss of control and deep feelings of deprivation, despair, and frustration. To cope with these emotions, it makes sense that you would turn to food. From an evolutionary perspective, our brains link food with comfort- think of when a crying baby is given a bottle. Therefore, as you get older, it makes perfect sense that you might turn to food for comfort. 

Perhaps, you’ve found yourself exclaiming “Well, I’ve been bad!” or “I feel guilty because I ate a cookie.” Diet culture demonizes certain foods while praising others, which causes you to attach morality to your food choices. After all, are you a bad person for eating a cookie? No! This guilt is incredibly harmful to our mental and physical health- in fact, the stress of eating the food is much worse for you than the food itself. Although using food as a coping mechanism has been labeled “emotional eating,” it’s often just the psychological and biological consequences of food restriction. 

“If my body only needs a certain amount of food to feel satisfied, but I continue to eat after I’m clearly full, then what other need am I trying to fill with food?” (Intuitive Eating page 183)

Many people are unaware that they use food as a coping mechanism to distract themselves from dealing with difficult emotions. You may think that you overeat just because food “tastes good,” when in reality, it’s very likely that you’re using food in attempts to get a different need met. Here are some examples of potential unmet needs you might be experiencing when you find yourself turning to food. 

  • Boredom: You may engage in disconnected, mindless eating throughout the day when you need to fill time- perhaps between classes, during a planless evening, or while watching television. Or, perhaps you eat because you feel that you always need to be doing something productive. To meet this need, you could try out a new hobby, like painting or crocheting, call a friend to catch up, or listen to an interesting podcast. 
  • Reward: After getting through an exam you were dreading or going to a doctor’s appointment you detest, you may reward yourself with food. It’s common to reward yourself with “food gifts” for your accomplishments, but as an Intuitive Eater, you can eat whatever you want whenever you want it- food is not conditional on completing a task. Alternatives for meeting this need could include having a fun movie night with friends, treating yourself to a new outfit you’ve been wanting, splurging on a massage or manicure, or having an at-home spa night.
  • Excitement: the experience of eating can add excitement to your life, such as when you try out a new restaurant in town or plan a celebratory meal for your birthday. This can be fun! If you find that food is your only source of excitement, you might consider other ways you can add excitement to your life, such as planning a fun day trip, switching up your morning routine, or redecorating your room. 
  • Comfort: Food can be soothing for a variety of reasons. Perhaps as a child you looked forward to fresh baked cookies from a parent after school. Now, you may reach for a cookie because it reminds you of a simpler time in your life. Any food can be fun to keep around and enjoy, but when you rely on food as your only source of comfort, you may find yourself in episodes of eating past comfortable fullness. Other sources of comfort could include cuddling with a pet, journaling about what’s on your mind, cozying up with one of your favorite movies or books, or spending some quality time with the people you love.
  • Stress: When the adrenaline rush of stress hits, many people reach for a snack to combat this feeling. Stress causes a fight or flight response, meaning that there’s an increase in cortisol (stress hormone) levels and a cascade of other effects on your body, such as suppressed immune system function, slower digestion, and spikes in blood sugar. When your cortisol levels increase, your body elicits an increased drive to consume energy in response to a perceived threat. Naturally, your body is trying to protect you! It can be helpful to seek help from a therapist for chronic stress and experiment with ways to reduce stress on your own, such as meditating, journaling, or moving your body.

In late middle school and early high school, I would often come home from school and mindlessly snack to avoid doing my homework. Sometimes, I came home from school and felt hungry, in which case it was important for me to eat. On other days, I was still full from lunch, but because making an after school snack was a habit, I’d still look through the pantry for something to eat. Typically, I’d eat these snacks while scrolling through social media or watching TV, meaning that I was rather disconnected from my eating experience. In this scenario, I was using food to suppress my feelings of boredom and stress about doing my homework. 

Now, as an Intuitive Eater in training, I know that I can have a snack whenever I feel hungry, not just at habitual snack times. Often, I come home from classes and notice my stomach growling, so I’ll enjoy a snack that sounds good (dates with peanut butter are my favorite). But sometimes, I don’t feel physically hungry until dinner time or later, and I’ve learned to respect those cues and wait until hunger calls to eat. When I’m bored or stressed, I’d rather take a nap, journal, go for a walk, or hang out with friends to clear my mind. This allows me to effectively address my emotions at the root and get my needs met. 

Regardless of whether your emotional eating takes the form of large binges or small bursts of nibbling, addressing the root of your unmet need will allow you to regain peace and find better coping mechanisms for your feelings.

First ask yourself: do I feel biologically hungry? If so, eat! If not, consider asking yourself: 

If my body is not in need of biological fuel right now, but I still feel the desire to eat, then what other need am I trying to fill with food?

At first, you may be unsure what exactly that unmet need is- it takes time to practice understanding what your body is asking for. For example, perhaps you need rest, intellectual stimulation, emotional connection, comfort, movement, or spiritual connection to name a few. Once you get clear on what deeper unmet need your body is communicating to you, there are many options for ways to get the need met. It may be helpful to brainstorm some activities that will allow you to get these needs met so you have some options when the emotions strike.  Perhaps, this could look like:

  • Taking a relaxing shower
  • Going for a walk with your dog
  • Doing some yoga or stretching
  • Listening to a calming playlist or podcast
  • Reading an intellectually stimulating book
  • Spending time in nature
  • Asking your friends for a hug

After adopting the Intuitive Eating framework and finding other coping mechanisms for your emotions, you’ll likely find that food is no longer as important to you. With this new mindset, you’ll find that you experience your feelings on a deeper level and feel more connected to your emotional needs. Not to mention, you’ll find much more pleasure in your eating experiences when food isn’t your only source of emotional support. After all, Intuitive Eating doesn’t just affect your relationship with food- it also improves your quality of life, relationships, and peace of mind. 

Did you hear the news? We launched a podcast here at Leah Kern Nutrition! Shoulders Down Podcast is a podcast designed to teach you how to harness your intuition to govern not just how you eat but also how you live. New episodes get released every Tuesday!  Click here to listen to our latest episode on “Bro Science” and diet culture in the male community. 

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