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How To Eat For Emotional Reasons

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

What kind of dietitian will tell you that it's ok to eat for emotional reasons?

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 having a good time.

But of course, our emotions do get in the way and the end result is a feeding frenzy that has a temporary numbing effect. Within minutes, however, that effect is replaced with feelings of guilt, shame, and self-loathing.

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, literally shoving it into his mouth while experiencing intense anger and frustration. He grabs a Pepsi to wash it all down and starts looking for more food. He 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 miserable and disgusted with himself. He sees a package of Oreo cookies and thinks "what the hell? I've already f*cked up enough, I might as well eat some of these too" and proceeds to eat the entire package of cookies while standing at the counter and then goes to bed promising himself he will do better tomorrow.

Is this emotional eating? Yes.

Is it a positive experience in which Jon gains insight into his emotional distress? No!

It doesn’t have to be this way!

Emotional eating can be a positive and helpful experience. It all depends on how it's done.

Ellyn Satter, RD MSW, author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, 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 after the eating experience is over.

Here are 10 steps on how to eat if you are feeling upset, depressed, anxious, or any kind of strong emotion, based on Satter’s work:

  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. Center yourself. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Pray, meditate, or just sit there quietly for 30 seconds or longer and notice your feelings. Pretend that you stepped outside of yourself and just notice the feelings you are having without forming any judgement.

  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. Chew slowly and taste the food. Do not read or look at a screen. Tell yourself you can have as much as you want as long as you are eating slowly and intentionally.

  7. As you eat, pay attention to feelings of fullness and satisfaction. As soon as you feel full and satisfied – not stuffed, but comfortably full – put your fork or spoon down and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. If you want more, eat more but eat it slowly and attentively until you are comfortably full and satisfied.

  8. Check in with yourself, as to how you are feeling. What emotions are you 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. Continue to 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.

This process is part of what's referred to as intuitive eating. When you eat intuitively, it’s easier to pay attention to feelings of fullness and to stop when you get to that point. It’s also easier to pay attention to your thoughts and feelings too.

Giving yourself permission to eat this food (no matter what it is) and to eat as much as you want removes the “power” the food has over you and allows you to relax and just enjoy eating experience.

Intuitive eating also allows you the time and space to hear yourself think and to notice what you are feeling. This can help 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!

Want to become an intuitive eater? I can help you do that! As a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, I love teaching people how to become competent and joyful eaters. Click here for more info!


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