Everyone has a coping mechanism. These coping mechanisms exist to help us survive or keep moving through difficult seasons, emotions, and situations in life. Food is one of the first things that we have (mostly) unlimited access to as children, and often becomes a coping tool whether we restrict or overeat. It is reliable. It is socially acceptable, as opposed to using substances or sex or gambling or shopping to cope with the stresses of life. We need food to function, so it is easily justifiable.
Because of this common pattern, Intuitive Eating principle 7 focuses on learning to be self-compassionate and exile the guilt for any food-based coping that you may have done.
Can I just encourage you not to judge yourself for using what was available? It helped and provided a service. We can thank it for what it provided when you had less tools.
Principle 7: Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness
Any certified Intuitive Eating Counselor or Michigan holistic nutritionist can confirm that food in general is emotional. Consider the role that food plays in our culture. We celebrate birthdays or promotions with a nice dinner out or hosting a BBQ. Our holidays center around the literal or proverbial table with a Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas ham. We pass down family recipes for dishes that illustrate our heritage and evoke feelings of comfort and security.
Food is deeply connected to emotion.
Sometimes the emotions that arise can interfere with our ability to attune to hunger and satiety cues. You may have experienced anxiety around the holidays in fear of “losing control.” You may have felt guilt or shame for “indulging” in Holiday sweets.
Maybe you’ve found yourself eating when you’re not hungry, and then feel shame afterward. Working as a holistic nutritionist in Michigan, I’ve encountered many people who judge themselves harshly for what they’ve consumed. Intuitive Eating creators Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch cite research that states “…Former or current dieters have more emotional eating than those with no history of dieting (Tribole, E. and Resch, E., 2020, p.178).”
Emotional eating occurs when one responds to emotional triggers instead of hunger cues. It also occurs on a spectrum (Tribole, E. and Resch, E., 2020):
Sensory Gratification - wanting something because it tastes good/looks awesome/smells amazing/craving a texture, like a crunch
Comfort – wanting something because it is tied to happier memories or more positive emotions. Comfort food can be healthy if done without guilt.
Distractions – dealing with boredom
Sedation – eating to numb
Punishment – eating to punish self
Most people who cope with food don’t know they’re doing it, and boredom is one of the most common triggers. Other common triggers include frustration, anger, stress, loneliness, and anxiety.
One step to reduce emotional eating is to recognize emotional triggers. Tribole and Resch (2020) suggest asking yourself the following 4 questions to determine if you’re responding to hunger cues or coping with emotions:
Am I hungry?
What am I feeling?
What do I need?
How can I meet that need?
If you determine that you’re not actually hungry, have a list of other options to meet your needs. This could include things like:
Taking a bath
Going for a walk
Enforcing a boundary that has been crossed
Reading a good book
Watching a movie
Wrapping yourself in a fuzzy blanket
Calling a friend
Purge your closet
Self-care is a way to create the soothing and nurturance that we try to manage with food. Our self-care activities are the ways we try to meet the needs that we have; they don’t have to be extravagant: It can be as simple as giving yourself more sleep or reading a book instead of mopping the floors.
Deciphering your emotions or needs can be difficult. If that’s the case, part of your journey may look like enlisting the help of a professional counselor.
When you stop using food to cope, you may begin a grieving process.
This grief is normal. All change, even good change, involves loss. And if you stop coping with food for a while and then find yourself overeating or restricting again, don’t judge yourself! Get curious about what might be happening. These behaviors are just a clue into your internal world and that you may have a need to meet.
A Michigan Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor can help you navigate all of the new that you are working to implement. Please don’t wait to ask for the help you deserve.
Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2020). Intuitive eating: A revolutionary anti-diet approach. St. Martin's Essentials.
Katie Valley is a Holistic Nutritionist and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor whose goal is to dispel the myths of diet culture and reinforce a holistic, health-focused approach to wellness. After her own experience with disordered eating and poor body image, Katie found true healing by practicing Intuitive Eating and Body Acceptance.
Now she has her own practice, Katie Valley Wellness, where she helps women who feel out of control around food learn to eat intuitively, pursue TRUE health, & feel confident in their own body.