Understanding Emotional Eating

POSTED BY Kimberley Bell | Oct, 01, 2018 |

Emotional eating is a commonly discussed topic on social media. Everyone has their own advice on how to “fix” it.

This is not one of those posts.

My aim for this post is to empower those who are struggling and invite other health practitioners to re-think their messaging and consider intention over impact.


What you need to understand about emotional eating:


  • Emotional eating/or emotional hunger is perfectly justified and nothing to apologise for.

    For many of us, there are times where food is the best way we know how to comfort ourselves. THIS IS OKAY. When we are told that this is a “bad” way to manage our emotions, it only adds more shame, feelings of weakness, and negative self-talk, which often leads to binging. If we learn to sit comfortably with an emotional eating episode, see it as an act of self-care without guilt, we are less likely to turn a harmless, emotional eating episode, into something a lot worse (such as binge eating disorder, or bulimia).  Sure, if the emotional eating episodes themselves are causing negative side effects that leave you feeling physically worse (headachy, bloated, sore, etc) then that is not an act of self-care and alternatives could be looked at.  But please remember, weight control isn’t an act of self-care either. Food does make us happy, it releases happy hormones, and it’s an okay option when you have nothing else/no one else to turn to.


  • Emotional eating is NOT the same as binging. 

    This is important. Practitioners need to be careful not to confuse the two, or use them interchangeably. Eating to the point of feeling out of control, where the food takes over you, where you feel so full you could throw up, that is binging. It’s an over-eating disorder that needs to be addressed by a team of qualified ED trained practitioners. Emotional eating/or – emotional hunger, as I’ve said, is a perfectly justified reaction that many of us resort to when we are feeling down, and we need to stop demonizing it.


  • Elimination of triggers is not always an option (at least not immediately)

    . I’ll give you some examples – family environment, job environment, the death of family members, cancer diagnosis… In some cases, yes we can eliminate triggers, but often we can’t, and by not recognising the difficulty people face in removing triggers, we only increase the feeling of failure, weakness, and hopelessness. In these cases, we must get off our expert high horse, and offer compassion and support. Offer a safe place for the expression of emotion, without it being followed by “expert” advice. We are not the experts of helping someone deal with their trauma. We just need to be there, to listen and encourage self-care in the best way we can.


A message to sufferers:


  • To those being made to feel guilty for emotional eating –

    Next time you see your ex, pop up on social media, or its the anniversary of a family members death, or you are feeling stressed about getting an assignment done, or whatever the trigger is, if you find yourself turning to food for comfort – REMOVE THE GUILT –  IT’S OKAY. Please enjoy whatever it is that’s your comfort food, and I mean REALLY enjoy it (look at it, taste it, smell it, take in all the senses, eat it slowly), take a deep breath, think “self-care”, as you eat. You should find it gives you a nice sense of calm and takes away that need to keep going to the point of feeling physically uncomfortable. You are okay.


  • To those suffering with binge eating, or if your emotional eating is becoming more severe

    Please no that you are not alone, and that what you are going through is not your fault. You are not weak, this has nothing to do with “self-control” as much as it might seem like it. If you don’t have a good basic eating routine that allows for balanced blood sugar levels, get this addressed to eliminate the physical aspect of the binges. But in doing this, please remove any weight or body related goals, and make sure you are not working with anyone who is making weight a priority. And If you have suffered from trauma or experience strong negative thoughts, and think that this could be contributing to these binge episodes, I recommend seeking help from an ED trained therapist.  (I can recommend a great one who I have worked with this year).


Take home for – Nutritionists /Trainers who are working with clients for weight loss


No, if your client is emotional eating because of things going on in their life you’re probably not going to get the before and after photos, you need to create more revenue. And yes, I know it’s easy to believe you are “helping” them because they originally came to you for weight loss, and THEY believe weight loss will make them happy (I was guilty of the latter in the first years of practice, I was wrong, but I’ve done something about it). Please cut the bullshit. You need to put the clients needs first. Weight loss is not a priority right now if someone is struggling emotionally. They don’t need solutions on how to “stick to their diet” better. They need support, compassion and nurturing. And they need to be told that they are enough, and weight loss is no longer the goal. If you are uncomfortable with offering this kind of counselling, it’s outside your scope of practice, or if you don’t have the time to give them the support they need, please refer on. 


This post is written from years of experience working/listening to those with disordered eating patterns and body image issues, my personal struggles with binge eating, and from the knowledge I have gained this year through ED training. If you want to talk to me about any of the content on a more personal level, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Always here, always listening.