The first step in making peace with food is in understanding what emotional eating is. To learn more about how I define emotional eating, click here to read my article, “What Is Emotional Eating?”

If you’re not sure whether you’re an emotional eater, click here to learn what the “Top 10 Signs You Might Be An Emotional Eater” are.

So You Think You’re An Emotional Eater

As mentioned in the first article, most of us eat in response to emotional triggers from time to time; it only becomes an issue if food is your go-to solution for every problem in your life.  However, our diet- and thinness-obsessed culture elevates this coping strategy to a full-out crime, and the sad result of this is that many people harshly berate themselves whenever they overeat or eat the “wrong thing.” This leads to guilt, self-loathing, and more often than not, more eating to relieve those unpleasant feelings.  None of these are helpful in any way.

In my work, I help people reframe each emotional eating episode into an opportunity for self-compassion and the development of a more intimate relationship with themselves. Yes, that means that you can see a binge as a “good thing” if you’re willing to take responsibiity for increased self-awareness and growth.  This concept is foreign to many, and requires that one suspend deeply engrained judgment and self-criticism, at least in the moment.  But the truth is, once a person does this, it opens up a whole new world, one in which you can learn incredible things about yourself, and the doorway is your relationship with food.

Here’s the process I usually teach my clients to accomplish this. It can be done the moment you find yourself craving something you know you’re not physically hungry for, or after the fact when the cycle of guilt begins.  Stop for a moment and take a breath.  Then ask yourself why you find yourself turning to that particular food at this particular time. Be patient, and be willing to be surprised.  Pulling out your journal and writing freely can help you come to an answer sooner.

Once you identify the trigger, whether it be a painful event, an uncomfortable situation, or a frustrated desire, ask yourself what the feeling(s) behind it is/are. This can be a range of emotions, from the deeply negative to the positive (who hasn’t overeaten during a time of celebration?), or even a feeling that seems disconnected from the rest of your life.  Take a few more deep breaths.  See if you can muster the bravery to sit with that feeling for a few moments, rather than turn to food to make it go away.  If you’ve already eaten, then remind yourself that you did so because it was the only way you knew how to take care of yourself in that moment.  If you want to do differently next time, then you have to understand what happened this time and deal with it appropriately.  Sit with the feeling that originally triggered the binge.  With time and practice, you might find that the feeling starts to lift.

More important, however, is the next step.  Once you’ve allowed yourself to feel whatever it is you’re feeling, and accepted it rather than tried to push it away, ask yourself what the need is behind the feeling.  Feelings exist for a reason: they are important in helping us identify that a need has arisen that requires our attention. Anger signals that one of our personal boundaries or values has been violated.  Sadness indicates that we are hurt or disappointed about something.  Loneliness points to the need to have more quality interactions with others.  The list is infinite. However, if you can identify the need, you can do something about it!  Therein lies the power of emotional eating. The solution may not be immediately obvious, but the more often you go to the source of your cravings, the better you get to know yourself and what you need.  If you require help to figure out how to identify and meet those needs, then get it.  Seek professional help or talk it through with a friend who understands.  The result will be a life with fewer episodes of emotional eating, and greater satisfaction.

If you stick to this approach, you might find yourself actually welcoming your next craving! Over time, you will learn the language of your emotional hunger, and the desire for chips or ice cream will be translated to a need to attend to your deepest emotional needs.  It’s a truly life-changing process, where your “problem with food” becomes the key to living a more authentic and fulfilling life.