Can emotional eating be a good idea?

In the last few years, emotional eating has become pretty taboo. In every group coaching program I run, ladies talk about how eating for reasons other than hunger/nutrition is holding them back from reaching their goals. There are countless articles about how emotional eating leads to weight gain. And honestly, it seems like every coach out there is saying that emotional eating is the devil.

I get it. Eating is a way to fuel our bodies and help us reach our performance and aesthetic goals, so if we are eating for reasons other than fueling our bodies-like for comfort or enjoyment-that seems bad, right?

As a nutrition coach, I totally understand that emotional eating can be a barrier to reaching our goals. But as a human being (and a woman going through a break up), I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about emotional eating and wondering if it is always so harmful.

Well, I’m gonna take a less popular stance and say, no. It’s just not that simple. 

Food is much more than fuel.

Food is social, communal, and fun. Simplifying the equation and saying that we should only eat for fuel is ignoring the human element of eating. We eat with friends out at happy hour, enjoying the conversation and the taste of the snacks. We sip wine because it relaxes us and makes us feel good.

And that is totally okay.

For years, when I was struggling with my eating disorder, I believed that I should never eat or drink something with ’empty’ calories. I would never have a soda or juice, because those calories were not giving my body nutrition. Drinking alcohol was foreign to me, because it only gave pleasure, not nutrition.

Like all the coaches and trainers out there saying “emotional eating is bad (always),” I made nutrition very black and white. But, my friends, it’s not that simple. There are definitely situations where eating for reasons like comfort, relaxation, or just plain enjoyment is perfectly fine.  Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we should always be eating for reasons other than nutrition. 

Instead, I’ve distilled down a couple situations in which emotional eating is okay/normal/not detrimental to reaching our goals.

2 conditions that could make emotional eating helpful-not harmful

Is emotional eating all bad? Talking through 2 conditions that can make emotional eating helpful to your goals. Stop emotional eating - Emotional eating thoughts

You’re doing it mindfully and with full awareness

The true problem with emotional eating comes when we do it without recognizing what the heck we are doing. We all know that feeling, watching TV after a long day and looking down to realize that we’ve just eaten half the bag or chips. Or maybe we reach for a cookie at work because we’re stressed and they’re right in the break room.

Without awareness of our behaviors, we set ourselves up to eat in ways that keep us from reaching our goals.

I’d argue that the reason emotional eating is harmful is because we don’t always recognize that we are eating to soothe ourselves.

If, instead, we consciously choose situations (and foods) that make ourselves happy in the midst of bullshit, we’re actually engaging in a form of self care.

Sangria sorbet cheat day

As I worked through a lot of pain and sadness in my break up, I found myself wanting to eat more foods that I enjoyed. Instead of berating myself for wanting the whole Lenny & Larry’s cookie instead of half, I asked myself why and consciously chose to eat something I enjoy, instead of restricting.

I also recognized that there’s a huge difference between eating for comfort (as our only coping mechanism) and making food choices that are easy, tasty, and enjoyable. When we are going through tough times, it’s important to make things easier and not stress over the small stuff. Part of this is defaulting to our nutrition survival strategies and another part is being aware of our choices/behaviors.

When we are aware that we are eating for emotional reasons, we can consciously ask ourselves if this is the choice we want to make. If so, cool. Have the cookie. If not, maybe do something else.

You’re simultaneously using other mechanisms to cope

At the end of the day, eating foods we enjoy should never be the only thing we do to soothe or relax ourselves. Sure, having a glass of wine or a treat helps in the moment. But, if it is the only thing we do to care for ourselves, eating emotionally can become unhealthy.

We get into trouble when food is the only thing that brings us joy, however, eating for comfort is not inherently bad. It’s just one strategy to help us handle the challenges life throws our way.

Over relying on any one strategy for self care can be problematic.

Eating for comfort should always be combined with other methods of self care, including exercise, spending time with friends and family, snuggling a dog, or talking with a therapist.

If you take one thing away from this post, remember that emotional eating is not all bad. It can be part of a healthy lifestyle and doesn’t have to derail your health and fitness goals. Stay aware, choose options that make your life easier, and make sure that you are practicing other methods of self care.

Looking for more information on how to eat consistently while still enjoying the foods you eat? My #ConsistentNutrition Cheatsheet can help you navigate the middle between deprivation and the guilt that comes from overeating.