Content warning: This article discusses disordered eating in a way that some readers may find distressing.
For as long as I can remember, food has been bound up in my emotions. In normal, healthy ways such as cake on birthdays and family roast dinners but in worrying ways, too.
In the summer holidays, when we didn’t have chocolate in the house I would take that chocolate sauce that hardens as you put it on ice cream and freeze it in a bowl to ease the pre-internet summer boredom. That boredom alleviation blossomed into a dependency. I would sneak into the treats cupboard as a hormonal, insecure teenager and distract myself by eating packets of Iced and Choc Gems in quick succession, or the majority of a tube of Pringles when I wasn’t hungry. As I approached my late teens, a switch went off in my head that demonised these otherwise normal behaviours. I began to manage my emotions, especially shame and anxiety, through food restriction, eventually resulting in a diagnosis of anorexia at 19. As a result, a significant part of my 20s has been about learning to eat again in ways that correspond to my emotional ebbs and flows without restricting or numbing them.
‘Emotional eating’ is a loaded phrase. It conjures up images of someone crouched shamefully in the middle of the night over a big bag of crisps, sobbing into a pint of ice cream after a break-up or mindlessly tearing into snacks after an intense meeting. It brings to mind foods we associate with indulgence, consumed from a place of boredom, anxiety, grief, distress or frustration. We see emotional eating as a response to something negative, a way of eating that is maladaptive or detrimental — something that healthy, balanced people do not do.
But emotional eating is normal. I’m sure we all recognise it in ourselves, particularly in the past months. Managing our emotions through what we consume (especially food or alcohol) is an easy fix and for many has been a genuinely useful salve to spread over the overwhelming stress, isolation and anxiety of lockdown. I’m one of those people who has basically stopped drinking over lockdown but that has not extended to my eating habits. I’ve happily ordered doughnuts when I’m bored or anxious, or forgone my carefully prepared stew for a delivery of chips because I missed my friends. It’s been restorative, for the most part, to let my emotions shape the way I eat even when it veers into ‘overeating’ (eating beyond the point of fullness) or finishing the packet for the sake of it.
I’ve worked hard to disentangle my eating habits from any sense of guilt or shame. As a former anorexic, it’s not an exaggeration to say that unlearning ideas about what I ‘should’ and ‘should not’ eat has been integral to my health and happiness. Yet as we emerge from our third (and supposedly final) lockdown, I notice that emotional eating, particularly ‘overeating’, has crept into my daily life in a way that no longer feels normal. I worry about it, and then I worry that my worry comes from my formerly disordered self, and then I worry that curbing that behaviour could spark something irrational I have fought to unlearn or could change the way I eat entirely. It’s probably an overreaction. But as I think about how we will eat when we are no longer under any government restrictions at all, I keep coming up against the same two questions again and again.
Can I ever distance myself from emotional eating? And should I even try?
To understand how to feel about emotional eating, it’s important to understand that it is a normal part of life, says Dr Christian Buckland, a psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy.
"Emotional eating is a very normal human response," he tells R29. "You will notice that you'll eat when you're happy, when you're sad, and to celebrate something we go out to eat. We can have emotional eating on lots of different fronts."
Claire Fudge, a BDA registered clinical dietitian and founder of Nutricise, echoes this, pointing out that "emotional eating is not a diagnosis". Emotional eating — especially overeating — exists on the same continuum as disorders like binge eating disorder but unlike bingeing it is not marked by a distinct loss of control or emotional distress.
The breadth of how we eat emotionally is as wide as the spectrum of emotions itself so trying to understand it through one framework is limiting. However, when emotional eating, particularly overeating, happens more and more frequently and is used as a comfort for things like boredom, anxiety or loneliness, there’s the possibility it can teeter into more worrying territory.
Kate Robbins from the clinical advice team at the eating disorder charity Beat says that they’ve seen food become a significant focus throughout the lockdowns. "We've only been allowed to go to supermarkets and having a delivery at the weekend has probably been one of our only ways of finding joy or something to look forward to," she points out. "I think generally in times of crisis and trauma, emotional eating has been the way to deal with those emotions that we're feeling." It’s understandable, she says, given that our usual coping mechanisms have been cut off. Without the normal emotional releases like socialising or exercising, food has been one of the key things we can still control, look forward to or indulge in.
There are positives to emotional eating in every circumstance, including the one we are still living through. Kate points out that as long as emotional eating feels like something we are doing out of choice and feels within our control, it can be an effective way of dealing with our emotions. "It's difficult to differentiate but in times of celebration we get relief from food; it's an act of self-care. I think it's wonderful to hear people who have allowed themselves to have food they might not have previously as part of a healthy, balanced diet."
Then there is the power of sense memory and the attachment that meals and dishes can elicit. "There's some sort of comfort we get from eating when there’s an attachment to a specific emotion. It could be a memory, or it could be something very bonding with others or bonding with family or friends," says Claire.
That said, when eating or overeating becomes the sole way that we manage our emotions, it can veer into more tricky territory.
"[Emotional eating] will not address the underlying trigger for those feelings," Kate points out, "and it will leave those feelings unresolved. You'll be left with everything you were thinking or feeling previously and that may start to incur these feelings of self-frustration and guilt, potentially."
There may be physical impacts, too, if managing your emotions with food becomes a long-term primary coping mechanism.
"There may be effects on your blood glucose levels, on weight gain, on your mood (with the shame and guilt), on your skin and on your sleep if it's happening later in the evening," says Claire, adding that the impact on sleep is particularly significant, especially as that’s when a lot of emotional eating and overeating can happen. "If you're overeating and eating lots of food that's increasing your blood sugar levels or is high in fat for example, your sleep is going to be affected. You can't expect your body just to turn off its metabolism and you go to bed."
In the long term, then, while it is not necessarily a useful coping mechanism, a key part of being able to release yourself from that shame spiral and the over-reliance on overeating to self-soothe is not to attempt to put a sudden and immediate stop to it. It’s crucial to unpack the shame and guilt inherent in why we emotionally eat in the first place.
The world beginning to open up again has brought up questions about the habits we’ve developed over the last year. When it comes to emotional eating, it’s most important to recognise that it is a natural part of life and even in extremes it shouldn’t be a concern in the short term — there is no way to fully disengage our emotions from how we feed ourselves.
The kind of foods that we emotionally eat tend to be the ones deemed unhealthy — high in fat, salt and/or sugar and thought of as indulgent in some way. While too much of anything is a bad thing, much of the negatives of emotional eating and the spiralling it can produce is centred on a person’s perceived lack of control, particularly around ‘bad’ foods, and using that as a stick with which to beat yourself. "Emotional eating is often attached to foods that we or our society labels as being ‘good’ and ‘bad’," says Claire. "Actually, once you take those labels off food, we see food in a whole different way! And we don't tend to crave them as much." When the ‘bad’ food is no longer off limits, it is less of a guilty pleasure or a threat. And it opens doors to ways of eating which respond to your emotions in an intuitive, not numbing way.
But if it is something that is still a concern for you, or has become the only way you can manage your emotions, the advice from everyone I spoke to is to find a diversity of ways to process all emotions and to be kind to yourself.
Christian emphasises the importance of talking, especially if you can do so in a therapy format. "It’s so important to talk about what's going on," he says. This can be a route into understanding the underlying triggers and emotions, though that is an exercise you can also perform on your own, he says. "Look at what you did before we were all in this situation in order to sort of self-soothe." Unfortunately for most of us, access to our other coping mechanisms has long been limited by the pandemic, and demand for mental health services has soared. Trying to step back out into our former forms of de-stressing requires money and reckoning with the anxiety of returning to normal, he adds. "So it's about trying to find the courage to sort of try a new coping strategy or an old coping strategy that we've used."
Beyond therapy and re-engaging with other ways of managing our emotions, the most important thing is not to put too much pressure on ourselves and even see this as an opportunity to explore new ways to enjoy food. "I think we should be looking at it from a totally different perspective and thinking that this is a really great opportunity to really kind of listen to [your] body and see what [you] need," says Claire. Maybe there are new routines you can develop, new places you want to try, new sources of nourishment for both the body and the brain which you want to embrace. Now is the time to do so.
To eat emotionally is to eat like a human being. Often we fall into the trap of letting our fears and anxieties coalesce around a limited view of physical health which is dictated by sticking to the ‘good’ foods and avoiding the ‘bad’ ones, no matter what the circumstances. But to be healthy is to care about your emotional health and your mental health too, which means questioning why we do the things we do to manage our emotions but not blaming ourselves for perceived slip-ups. It’s less about having your cake and eating it, and more about understanding why you might want or need the cake in the first place. And not beating yourself up if you just eat it anyway.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with disordered eating, please contact the Butterfly Foundation at 1800 33 4673. Support and information are available 7 days a week.