The #1 Myth About Emotional Eating Everyone Needs to Know About

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Have you ever referred to yourself as an emotional eater? Do you type “emotional eating” into a Google search box hoping and praying to find an answer to your late-night brownie habits? You’ve probably read countless articles telling you how to “fix” your emotional eating “problem.” Well, the good news is that you’re not alone. (In my work as a registered dietitian, I see countless women who want to treat their emotional eating.) But the not-so-great news is that you’ve probably been wasting your time and energy.

Yep—what if I told you that emotional eating is not the problem? I repeat: Emotional eating is NOT a problem. Here’s why.

Food is supposed to be comforting.

As a human being, you’re biologically wired to find pleasure in food. It’s an innate survival mechanism that helps to keep you alive. Science has shown that if you aren’t getting enough energy (calories through food), your mind-body connection will basically make food more enticing. Short version: You get hungry and then crave a taco. Imagine a world where food wasn’t pleasurable. Do you think you’d be as compelled to eat? Probably not. Food is fuel, yes, but it’s also there to soothe and comfort. Let’s take away the guilt and shame from food giving you joy and comfort and realize that it’s completely normal to feel happy when you bite into a juicy burger or luscious red velvet cake.

I like to think of emotional eating as a pendulum. If you try harder and harder to avoid emotional eating, to restrict yourself, and to eat only foods you deem as “good,” the pendulum is going to swing high in one direction. And eventually, that momentum is going to force it to swing high in the other direction, which in this case will mean overeating and binging on “bad” foods.

Bottom line: The more you try to control emotional eating, the more it ends up controlling you. Allow yourself to savor a bowl of ice cream when you’re feeling down without feeling guilt or shame (that will likely just lead to more overeating), and instead look at it as a form of self-care. It’s okay to eat emotionally as long as food isn’t the only coping mechanism you have in your toolbox to deal with life stuff.

You’re restricting your food.

Are you caught up in a dieting mentality? Do you constantly feel the pressure to restrict certain foods or dictate when you eat? Emotional eating and hunger are easy to mix up. If you’ve been “dieting” and restricting things that give you pleasure (see: pizza, cookies, or even your favorite green smoothie), you’re going to not just be more inclined to emotionally eat (say, order greasy takeout after a stressful day at work), but more inclined to overeat even “healthy” foods because you’re hangry. (This is yet another reason why you should give up restrictive dieting once and for all.)

If you’re not getting enough calories, your brain will release a chemical called neuropeptide Y (NPY), which makes you crave carbohydrates (your body’s first and most readily available source of energy). It’s basically your body’s innate survival mechanism kicking in to make sure you have all the fuel you need to get sh*t done—or lift heavy things.

Bottom line: If you’re restricting carbs or calories, and feel an overwhelming desire to drown your emotions in an entire pizza, it’s probably not emotional eating, but rather a reaction to low energy and craving things you’ve been restricting.

Forbidden foods are more pleasurable.

Ever notice how food tastes so much better and makes you so much happier on a “cheat day” than on a “diet day”? This has little to do with your emotional ties to food and everything to do with the allure of forbidden foods. Research shows that the reward and pleasure centers in your brain light up even more in response to a food that has been previously off-limits. So that ice cream you’ve been locking up in the depths of your freezer? It’s going to be more delicious when you finally do indulge than if you just give yourself permission to have it whenever you’re in the mood.

Remember that you’re human. You have emotions and needs, which drive a lot of your actions on a daily basis, food-related or otherwise. It’s kind of like putting a toddler in a room filled with toys and telling her she can play with any toy in this room except this blue ball. Guess which toy that kid is going to grab? It’s the same idea with food. If you tell yourself that bagels are off limits, you’re going to dream about a toasted everything with cream cheese. Hey, the truth hurts.

Bottom line: Take the morality out of the food equation by removing those labels of “good” and “bad.” Give yourself permission to eat all foods (within reason and moderation) and you will likely reduce those cravings, which at the time can feel like emotional binges.

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