Emotional Eating: What’s “Normal”?

Emotional Eating: What’s “Normal”?

Emotional eating.

You’ve heard the term, but what does it actually mean?

Definitions vary widely, but most of them focus on the concept of emotional overeating (i.e., the practice of consuming large quantities of food in response to feelings instead of hunger).

But is that the whole story?

Not quite.

The truth is that food and feelings hang together far more often than we realize.

And that’s not a bad thing! 

But how do you distinguish between emotional eating that’s “normal”, and emotional eating that may signal a need for greater support?

Today we’re breaking down 6 common places emotional eating may be showing up in your life:

1. Eating when you’re not hungry

There’s a lot of information out there about the difference between “physical” hunger and “emotional” hunger, and it’s a good idea to become mindful of these differences.

But, in reality, there’s nothing wrong with eating when you’re not physically hungry.

Think of the last time you ate an ice cream cone on a hot summer day. Were you starving and eating that scoop to help sustain your life?

Probably not. Chances are, you ate it because it tastes good! And it’s fun!

And that’s totally normal.

But do you find yourself often eating past the point of fullness, until you’re physically uncomfortable, and experiencing negative emotions (e.g., guilt, sadness, loneliness) or anxiety as a result? If so, you might benefit from additional support

2. Not knowing (or caring) what to eat

Ever stood in your kitchen staring into the fridge or pantry, clueless about what to eat?

Join the club. Everyone experiences this at some point.

With so many decisions weighing on us each day (and such a variety of food options available to us), it’s completely normal to feel a bit overwhelmed and disconnected from our natural intuition when it comes to eating.

But do you notice that you often have difficulty pinpointing what you’re hungry for? Or identifying when and how hungry you feel? If so, you might benefit from additional support

3. Feeling extra passionate about food

If you consider yourself a “foodie”, welcome to the party!

From dedicated food networks to YouTube to recipe blogs to pop-up cooking demonstrations and classes, there has never been greater variety or access to culinary inspiration.

Perhaps you enjoy squirreling away fun, new recipes to try. Or poring over restaurant reviews. Or preparing delicious meals for family and friends.

Absolutely normal!

But if you find yourself so focused on food or cooking that it’s hard to think about much else, or so focused on a particular eating “lifestyle” that food becomes more stressful than enjoyable, you might benefit from additional support

4. Eating to celebrate

Work parties!
Dinner parties!
Holiday parties!
Team parties!
Cookie exchanges!
Brunch with friends!

Punctuating life’s milestones (big and small) with food is a longstanding tradition in our culture.

But if food is your only answer to the question, “How should we celebrate?,” it might be worth expanding your celebratory toolbox.   

5. Eating to comfort yourself

When you hear the words “comfort food”, do you need to ask for an explanation?

Of course you don’t.

Our go-to foods might not be the same, but most all of us have them:

Those foods that we tend to turn to when life feels more stressful, chaotic, or painful than we feel we can manage.

Contrary to some rigid advice you may have heard, using food to comfort yourself is a natural part of the emotional eating spectrum.

Sometimes you eat to fuel your body. Other times, you eat to soothe your emotions.

There’s room for both in a healthy life.

But do you notice that eating is the primary way you practice self-care? Are you using food to manage not just extreme emotions, but to numb any emotional experience at all? This may be a sign that you could benefit from additional support.   

6. Eating to connect with others

Do you enjoy cooking dinner with your partner?
Or decorating cookies with your kids?
Or catching up with friends over lunch at your favorite little hole-in-the-wall restaurant?

If so, you’re in good company!

(And if not… that’s cool, too.)

Food provides a universal point of connection for us and the people we care about.

It can provide an opportunity to savor the company of loved ones.

It can serve as a kind of icebreaker, a foot-in-the-door for initiating difficult conversations.

It can enhance our ability to share meaningful time together. To deepen the bonds that tie us in relationship with each other.

But if you find that food is at the center of nearly all your social interactions, or you find yourself eating differently in front of others than you do on your own, it may be time to brainstorm some additional ways of spending time with the people in your life. You can do this on your own, or consult with a therapist for some extra support.

Enjoy this post? You might also like:

Holiday Eating & Boundaries
25 Mindfulness Ideas to Try This Year
Self-Compassion: 4 Ways to Start Practicing It Today

Could you use some support around emotional eating?