To say that the term “emotional eating” has a bad rap is an understatement. Diet culture has long gone out of its way to convince us that food is the absolute last thing we should turn to in times of stress or sadness. How many times have you read that if you feel like eating a cookie after a bad day, taking a warm bath and doing some deep breathing is a “healthier” choice? Or that if you’re stressed and feeling snack-y, you should drink a few glasses of water instead? I know I’ve seen and heard that stuff more times than I can count.
And sure, sometimes a candle-lit bubble bath is a nice way to decompress. But as a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and takes a non-diet approach to nutrition counseling, I can confidently say that relying on food for comfort isn’t inherently bad or wrong. Sure, eating gives us energy and nourishment, but it also plays a huge role in our social and emotional lives.
I’m not saying that food should be the only thing you turn to when you’re having a hard time, or that eating to numb out your feelings is a great way to go through life—because avoiding emotions, whether that’s through drugs, alcohol, overexercising, or, yes, food, isn’t ideal. What I am saying is that demonizing emotional eating in all forms isn’t good for you, either.
Of course food is emotional!
There are a lot of people—namely fitness influencers—out there trying to convince us all that food is nothing more than fuel. (Soylent, Silicon Valley’s favorite “drinkable meal,” wouldn’t exist otherwise.) But for most of us, that will never be the case—and that’s a good thing.
Food doesn’t just give your body energy; it “can also taste and smell really good, and even the texture can be extremely satisfying, resulting in pleasure and enjoyment,” Ayana Habtemariam, MSW, RDN, a dietitian based in Washington, D.C., who helps clients heal their relationship with food, tells SELF. In other words, the satisfaction you feel when eating your favorite foods isn’t just physical, it’s mental and emotional, too—and the fact that something we do several times a day can bring us a burst of happiness is pretty fantastic if you ask me.
We also tend to associate food with positive emotions like connection and comfort. So many social occasions, whether it’s a traditional family gathering or a quick ice cream date with friends, involve food. This might be partly out of convenience—we all have to eat, so why not do it with others?—but the association between food and human connection goes much deeper than that.
“We know how important the feeding process is for infants, and that’s obviously not just because the infant needs nourishment,” Kim Daniels, PsyD, a psychologist and emotional eating coach based in West Hartford, Connecticut, tells SELF. “That’s a time for close contact, coddling, and connecting—all of that is happening while the baby is eating.” So of course, Dr. Daniels says, a sense of comfort gets tied to food in our heads.
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