This week we’re exploring the concept of “emotional eating” and some of the myths and misconceptions that can come up. And really: Is it okay to eat out of something other than pure physical hunger?
As you might guess from our podcast name, we’re firm believers in the comforting power of food. But diet culture gives “emotional eating” a bad rap, and convinces us that anytime we eat because we’re sad, happy, tired, etc that we must be doing something “wrong.” And that one of the best ways to lose weight is to stop emotional eating.
But today we’re sorting through some common myths about emotional eating, and exploring the fundamental importance of “comfort food” for our kids, and for ourselves. Because having a component of comfort in our food is actually fundamental to our emotional and physical health.
Anyone who has fed an infant successfully sort of intrinsically gets why comfort matters and how it’s essential to why and how babies feed. But then kids turn one and suddenly the expectations change. We still want them to like lots of different foods, but we get much more anxious about comfort being a factor. And it’s been drilled into us to eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full. So we can immediately feel badly when we eat for any other reason because it feels like we’ve broken a rule. Let’s run through a few myths about emotional eating and talk about why you might want to rethink how you consider this topic.
Emotional Eating Myth #1: Eating to comfort yourself is always bad.
Reality: Eating something tasty to cheer yourself up after a hard day is 100% normal, human, and a perfectly fine coping strategy. There are reasons why eating a cookie when you’re stressed or enjoying a glass of your favorite wine can help you find calm and reduce your anxiety—those small joys can help reset our moods. There’s nothing wrong with having food as one of the many ways we help ourselves feel better when we’re stressed, exhausted, or depressed.
Emotional Eating Myth #2: Feeling compulsive around food is the same as eating emotionally.
Reality: One of the biggest misconceptions about binge eating disorder is that it’s just compulsive eating—when in fact, new research shows that some kind of restriction is almost at the core of 40 percent of cases. There’s a distinct difference between using food to comfort yourself and using food to numb emotions. But again, it’s not the food that’s the problem and solution isn’t to stop eating those foods. We need to learn to handle the emotions. (Therapy can help you learn to sit with hard feelings and find less numbing coping strategies.)
For kids or adults, pretty much all compulsive behaviors around food get better if you give permission to eat those foods.
Emotional Eating Myth #3: We should never let our kids eat for comfort either.
Sometimes breastfed babies nurse for comfort, rather than pure hunger. Babies have emotional connections to formula in bottles. And neither of those connections just disappear once a child is weaned. There are food rituals, holiday foods, connecting over food, favorite and familiar foods as a source of safety and security…there are so many ways that food plays into our lives that have little to do with pure hunger but a lot to do with emotional health and connection between us as humans. Shared experiences can provide comfort along with the food.
Your child likely wants certain foods when they aren’t feeling well or are in an unfamiliar environment. And that’s okay!
The point with all of this is to help us remember the broader context for food in our lives. It’s not just about eating for the sake of meeting the daily recommended nutrients. It’s about so much more than that. And as Jennifer Berry, OT, a feeding therapist and founder of Thrive By Spectrum Pediatrics, who joined us for Episode 53 told us, kids rely on five internal drives to guide them in learning how to eat. These include hunger, yes, but also togetherness, curiosity, novelty, and comfort.
From your child’s perspective, if a meal meets at least one of these internal drives, it was a success.