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Ask a Health Coach: Emotional Eating and Food Guilt

Hey folks, Board-Certified Health Coach Erin Power is here to answer your questions about comfort eating and eating when stressed. If you’re struggling with this, you’re not alone! We’re here with tips and support for cultivating a healthy relationship with food during stressful times. Have a question you’d like to ask our health coaches? Leave it below in the comments or over in the Mark’s Daily Apple Facebook group.

Michele asked:
“I always end up comfort eating when worried or stressed, and I’m always worried or stressed! After a hard day, I overeat pizza or other food that makes me feel like crap and gain weight. Then I feel guilty, can’t sleep, and worry more! How do I stop doing this?”

The pull towards soothing ourselves with food during stressful times is real. So, unfortunately, are the consequences of eating food that makes us feel worse rather than better.

Chronic stress itself can contribute to cravings and unwanted weight gain because it deregulates and taxes the nervous and endocrine systems, including through overstimulation of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. To make matters worse, people who are chronically stressed are more likely to reach for foods high in sugar, carbs, and saturated fat.1

To be clear, high-quality, whole-food-based saturated fat is not unhealthy! But combining it with sugar, a large carb load, and excess caloric intake overall can lead to unwanted weight gain, overburden the digestive system, and promote systemic inflammation.

What’s more, food that makes us “feel like crap” is generally not high quality or whole-food-based. It’s far more common for people struggling with comfort eating or emotional eating to reach for highly processed food or fast food full of unhealthy trans fats and highly refined, inflammatory seed oils.

And, as you noted, overeating and eating food that makes us feel physically and emotionally unwell absolutely causes additional stress and interferes with sound sleep. This exacerbates chronic stress, systemic inflammation, and unwanted weight gain. Ironically, it also makes us far more likely to engage in more emotional eating the next day—literally feeding an unhelpful cycle.

Asking for Help

First, take a deep breath and to know that you’re not alone. Increasing numbers of people are suffering from stress, anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental-emotional challenges. In an effort to cope, many turn to foods and emotional eating habits that make them feel worse.2 People with a history of disordered eating are even more vulnerable to falling into this sort of pattern during periods of anxiety and uncertainty.3

I do want to mention here—for anyone reading—that when eating patterns start to feel out of control to the point of a potential eating disorder, you may want to meet with a licensed therapist or other mental health professional. Same goes for anyone suffering from clinical depression, anxiety, or other serious mental health concerns.

That said, as a Primal Health Coach, I work with many clients who struggle with emotional eating. As a coach, I can assure you that there is hope for stepping out of unhelpful cycles and changing your relationship with food.

By recognizing your pattern around eating and asking for help, you’ve already taken a huge, courageous first step. I’ll share a few others below!

Strategies and Tips for Emotional Eating

1. Reframe comfort eating.
One of the first things I suggest is reframing “comfort eating.” Rather than making it synonymous with “emotional eating,” or what some call “eating their feelings,” let’s put a new and improved definition in place.

What if comfort eating means eating food that makes you feel better after eating it? In other words, choosing foods and eating in a way that brings you true comfort!

Part of this is food choice. For that, I recommend stocking your home with healthy, Primal options. It just makes it easier when your environment is set up to help you. And, on the flip side, an easy way to avoid food that makes you feel bad is to not keep it around.

2. Pause and play the tape forward.
This is a great one to do in the moment—either before you’ve “gone too far” or when you catch yourself in the midst of it. This moves the emotional eating moment into the “present tense.” Many times we reflect back on our diet “indiscretions” afterward, awash in disappointment and guilt, which… isn’t often productive.

In these situations, picture yourself overdoing it—whatever that means for you—and notice what happens after. See yourself 10 minutes from now, later as you’re trying to fall asleep, and tomorrow morning. Really take in how your present actions will impact your future self. How do you feel physically, emotionally?

Now picture an alternate scenario—one in which you choose differently and perhaps set food aside for now. Where will that choice lead?

Practice making choices in the moment that you know your future self will feel better about.

3. Breathe and move!
Rather than telling yourself that you can’t have a thing, try saying: “Maybe later, after 10 deep breaths or a 10-minute walk.”

In themselves, walking and deep, slow breathing are excellent strategies for regulating the nervous system and reducing stress and anxiety. You’ll be distracting yourself with calming, grounding activities that connect you to how you feel in your body and mind. This is an excellent way to ride out urges and help cravings move along.

4. Write it out.
Numerous studies have shown the beneficial impact of journaling or “expressive writing” for alleviating physical and mental-emotional symptoms.4 Some people also find it helpful to keep a food log as form of personal accountability and adhering to eating goals.

This is more of a long-term strategy, since journaling is most effective when done consistently over a period of weeks or months. Don’t let that dissuade you! Set aside time each morning or evening (even 10 minutes) to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

You can write about how you want to feel and about eating specifically… or just see what wants to come out onto the page. The key thing is to (1) not censor or judge yourself, and (2) offer yourself an outlet to reflect on where you are and where you want to be.

The very act of writing things down can help you shift your relationship with eating over time.

5. Cultivate excitement.
Rather than focus solely on what you want to change or avoid, identify something you can look forward to and even get excited about!

This doesn’t have to be a big thing, and ideally it should be something you can turn to regularly—especially whenever you tend to engage in emotional eating. Perhaps there’s an activity or project you enjoy, a book you’d like to read, or a television show you like to watch. Choose something that you can look forward to AND that will make you feel a sense of comfort and relaxation—both in the moment and afterwards.

6. Get support.
While the above steps offer a solid starting point, I can’t emphasize enough the value of getting support and working with a mental health professional or coach one-on-one.

External accountability truly is a game changer, and we can help you navigate your specific circumstances and challenges. As part of this, we can provide “tough love” when needed but will also answer questions, offer individualized guidance, and above all empower you to take on the most supportive actions for your health and happiness goals. Working with a coach for even a month or two can help you recalibrate, reset, and put a framework for success in place. Visit myprimalcoach.com to learn more and get started.

Do you struggle with emotional eating? Have any tips to share? Drop them and other questions for me in the comments!

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