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Food is more than just fuel for our body — it has an emotional connection. That’s why we have terms like “comfort food.” When we’re feeling down or need a pick-me-up, indulging in our favorite foods gives us the boost we need.

However, diet culture has many thinking that comfort foods are synonymous with “bad” foods. Emotional eating can result in feelings of guilt, leading some to overly restrict their diet. Conversely, some people turn to bingeing.

It’s important to remember that, while bingeing and restricting are very real issues, not all emotional eating is bad. So how can you tell when it’s healthy and when it crosses a line?

Why Emotional Eating Isn’t Bad

Emotional eating isn’t inherently bad. In fact, it can be incredibly soothing. Cooking a family recipe can help you feel more connected when you’re lonely and having a bowl of ice cream after a bad day of work can be just the thing to lift your spirits.

Our brains and stomachs are more connected than you might think. Since our sense of taste and smell are heavily involved in eating, it can pull up positive memories and create feelings of satisfaction. Some studies show that eating can release serotonin in the brain — hence the mood boost.

In fact, denying ourselves emotional eating opportunities can just create more stress.

When Emotional Eating Becomes a Problem

So if emotional eating isn’t inherently bad for you, when does it become a problem? It’s true that food can help regulate your mood, but it becomes an issue when it’s your only coping mechanism. When this happens, you’re more likely to engage in binge eating. If this continues over time, it can develop into a binge eating disorder.

photo of a bowl of fruit laying on a tableThere might be an emotional eating issue if you choose to eat to avoid difficult feelings or eat so much you become uncomfortably full. It becomes a problem when you feel you have no control over your urges to indulge.

Even if it doesn’t quite become a binge eating disorder, emotional eating is not meant to be your only coping mechanism. It’s also worth noting that, in people who are dieting heavily, plain old hunger can get mislabeled as emotional eating.

Finding a Healthy Relationship with Food

In today’s world of intense dieting and ever-changing body image trends, it can be hard to find a balance when it comes to eating nutritiously and also emotionally. Methods such as intuitive eating can help heal unhealthy relationships with food, allowing you the freedom to enjoy the foods you love.

Here are some mindful questions you can ask yourself when it comes to emotional eating:

  • Is it emotional or am I actually hungry?
  • What emotions are driving my cravings?
  • Do I feel the urge to overindulge? Why might that be?
  • How will I feel after?

If you worry about overeating comfort foods or know that you’ll feel crummy after, it might be a sign that you’re in need of other coping skills.

There’s no shame in having a complicated relationship with food — you’re not alone. Furthermore, healing is possible. You don’t have to give up the foods you love to have a healthy lifestyle. It’s all about finding a positive relationship with the things you eat and developing other useful coping skills to help you when you’re feeling overwhelmed, sad, stressed, etc.

Working with a therapist or counselor can help you uncover the underlying issues that drive unhealthy emotional eating. From there, you can work on developing coping mechanisms to help you work through difficult feelings, so you don’t have to rely on comfort foods alone as a source of self-soothing. Reach out today to learn more about eating disorder therapy and how it can change the relationship with your food.