March 06, 2023
Guest post written by Ruth Burrowes, Master of Science in Food and Nutrition at Brescia University College
If you are a mom who struggles with emotional eating, you are not alone. While becoming a mother is an incredibly nurturing and rewarding experience, it can also cause a lot of stress and mixed emotions. Of course you love your kids, but it takes a lot of work to raise a tiny human! Unfortunately, while we are getting better at chatting about the hardships of being a parent, we don’t often talk about how challenging this transition can be for our relationship with food.
Many of the mothers that I work with identify as emotional eaters and feel a lot of shame, guilt, and anxiety around food. What’s more, they feel pressured to model healthy eating behaviours for their kids while trying to heal their own relationship with food. That pressure to be perfect all the time ends up backfiring in a big way, often late at night after the kids go to bed.
If this sounds like you, keep reading.
Emotional eating is a term used to describe eating that is prompted by emotional states, rather than physical hunger. Emotional eating is often demonized when it's related to negative emotions but celebrated when related to positive ones. Every time we celebrate a birthday with a delicious cake, or we come together over a big holiday meal, we are celebrating with food. Generally people aren't berating themselves for eating out of celebration and happiness. However, when we eat due to what we perceive as negative emotions (stress, anxiety, sadness, loneliness, boredom, etc.) we consider it a problem that needs to be solved.
In reality, emotional eating is not all bad. It’s totally normal and healthy to get pleasure and comfort from eating! Food often represents love and comfort and so it acts as emotional nourishment, just as much as physical nourishment.
We develop associations between food and emotions from a young age and over the years certain foods have come to provide us with comfort which can help us cope with different emotions. In this way, emotional eating can ‘serve’ us because:
However, it can also do us a disservice because:
There are benefits to using food as a way to deal with your emotions. Recognizing that there are benefits allows you to take ownership of your eating experience and make informed choices rather than feeling ruled by your emotions. If using food is the main way you cope with your emotions, it’s useful to identify other coping mechanisms to help meet your emotional needs (ex. taking a break, engaging in some movement that you enjoy, phoning a friend, journaling, reading etc.). Then, when you're feeling a strong emotion, you can take a pause. You can ask yourself "am I hungry" and if not, you can run through your list of other coping mechanisms to see if something else may be more beneficial at this moment.
What if you never find the opportunity to pause? If every time you eat emotionally you barely even register what you're doing until the food is in your mouth, then you need to examine your patterns. What are your emotional triggers and can you practice a new pattern for dealing with these when you aren't in a heightened emotional state?
It's important to recognize that you may still use food as a coping mechanism even if you aren't hungry. After all, it tastes good and it's there. This is fine and perfectly normal. Where it becomes an issue is when you are using food as the only way to deal with your emotions.
People usually eat to fulfil an unmet need. This unmet need could be physical or emotional. Unfortunately, as Moms, we are often encouraged to disregard our basic needs in order to prioritize everyone else. Most of us are all too familiar with feeling exhausted from the demands of caretaking or feeling overwhelmed with household responsibilities. As a mom, it feels like there's always something that needs our attention. Because it's difficult to take time for ourselves, coping through food becomes routine. It's easy eat something quickly without disrupting the flow of the household.
In addition to that, as busy moms, it's easy to start using food as a way to ‘justify’ sitting down and taking a break. When's the last time you just sat down on the couch to relax and take a break? What kind of dialogue did you have with yourself? Did you tell yourself that you need to get up? That you're being lazy? That there are a million other things you "should" be doing? What about if you're snacking? Does the rest feel justified and more deserved? You have to eat right, so if you're eating you can justify sitting for a few minutes. Maybe you need more than a few minutes so you keep eating. Should you eat when you're hungry, yes of course, but you should also be able to take a break when you're tired without having to justify it or pairing it with another activity.
For many moms, the first step in coping with emotional eating is recognizing that you are entitled to having your basic needs met. As a mother, you are just as much entitled to the following as everyone else:
Learning to identify, communicate, and address your unmet needs without food is not only beneficial for you, but it's also positive behaviour modelling. It teaches your kids how to deal with feelings in the moment and it passes along positive coping skills!
It’s important to recognize that dieting itself can lead to emotional eating. As Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD and Elyse Resch, MS, RD, FADA discuss in their influential book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach, feelings of deprivation and despair lead to an increased physiological drive to eat followed by feelings of guilt and shame around ‘giving into cravings.’
This is often mislabeled as ‘emotional eating’ when in reality, it’s a biological response to food restriction. If you're dieting and restricting your food intake, eventually your body will override whatever 'willpower' you have and you will eat. While the shame and guilt associated with this drive to eat causes us to label it as ‘emotional', it's not an emotion that's driving the eating. The emotion shows up afterwards.
What’s more, diet culture reinforces the idea that we have to restrict food to compensate for emotional eating which feeds into a vicious cycle of binging and restriction. If you want to learn more about the diet cycle, check out this blog post here.
In contrast, the Intuitive Eating approach helps us get reacquainted with our body’s natural hunger and fullness cues. Through this approach, we learn to let go of the shame and guilt associated with eating for pleasure, nourishment, and satisfaction and embrace mindful eating and body wisdom.
Ultimately, addressing emotional eating, and in some instances, embracing it, is part of fostering a healthy relationship with food and your body. Once we begin to let go of food as our only coping mechanism for dealing with strong emotions, we can adopt an intuitive eating approach and really embrace the joy that comes with having a positive relationship with food and share that with our families.
While this blog post covered some of the basic concepts, if you really want to dive deeper into emotional eating and motherhood, Jennifer Neale, Registered Dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor and Dr. Melisa Arias-Valenzuela, Clinical Psychologist hosted a FREE workshop on this topic in March.
In this workshop, they chatted about:
If you want to watch the replay, enter your email below to have it delivered straight to your Inbox.
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