3 Beliefs That Fuel Emotional Eating and How to Counter Them

Eating is one of the most natural things in the world. We need to eat to live—and to live well. But as essential as eating is to our very existence, our relationship to food is tied to our emotions and state of mind. Socioeconomic demographics, generational values, family, and culture can be huge influences on the way we relate to food as adults.

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It's important to note that eating as an adult is very different than eating as a young child. As a child, food is typically very structured—three meals and three snacks per day. This structure ensures the energy of the child is balanced. Additionally, most children don’t have much control or choice around food—they don't get to decide when or what to eat, nor are they mature enough to understand the why behind their food choices.

Why is this important? Because so often in my coaching practice, I see full-grown adults struggling with their relationship with food and they don't know why. Their lives have been hijacked by anxiety, fear, shame, and guilt.

I am here to crack that code for you. Consider the following beliefs about food, often ingrained in childhood, and how they might be impacting your relationship with food today.

Belief #1: You Have to Eat on a Schedule

Organizing an eating schedule around breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks like we did as kids creates a rigidity that, as adults, we cannot often abide by. Spontaneous work and family obligations, travel, and other joyful life events cannot coexist with a rigid food schedule. We must grow the inner child to trust in the fluidity of being an adult.

We do this by learning to eat more intuitively. This means being in touch with hunger cues and being prepared when the time arrives. It also means understanding what your body needs. It’s taking back the When and What. This is the agency adults have.

Belief #2: You Have to be a Member of the Clean Plate Club

This is another belief we picked up as children. Remember when your caregiver told you to finish everything on your plate because food is expensive and there won’t be anything else to eat if you don’t? This belief is one of the root causes of compulsive eating, and directly disconnects us from the part of ourselves that has trust in the goodness of the world. Preserving this innocence is key to the development of well-adjusted adults.

It is this lack of trust that is one of the main contributors to emotional eating. That deep-rooted fear that not eating everything that is offered or available, even if we aren’t hungry or it isn’t what we want, makes us inherently bad people. We are selfish, wasteful, and ungrateful.

As adults we have choice. It is up to us to learn the tools that help us slow down enough to understand what motivates our decisions, then develop the skills to relate to those motivations with compassion. Once we install these tools and skills, we can begin to truly build trust in the abundance that is available to us. It is from this core belief that we can begin to heal our emotional relationship with food.

Belief #3: Food Always Makes You Feel Better

From a young age, we’re conditioned to believe that food helps soothe discomfort. When we cried as babies, we got the breast or bottle. Birthdays called for cake and ice cream; other celebrations involved that and more. Treats became the currency of every celebratory event, and we’re trained to believe that food immediately makes everything better and happy.

Now, don’t get me wrong—experiencing food as joy can be wonderful, provided it’s internally regulated and there is an understanding of the why behind the eating. But, so often as adults, we forget to ask the why and dive headfirst into last night’s leftover dessert after a long day where we felt inadequate or insecure.

One of the biggest tools I offer clients to help them overcome emotional eating is this: Get in touch with the sensations of your body as you are about to reach for that trigger food. Ask yourself if your hunger is physical or emotional. Physical hunger will feel like pangs and dizziness. Emotional hunger will feel chaotic and urgent.

If you don’t feel physical sensations, or you know you cannot be physically hungry because you’ve just finished a meal, then ask yourself what emotion is trying to speak to you. Until you get an answer, press pause. Develop substitutes for eating such as drawing, painting, taking a walk outside, calling a trusted friend. Over time, you can recondition yourself with new soothing mechanisms and shift your relationship with food.

Remembering that eating was one of the first ways we connected to others as children is essential to creating a healthy relationship with food as an adult. Once we can uproot and compassionately reintegrate the ways in which childlike, conditioned beliefs are quietly running the show, we will be free to explore, experiment and appreciate the joy eating as an adult can offer.

Alana Kessler, MS, RDN E-RYT, is a registered dietitian, functional nutritionist, yoga and meditation teacher, speaker and author. Alana’s intuitive and creative approach to health and wellness has impacted thousands through her private practice, international yoga, mindfulness trainings, and retreats. A graduate of NYU with a B.A. and M.S. in clinical nutrition, her health, fitness, and lifestyle expertise has been featured in Aaptiv.com, Droz.com, EatThis.com, RD.com, Redbook, WomensHealthmag.com, and Vogue. For more information, visit her website at bewellbyak.com.

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