How Intuitive Eating Can Help with Emotional Eating

The number one concern people raise with me in consults right now is emotional eating. No surprise there: In countries like Canada, unless you’re old enough to remember World War 2, this has been perhaps the most difficult time we’ve collectively lived through. We’re feeling some pretty big emotions.

You may have heard me say before that emotional eating isn’t necessarily a problem, but I definitely understand the desire to address it, especially if you feel like it’s affecting your wellbeing.

What is Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive Eating is based on the seemingly radical yet actually sensible suggestion to eat what you want to. There’s more to it — ten principles to help you shift your thinking — but that’s the core idea. And Intuitive Eating can actually help with emotional eating, and support heart health.

Yes really!

People’s first response to that is often skepticism: “I’d eat nothing but chocolate/pizza/chips!”

But the idea isn’t to think about just what will taste good in the moment, but what will really satisfy you (principle 5 — discover the satisfaction factor). What will leave you feeling energized and ready to take on a busy day, if that’s your priority. What will warm and comfort you, if that’s what you need. What will strengthen connections – to family, to culture, or friends.

And yes, what will support your health, if that’s important to you right now (principle 10 — honor your health—gentle nutrition).

Maybe if you were freed from the shackles of how you think you “should” be eating (principle 4 — challenge the food police), you might eat more chocolate/pizza/chips. For a while.

And then you’d probably get tired of them. Maybe they’d slowly lose their appeal if you really gave yourself unconditional permission to eat them whenever you wanted to (principle 3 — make peace with food).

Sure, you’d still eat them, but not all the time.

And you’d stop eating them furtively, feeling guilty and ashamed. You’d probably enjoy them more, and relax a bit. (Stress is a contributor to heart disease too right?) Woman enjoying a s'more

If you’ve been told for years that you should “eat this, not that,” it might take some time to let go of that little voice in your head, but that’s the goal.

(I should acknowledge that Intuitive Eating is a privilege, out of reach for many who are living with food insecurity — about 9% of Canadian households. Those of us who can even contemplate eating “what we want” are fortunate indeed.)

How does intuitive eating help with emotional eating?

First, don’t forget to eat (enough)!

A lot of people I see struggling with what they describe as emotional eating don’t eat enough during the day to fuel and nourish their bodies. When that happens, both feelings and hunger can get stronger. (Hangry much?) A perfect storm.

Intuitive Eating principle 2 is one of my favourites… honor your hunger. And if you’ve followed so many diets over the years that you’ve lost sight of what and how much to eat to make you feel your best, a dietitian can support you in figuring that out.

Break the cycle

Have you heard of the restrict-binge cycle? It’s a common pattern of restriction (such as dieting) followed by what might feel like overeating or even binging, after which many people feel remorseful, guilty, even ashamed. Those negative feelings, in turn, can either trigger more eating, which may get labelled as emotional eating, or another attempt at controlling food intake, continuing the cycle. The restrict-binge cycle

By fighting the urge to restrict (principle 1 — reject the diet mentality) and by taking guilt out of the equation (principle 3 — make peace with food), Intuitive Eating can help you break the cycle.

A cookie can be just a cookie. Or maybe a few cookies. But it doesn’t have to be a downward spiral, followed by a new diet, or a “detox” or cleanse. They’re just cookies. And then you move on with your life.

Practice coping in other ways

Principle 7, cope with your emotions with kindness, addresses emotional eating specifically, advising that while eating in response to emotions is quite natural and not necessarily a problem, it may help ultimately to address the actual underlying problem(s): Figure out what you’re really feeling, what you really need, and then try to meet those needs if you can.

Easier said than done isn’t it? Especially right now. But in time, perhaps with help, progress is possible, and imagine how good that would feel.

Woman enjoying playing guitar

In the meantime, getting enough rest, play, and pleasure may help. For many of us, those are some of the core unmet needs.

Would a day in the mountains help? No time for that? How about a quick but soothing bath or some uplifting music? Even a minute of deep breathing. Hopefully you have time for that!

For those with more (too much!) time on their hands, perhaps an engaging new challenge, like learning an instrument or taking on a home improvement project?

But what about heart health?

If you’re thinking, “Cheryl! All these cookies. What about heart health?” I hear you. But intuitive eaters don’t necessarily eat more “junk food.” (I hate that term, but that’s how that study framed it.)

And while we certainly need more research, limited evidence connects intuitive eating to better heart disease risk factors like blood pressure and cholesterol, and at the very least doesn’t seem to make them worse.

The Sweet Spot: you decide

If you’ve read my blog for a while you’ll know that Intuitive Eating is actually pretty consistent with what I promote. My Sweet Spot is that overlap between food you enjoy, food that supports your health, and food that’s right for you in other ways that matter to you. The Sweet Spot: Healthy, delicious, and right for you

Given my training and experience as a Registered Dietitian in cardiac rehabilitation, I do tend to focus on the heart-health considerations for eating, but I frame it up as options to be filtered through the lens of what’s right for you.

If you’ve watched my video series, How to Eat Well For Life After a Heart Event, you’ll know that the first of my six keys to success is “You Decide.”

The difference with Intuitive Eating is the emphasis. With Intuitive Eating, eating for health goes on the back burner until you really work through and embrace the first nine principles.

My clients, most of whom have recently experienced a heart attack or similar problem, are more interested in how to eat to avoid another one (principle 10 – honor your health—gentle nutrition), so I lead with that, weaving in the other nine principles.

(If that’s you too, you’re welcome to download my free, short e-book, The Sweet Spot Guide to Eating Well After A Cardiac Event.)

Learn more about intuitive eating

Intuitive Eating book coverIf the idea of Intuitive Eating piques your interest, you may enjoy the newly updated book, Intuitive Eating, authored by the two dietitians who devised this paradigm over 20 years ago. (You can find a short summary here.)

And if you really want to change your thinking and free yourself from the “diet mentality,” you might consider their Intuitive Eating Workbook first. It’s more practical exercises and less theory.

And if you want even more support, you can seek out a counselor who is trained and certified in Intuitive Eating.

Have you explored Intuitive Eating? How did it work for you? Chime in here on Facebook.

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