Why emotional eating isn’t about not being strong enough

If you describe yourself as an ’emotional eater’, know that using food to counter unpleasant emotions or situations is very common. You might be eating as your only pleasure or due to other emotions ranging from boredom to using food as a reward.

Emotional eaters often think of themselves as ‘not strong enough’. Not strong enough to say no, to resist a temptation or even to not buy your guilty pleasure when you do your grocery shopping. The willpower is just not there and emotions take over.

What if I told you that it’s not always a question of will?

A day in the life

Let’s take the following typical day scenario: You wanted to finish a Netflix series yesterday so you went to bed late. Getting up in the morning is a struggle but you drag yourself out of bed and start getting everybody ready for school and work. When you arrive at work, rushed and on an empty stomach, you immediately go for a cup of strong coffee and for the muffins Karen brought in that day for her birthday. A couple of hours later, you feel tired again and have another cup of coffee and another bite of that muffin (why haven’t the others eaten them all already?).

You have a busy day – like most days- and have a small sandwich for lunch, in front of your screen. When you get that 3pm slump, you go to the meeting room and take a handful of biscuits. Another cup of coffee. And another one. Then you go back home for your second job which requires some degree of entertaining and crazy multi-tasking skills. When the kids are finally asleep, you eat the entire pantry.

That’s not emotional eating. It’s survival eating.

The real reason

You eat the entire pantry not just because you’ve had a stressful day but also because you are dehydrated, sleep-deprived and are starving (literally, but also because you haven’t had much of what we call ‘real’ food that day).

To put it short: it’s also because your guard is down.

When you haven’t had enough sleep, when you haven’t drunk enough water or very importantly, when your meals weren’t balanced, it’s no longer a question of will. Your body needs energy ASAP and it’s telling you to get it in any way possible. In these conditions, time is money. And quality counts much less than quantity.

A different day

If we revisit the scenario above and keep our guard up, it can look something like this: You wake up relatively rested despite being woken up by an excited (or not excited!) child. That’s because you prioritised sleep and were asleep by 11pm last night, so you got in your 7-8h of sleep. You make breakfast for the kids but you also take time to have breakfast yourself that includes protein (an omelette, smoked salmon and avocado, a protein shake if things are too rushed). When you arrive at the office, you fill out your 1.5L bottle which you know you want to drink throughout the day. You drink your coffee but because you are full from breakfast, John’s birthday treats aren’t as enticing anymore.

Despite having an incredibly busy day, you take 30minutes to have a meal at the office kitchen. You ordered in a chicken salad and you use those 30 minutes to savor its taste, its texture, even how it looks. You finish your meal with the last coffee of the day because you know that coffee can influence your sleep quality. If you have a 3pm need for a treat, you have some nuts and dark chocolate in your desk drawer. You arrive back home – for your second job – and you eat dinner with your kids. A full meal instead of just leftovers if at all. You don’t even think of opening the pantry when they fall asleep.

Meeting your basic needs

If your basic needs aren’t met, don’t go looking for other explanations. Your body needs water, food (real food and enough protein, fat and fibre) and sleep to function at its best. Otherwise, you are fighting a battle that can’t be won.

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Hi, I'm Annie!

I’m a mum of two and a coach with a mission to help fellow mums prevent burnout, eradicate stress and overwhelm and live their best lives.