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3 Tools for Uncovering Your Emotional Eating Triggers Through Intuitive Eating

Have you ever reached for a snack when feeling stressed or sad, only to realize later that it wasn't physical hunger driving you? Many of us have experienced emotional eating—a common behavior that involves eating in response to emotions. In this blog, we will explore the concept of emotional eating, delve into how intuitive eating can help with this behavior, and uncover strategies to identify and approach emotional eating triggers effectively.


Understanding Emotional Eating


Emotional eating is a coping mechanism where food is used to suppress or soothe emotions that are perceived as distressing and uncomfortable. Often it's followed by guilt and even more intense emotional discomfort. Common triggers for emotional eating include stress, boredom, loneliness, frustration, anger, or shame. If left unaddressed, emotional eating can develop into more serious behaviors, and let's be real... it commonly does because of what we hear about it from diet culture and how it's often pathologized.


Contrary to what you might often hear in the media, you aren't a bad person, undisciplined, or lacking in self-control if you find yourself eating to soothe, avoid, assuage, or shift uncomfortable emotions. I have often said, emotional eating isn't self-sabotage-- it's self-protection.

Many of the people I've worked with have a history of using food to soothe, but what has compounded their shame around this behavior, is what they perceive to be their personal failure to be "good dieters." They restrict in order to mitigate the effects of the eating (because we live in a culture that demonizes certain types of eating, certain foods, as well as bodies that don't fit the "ideal"), and end up in a vicious cycle.


For many of us, the act of eating combined with the serotonin release provided from the food itself, has been the one thing we learned to use to care for ourselves. From birth, food was a legitimate tool to soothe us! Food-- and the warmth, physical, and emotional connection that accompanied it by our caregivers-- provided us with comfort, satisfaction, and pleasure.


The Power of Intuitive Eating


Intuitive eating offers a holistic approach to nourishing your body while strengthening your mind-body connection. By listening to your body's cues, you can develop a greater awareness around what drives your eating, including the reasons you might gravitate toward restrictive diets and food rules. Intuitive eating empowers you to make food choices based on what your body needs, fostering a healthy relationship with food and promoting overall well-being.


That being said, what intuitive eating doesn't acknowledge is the privilege that accompanies it. If you're reading this and you're food insecure, food availability is low, and the circumstances of your life don't allow for space to practice a mindful approach, your approach to food and eating can and will absolutely look different. I have colleagues who work with individuals who are hard pressed to find regular meals. Intuitive eating isn't something that will be appropriate for them.


Intuitive eating is also not a diet, and whether those who initially created it will agree, it is not meant to be a "program" or "protocol" that will help you to change your body or connect more fully with yourself so you "don't eat as much." Many misconceptions about intuitive eating exist, and those who have struggled with compulsive eating, disordered eating, or chronic dieting will often want to try it because they are desperate for a different approach that helps them off the rollercoaster of on-again, off-again dieting or the binge-restrict cycle. Rightfully so. Intuitive eating has given many people their lives back in that they've been able to reclaim their sense of agency; attune to their needs without the use of external rules or body ideals promoted by diet culture; and adopt a more gentle and compassionate approach to food, eating, and their bodies.



Person in a red sweater and striped skirt sitting in a chair and smiling

Uncovering Your Emotional Eating Triggers


To navigate your emotional eating triggers, it is essential to cultivate self-awareness and mindfulness around your eating habits. Here are some strategies to help you uncover and address your emotional eating triggers:


  • Journaling: Keep a food and mood diary to view your eating patterns and emotional states. Look for patterns or correlations between specific emotions and your food choices. Take note of any restriction you're engaging in and learn the different ways that hunger can show up. Many of my clients when they start working with me have one cue for physical hunger-- their stomach growling. Hunger at different levels can show up as anxiety, frustration, being unable to focus, even anger. You may actually be eating not because you want to avoid emotion, but because you are genuinely hungry.

  • Mindful Eating: Practice mindful eating by slowing down when you eat, tasting each bite, engaging your senses, and observing your emotions without judgment. Mindful eating can help you distinguish physical hunger from emotional hunger. It can also give you the space to discern whether it's something else completely. Sometimes we may not be physically hungry, but we would do well to eat because we know that it will be a while before we can again. This is called practical hunger. There are many situations in which we don't eat when we're physically hungry, and that doesn't mean we're engaging in emotional eating.

  • Identifying Triggers: Pay attention to situations, people, or emotions that precede your urge to eat emotionally. By identifying your triggers, you can begin to reflect on other methods of resourcing yourself to address them. Again, try this with a lot of curiosity and compassion. You're not looking for faults or deficiencies in yourself. This is about getting to know your tendencies and genuinely, noticing the types of situations in which you maybe feel "unsafe" and are using food to care for yourself. I often ask my clients to practice a pause after they observe a "craving" or an "urge" to eat. The intention isn't to stop them from eating, it's to observe what comes between the urge and the eating. What they often notice is how keyed up, racey, or activated they are in their bodies. Now they have new information they can use to help themselves.



Emotional eating is a complex behavior influenced by various internal and external factors. As I've mentioned in previous writings, the relationship we have with our emotions is a primary influence. But that relationship is also complex.


Our comfort with feeling emotion in general, as well as emotional expression, is multi-layered and influenced by our learnings as young people, what we witnessed (or didn't) growing up, traumatic experiences, cultural conditioning, among other variables.


But understanding our emotional eating triggers is a crucial step toward freeing ourselves from the cycles that limit and hold us back from being engaged in our lives and nurturing a positive relationship with food.


By committing to developing awareness of our emotions and thought patterns, we not only take proactive steps towards a healthier and more balanced approach to eating, we shift the relationship we have with ourselves. Very often, self-criticism evolves into self-compassion.

Conclusion


As you consider your relationship with food, intuitive eating, and emotional well-being, remember that progress occurs with patience, presence, and perspective. In my experience, while we absolutely can do it on our own, it's hard. It can feel like we're in an echochamber of our own minds. If possible, it's extraordinary to have a mentor or coach to guide you into these explorations safely and to provide the support for you to bravely touch into new ways of being and feeling. By exploring your emotional eating triggers and the emotions that you find most difficult to experience, you can begin to cultivate a nurturing relationship with food and yourself. Stay mindful, stay curious, and above all, be kind to yourself on this transformative path.


Looking for more support?


Check out my Food & Body Freedom Experience, a 16-week online coaching program with built-in support, a virtual community, and live weekly coaching calls designed to liberate you from dieting and make peace with food and your body.


Check out my online, self-paced course, End Emotional Eating & Change Your Relationship with Food, that over 400 students have taken, is top-rated, and jam-packed with resources to support your development of new skills!


I also offer virtual one-on-one support – reach out to learn more about my intuitive eating nutrition coaching packages: dr.koricoaching@gmail.com


Grab your free resource with a practice you can put into place immediately to begin getting to know your emotions.





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