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We eat with our feelings: A normal part of being human


Two women smile while enjoying multi-coloured ice cream cones
My classmate, Jenny (left), and I have completed a dietetic student practice education placement with Northern Health. This is a photo of us celebrating with ice cream in Terrace BC after the last class of our dietetics degree.

Think of a time that you looked forward to having your favourite comfort food at the end of a long day or enjoyed a celebratory meal with others. So many moments come to mind for me. Eating in response to our emotions is a universal experience. The satisfaction that we feel when eating is not just physical - it can be mental, emotional, cultural, and social too.

While training to become a dietitian, I noticed that questions and concerns about eating in response to emotions are common. “Emotional eating” has a bad reputation. Diet culture tells us that food is only fuel for our bodies and eating for reasons other than physical hunger is wrong. But this doesn’t recognize the many roles that food has in our lives. I hope to provide a view on food and emotions that may be a bit different than those you may have previously heard.

Food is emotional

For many of us, food is an important source of joy, social connection, and comfort. Watching an upset baby be soothed by breastfeeding shows that we’re wired to find comfort in food and feeding. Eating is also tied to memories, because many social occasions and traditions involve food. Food is a way we connect with and care for others.

When I visit my hometown of Kimberley, BC, I always bake cinnamon buns. They were one of my grandma’s favourite foods and something she loved to bake and share with others. Eating them with my family is a bittersweet experience for us, as we try to hold both our love for her and our sadness that she is no longer with us. It’s a beautiful, messy, and emotional eating experience and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Other examples of how food is emotional include:

  • Enjoying food together to celebrate special occasions (e.g., cake at birthdays and weddings, turkey dinner at Thanksgiving, dumplings at Chinese New Year).
  • Giving comforting foods to loved ones who are grieving (e.g., casseroles, lasagna, fried chicken, chilli, soup, curry dishes, congee, smoked or dried fish).
  • Sending care packages with food to friends and family who live away from home (e.g., homemade goods and cultural foods).
  • Delivering food to postpartum families to support them in this new stage of life (e.g., freezer meals).

Food has a role in coping with emotions

A mother and daughter sit enjoying freshly baked cinnamon buns together.
My mom and I eating cinnamon buns together in Kimberley, BC.

Everyone has the right to enjoy food and cope with their emotions in a way that feels safe to them. It is common to respond to feelings like anxiety, boredom, loneliness, anger, and stress, by eating. People may feel guilt for using food to manage these emotions, which is generally unhelpful, and can make the uncomfortable emotion more intense. I have found being kind to myself is a much more supportive approach. However, unlearning how we think about food and emotions may take time and practice in the face of diet culture.

Personally, I give myself permission to respond to stress by enjoying foods that are comforting to me like chips, noodle soup, mac and cheese, and apples with peanut butter. I used to feel as though I was doing something wrong by reaching for food, and this would make me feel more stressed. I’ve learnt to practice self-compassion, notice how I’m feeling, and ask myself if there's anything that I need, beyond food, to help me cope with the emotion I’m experiencing. Do you think this approach might be helpful for you?

Expanding your self-care toolbox

Eating in response to emotions can be part of a normal, healthy relationship to food. However, it is possible for emotional eating to become unhelpful if it stops you from dealing with difficult feelings or situations in the long term.

If you feel that food is your only coping strategy, you might consider expanding your self-care tool box. For me, practices like calling my family, journaling, taking a shower, and tidying my space are calming. I try to reach for these tools more often when I experience uncomfortable emotions. What self-care practices help you cope with stress and emotions?

If you would like to explore your relationship with food or how you cope with emotions, consider seeking support from a dietitian or counsellor, or visiting the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) website.

How can you eat in a way that feels good emotionally?

It’s time to recognize that it’s normal for emotions to influence our eating. How do you connect with your emotions through food? Feel free to share your experience in the comment section below.

If you’re interested in learning more about diet culture, I invite you to read these Northern Health stories: