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Is It Okay to Engage in Emotional Eating During the Pandemic?

  • Eating

While I strongly agree that no one should shame themselves or others for emotional eating during the pandemic (or any time), I disagree with some eating disorders clinicians who seem to be saying that under lockdown, it’s okay to eat emotionally on a regular basis. (“Don’t Be Ashamed of Those Extra Pounds” by Courtney Robin, 8/8/20, accessed 8/9/20). I think the problem in the article is that these two ideas have been lumped together when they are entirely separate.

On the whole, turning to food for comfort is a behavior that eating disorders therapists discourage. If food were true emotional comfort with no downside, we would likely be out of business. But it isn’t. It’s only comforting while we’re thinking about what we’re going to eat and when we’re chewing. After swallowing, it’s all downhill.

Aside from consequent guilt, shame and remorse which are a useless waste of energy, there are three problems with encouraging comfort eating. The first is that we prevent ourselves from learning new life skills by eating when we’re stressed and, consequently more effectively regulating our emotions. The second is that the kinds of foods we eat for comfort generally fall under the umbrella of low-nutrient value. The foods we often choose are high in fat and sugar and, especially in large quantities, damage our physical and mental health by raising blood sugar and pressure—and more.

Third, we cannot break habits when we do healthy behaviors inconsistently. When we sometimes eat for comfort and sometimes don’t, we end up in a draw and feel as if we’re struggling forever to change our behavior and getting nowhere. The only way to permanently modify behavior, in this case, not eating for comfort, is by doing just that— finding other ways to comfort ourselves. Emotional eating begets more of the same.

Of course, if we engage in emotional eating, we should always be kind to ourselves during and afterwards. Compassion and understanding of how we might have done things differently are key. The kinder we are to ourselves, the more likely that we’ll break the “I feel, I eat” cycle over time.

Food is delicious and we should neither fear it nor consider it as the enemy. Sweets and treats are delightful pleasures once in a while, which may even mean daily in small amounts. If not done habitually (that is, if you’re not an emotional eater), eating may even be used as an occasional pick me up. However, advising people to go ahead and eat whatever they want during the pandemic lockdown will only make it more difficult to stop emotional eating when it’s over.