Written with Gila Glassberg, MS, RDN, CDN

Are you feeling… Just a little burnt out?

You picked up dry cleaning for a home-bound friend. You made dinner for another friend who just had a baby. You donated to the school fundraiser. You baked the cakes for the shul kiddush (snack or small meal after religious services). You gave a friend a ride to the airport. You were a listening ear while a friend vented her parenting struggles. We are taught from a young age to be m’vaater (considerate) and give in so others can have, but when we use our snippets of free time to help others while ignoring our own basic needs, food often becomes an attractive way to fill in the missing pieces. You’re a good friend, a loving daughter, and a productive member of your community.

When we feel burnt out, we often turn to food for comfort. Because food is something we must eat on a daily basis, it becomes the easiest thing to use when trying to silence uncomfortable emotions. There is a literal hole that is being filled up with food in the very same way that we would ideally fill ourselves up with energy, with patience, or with love.

Emotional eating isn’t a concern in and of itself. The occasional use of food for reasons of comfort is normal and healthy, just as a baby will eat shortly after being born as a form of comfort rather than nourishment. The concern is when we go to open our “comfort toolbox”, and the only tool in there is a pint of ice cream, a bowl of pasta, or [insert your comfort food here]. As with every situation in life, we can unpack it, see where that strong desire comes from, and take a long look in the mirror to access our self-awareness.  

A relationship with food exists on a continuum. 

On one side, we have an intuitive eater, someone who enjoys food while relying on their internal cues of hunger and satisfaction to determine what and when they eat. On the other side, we have someone with an eating disorder, someone who uses food to control feelings. There is no such thing as the perfect relationship with food. There is also no such thing as having no relationship with food, as it is something we interact with on a daily basis.

A healthy relationship with food looks like someone eating when they are hungry, stopping when they are full, understanding that all foods can fit, exploring what tastes good AND feels good in one’s body. An intuitive eater does not use food as a form of punishment, reward, or atonement. She does not use food to cope with emotions… MOST OF THE TIME.

Emotional eating is the use of food to feed anything other than hunger. Hunger exists on a continuum as well. You can be snack hungry, meal hungry, or slightly hungry and smell something amazing that you now want to eat. The lines of physical hunger and emotional hunger can become blurred rather quickly. One way this happens is when we use food as a reward; you hit the gym every day this week – you earned an ice cream! Or as a way to comfort; you fell down, come have a lollipop. Using food to cope with emotions is perfectly ok SOMETIMES, as long as we have other coping mechanisms in place as well. (Don’t worry, we won’t leave you hanging! Keep reading for some practical coping tips.)

Self-care meets our basic needs.

If we are not meeting our basic needs on a daily basis – eating enough, sleeping enough, taking breaks when needed, processing emotions, etc., food can feel that much more rewarding. If the only pleasure we receive is from our food, the eating experience becomes that much more important. As food fills our physical and emotional holes, our reliance on food for comfort becomes stronger, reinforcing our emotional eating.

Dieting causes us to ignore our hunger/fullness cues by telling us what, when, and how much to eat. We no longer hear those cues, and we may just eat whenever the opportunity presents itself or when we need to suppress an uncomfortable emotion. Hunger is a natural physical urge, present in order to sustain life. It’s not the enemy. Just like we don’t beat ourselves up when we have the urge to use the bathroom, we should not feel guilt or shame about relying on our biological cues to meet our biological needs.

Mindfulness and Coping, a brief and practical guide:

In the meantime, here are a few mindfulness ideas to help you enjoy your meals more thoroughly (Note after initial publication: If stillness isn’t practical or welcome for you, seek your own flavor of comfort. Not all mindfulness looks the same.)

  • Food meditation Bringing joy to your meal helps center you. It helps bring your focus to the complete sensory experience that is food and eating. For a guided food meditation, head over to naptimenutrition.com and search “meditation”. (Click for food meditation)
  • Sit down Make (or buy) something delicious, then set the table, sit down, and eat – alone or with friends or family. Add to the experience with a beautiful plate or some flowers. Create a nice experience for yourself. (If stillness isn’t practical or welcome for you, skip this one. Edited after initial publication.)
  • Seek the “Quiet” It can be difficult to find a peaceful moment. Start by turning off electronic distractions while eating. Put down the phone and turn off the TV. If you are surrounded by exuberant little voices, lean into that. Ask your eating companions silly questions to prompt conversation.
  • Be Intentional While tasting your food, try to identify all of the different flavors that came together to create this meal. Can you taste the cumin? Smell the cinnamon? Feel refreshing mint at the back of your tongue?
  • Check In Throughout the meal, ask yourself, “Am I hungry? Am I full?” By connecting with your basic biological signals, you can ensure that this food will meet your physical and emotional needs at this moment. If you’re full, but still enjoying, it’s ok to eat more – eat with intention to fully maximize your enjoyment.
  • Thankfulness Consider where your food came from. Think about how your food got from the farm to the store, and finally to your table. Appreciate your food for what it is doing for you. Appreciate yourself for your own efforts.

Coping mechanisms are actions you can take to help manage your reaction to external forces; situations beyond your control that cause uncomfortable feelings for you. Here are some coping mechanisms you can try out. Some will work for you, and some may not.

  • Support Talk to someone. This could be a therapist, a friend, or a relative. Sometimes it’s an accidental conversation at the supermarket with a kind stranger! Speaking your concerns out loud can go a long way to helping counteract their negative effects.
  • Relaxation What helps you to relax? A warm bath? A good book? A dance party with some great music? You may also choose to try a new calming technique, such as tapping.
  • Problem Solving Get your mind off the problem at hand and conquer a smaller issue. Change a lightbulb or spray oil on a squeaky door hinge. The combination of taking a mental break while building your confidence by fixing something that’s been irritating you might just be the trick to discovering a viable solution to the original concern.
  • Humor Watch a funny video – unlikely animal friends, a monkey riding a dog, or videos of giggling babies. Read a funny article – a personal favorite is autocorrect mistakes. Did you know that Pandora and Spotify have clean comedy stations? A good belly laugh can change your whole outlook.
  • Physical Activity Get down and give me 20! OK, maybe not pushups. Maybe Zumba is your jam. Or taking a walk around the block. Enjoyable exercise can release beneficial endorphins that will act as a reset button.

There is nothing wrong with thinking of others. However, when we say yes to one person, we inevitably say no to another. Often, ourselves, depleting our emotional stores. We need to get our priorities straight – give to ourselves first, then our families. 

Only then can we truly give to others. 

Originally published in Nashim Magazine and is posted here with permission.

Originally posted as:

Eating Your Emotions?

Gila Glassberg, MS, RDN, CDN and Yaffi Lvova, RDN

Special thanks to Bracha Kopstick, RD of BeeKay Nutrition for her generosity of time and spirit in editing this article!