I recently saw a fellow health professional advertising a ‘cure’ for emotional eating. The assumption was that emotional eating is always wrong, that it must be eliminated in order to ‘fix’ the person and of course lead to the holy grail of weight loss.

I totally disagree with stuff like this.

In the non-diet approach, our relationship with food needs to be understood, and taken care of – not eradicated. With a spirit of compassion, curiosity, and kindness, we seek to really understand the dynamics of the food relationship. If human beings are repeatedly returning to a certain behaviour, then on some level the behaviour must be rewarding. The key is to understand what kind of reward we are getting from emotional eating, and to then increase the ways we can experience that same type of reward.

Eating food really does ‘work’ in the moment to soothe difficult emotional experiences. When we eat, our pleasure centres are activated, and we can feel pretty GOOD! (Especially if we’re joyously devouring everything we’re ‘not allowed’ on our diet plan!) Eating can also de-activate the physiological stress response, so on a hormonal level, eating can absolutely work to relax us (even if this brings only a temporary relief, followed by guilt that ‘I shouldn’t have eaten that….’).

In diet culture, things are always being taken away from us, and this just adds to our sense of chronic deprivation. In the non-diet approach, rather than trying to eliminate behaviours which have been around for a long time and actually work on many levels, we look at ways that we can ADD to our emotional coping repertoire.

There are so many excellent skills that we can add to our emotional self-care toolbox. This includes self-compassion: learning to tune into our emotional landscape and respond to difficult feelings with a sense of concern, care, support, and kindness. Compassionate care of our emotions might mean asking: what do I need right now? Self-compassion is about validating and providing unwavering support: a safe harbour during our emotional storms.

There are numerous ways we can learn to take care of our emotions, and these are unique: no two people are the same when it comes to what brings a sense of soothing. Matching the emotion to the need it represents can help: lonely might indicate the need to connect with people; angry might reflect that your needs are not being met; stressed might mean you have too much to do and would benefit from slowing down a little. It’s not always simple to ease your painful emotion – it can be hard to make new, close connections when you’re lonely – but even just the act of noticing your emotion and validating it to yourself can help alleviate the distress (“I am lonely, and that’s understandable right now”).

Finding ways to distract or feel pleasure are also incredible additions to our emotional self-care toolbox. The key word here is pleasure, because we get pleasure on so many levels from eating food. So the question becomes, how can I increase my pleasure right now?

This might mean: having a selection of songs on your playlist that makes you dance around the house, or settling in for a decadent Netflix binge. It could mean listing things that bring you joy and trying a few of them out. It might mean having a bath, a nap, or getting onto Pinterest to lose yourself down a rabbit hole of interesting stuff. And yes, SEX and sexual pleasure can also go into the toolbox – an orgasm is a terrific way to alleviate stress!

One of diet culture’s favourite tips to ‘deal with’ emotional eating is to go for a walk. One of our UNTRAPPED members commented that when she feels emotional, she really struggles, because ‘going for a walk’ is such a healthy thing to do in diet culture. With a long and tortured history of multiple diet and exercise efforts, when she’s totally emotionally wired, doing something healthy is literally the last thing she wants to do! This makes perfect sense because suddenly doing something ‘healthy’ doesn’t at all match up with her desire for pleasure or relief from difficult feelings.

Of course, distraction and pleasure is a very individual subject, and for some, going for a walk may indeed bring pleasure. But as a rough guide, anything that is diet-y or deliberately ‘healthy’ may actually be steering you away from connected emotional self-care and back towards diet prison, so beware! The whole idea of pleasure is to find the most irresponsible, nothing-at-all-to-do-with-health activity to do, and to wholeheartedly do it!

In non-diet approaches, all of these additions to our emotional self-care toolbox are just that: additions to the old coping mechanism of turning to food to soothe emotions. We can always choose to eat in response to strong feelings – it is not ‘banned’ or a bad thing to do. We never ban it, because it’s a legitimate way to deal with our feelings. Instead, we ‘add’ to the basket of emotional self-care strategies that we can dip into when we need them. In non-diet, we’re always adding, never taking things away.