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Why You Shouldn’t Feel Guilty for Emotional Eating

I’ve noticed many of my clients’ relationships with food are changing during this pandemic—they’re eating more, they’re eating less, they’re feeling guilt for eating the “wrong” things, they’re feeling pressure to not gain the “quarantine 15”—so I turned to a friend and fellow therapist, Jesie Steffes, LPC, for insight.

The other day, I texted my siblings to tell them something important: I can’t stop thinking about Graham crackers.

It may sound silly, but in the days before that I’d found myself craving Graham crackers and milk. Why? It was my daily after-school snack when I was growing up. The minute I eat them I feel okay; all's right with the world in this one little minute. It's not bad food and it's not good food. It's just a place for me to rest. And my body—tired and stressed and thrown out of its routine—really needs a place to rest right now.

I’m not the only one craving old comfort foods or eating in a different way than before. I’ve noticed many of my clients’ relationships with food are changing during this pandemic—they’re eating more, they’re eating less, they’re feeling guilt for eating the “wrong” things, they’re feeling pressure to not gain the “quarantine 15”—so I turned to a friend and fellow therapist, Jesie Steffes, LPC, for insight.

Jesie is a health-at-every-size advocate who focuses on helping her clients redefine their relationships with movement and food in a way that can be life-giving. She, too, has noticed that food and eating are at the forefront of what many people are struggling with during this pandemic. During our conversation on Instagram Live, she shared some tips for reframing the way we think about food, our bodies, and nourishment now and always. Below are three ways to approach eating differently, and three ways to reframe your thinking about food.

New Ways to Eat

1. Eating Provides Structure and Connection

“For some people right now food is the only structure to their day. The three meals—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—may be the only way we can tell time if we don't have any other structures in place.” So embrace eating and mealtimes; not only can they bring structure to your days they are also an opportunity for connecting with loved ones. Take time to have meals with your family that you ordinarily couldn’t, like lunch. Share treasured recipes with friends. Embrace food as the connective tissue of your days.

2. Emotional Eating Is Nourishment

“We brand emotional eating as something negative when we are actually hardwired to emotionally eat. What did we do when we were little to say we were hungry? We cried, right? The act of being fed and nourished soothed our emotions.” So when you reach for your comfort food of choice—especially if it’s an “unhealthy” one—recognize what you’re really doing: Searching for a way to self-soothe and feel comforted in the midst of ongoing stress. That is something we all need right now, and we shouldn’t police others or ourselves for eating emotionally.

3. Eat Mindfully

By removing the stigma around emotional eating, it makes space to eat mindfully. What is mindful eating? Jesie started by defining what it isn’t. “A really good example of non-mindful eating is popcorn at the movie theater. You have this giant bucket and it's the right amount for a movie, but we eat it and we eat it and we eat it and we don't really notice what's happening.” Mindful eating, on the other hand, is about eating with intention and focusing on the food. Maybe that means meditating flavors and textures and the feelings whatever you’re eating is provoking in you. Maybe it looks like putting hours into making an elaborate meal, and then getting to savor that work when you taste it. Maybe it looks like doing a strenuous workout one day and realizing that the next day your body is going to need a lot more nutrition than usual. The key is to be aware of what you’re eating. So when you reach for your comfort food of choice, eat it with focus and intention and fully enjoy the pleasure and comfort it provides.

New Ways to Think

1. Food Is Control

“‘Food stuff’ mentally is never about the food, right? It's always about safety and control and finding ways to be safe in our world.” Perhaps you’re struggling with disordered eating or pushing yourself to diet and “stay in shape” right now. Whatever your relationship with food and eating looks like at the moment, realize that at its core (now and always!) it’s about exercising control over your own life. Recognize that these are highly uncertain, anxious, and stressful times, so it’s normal for our bodies to look for ways to return a sense of control to our lives. Then ask yourself what other healthy things you can do to give yourself a sense of control.

2. Trust Your Body

“Our bodies are geniuses and they know how to adapt to different circumstances. [Right now] I think our bodies feel scarcity and our bodies are worried. If we are trying to be restrictive our bodies are going to rebel against us. I would let go of self-discipline right now, and I would instead hold onto some self-compassion.” If you have been anxious about gaining weight or angry with yourself for grazing between meals, try instead to recognize that what is “healthy” is different for every person and changes all the time. Your body is telling you what it needs right now to feel safe and good, so listen to it. Maybe one day it will tell you to go for a run and eat a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the next it will tell you to move gently and eat comfort foods. Trust your body and let it be your guide.

3. Choose the Next Right Thing

A tool we both find helpful and encourage our clients to use is choosing the next right thing. “Not the best thing, always and forever,” as Jesie put it, “but just, what is the next thing right? What's the next thing I can do that's kind and compassionate to myself? Just this next step and then I can move from there.” When it comes to eating, this may mean choosing apple pie one day and an apple the next, recognizing that both are delicious and good for our bodies, just one is less processed and has more cellular building blocks than the other. It also means that when you don’t eat the way that you want to or think you should, don’t punish yourself. Instead, recognize that you have an opportunity the next time you eat to make a different choice.

How will you nourish your body today?


Want to know more about body positivity and mindful eating.

Check out Jesie's Steffes' instagram account @wellmytherapistsays Jesie and friend Lateka Salley, LCSW have curated a collection of inspiring, affirming, and inclusive social media accounts to bring more positivity to our lives.

We also love the work that is being

done by:

Beauty Redefined

Kristin B. Hodson



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