“Mindful Emotional Eating”: Legitimizing a Form of Self-Care

In his new book Mindful Emotional Eating: Mindfulness Skills to Control Cravings, Eat in Moderation and Optimize Coping, Dr. Pavel Somov expands on his previous writings to focus specifically on “legalizing” and/or depathologizing the inevitable bouts of emotional eating—as long as they’re mindful, that is. What he helps readers reduce is “emotional overeating” and “mindless emotional eating.”

“Don’t be fooled,” states therapist Karen R. Koenig, author of Outsmarting Overeating, “by the seeming contradiction in the title of Mindful Emotional Eating. The book makes the case to troubled eaters and their treaters that if we’re going to turn to food when we’re stressed or distressed, we best do it not with guilt, shame, self-hatred, or detachment from our bodies and their cravings, but with a keen mindfulness that will satisfy our appetites and foster emotional well-being.”

Some reasons we associate eating with self-care, per Somov’s article in The Huffington Post:

  • PACIFIER = ORAL COPING: “From day one, feeding has been a default parenting intervention and the pacifier has been our first coping tool.”
  • FEEDING = CARING: “Many cultures explicitly equate feeding with caring…”
  • MEAL-TIME = SUPPORT-TIME: “We have been conditioning ourselves to see eating as a family ritual, as a time of togetherness, as an opportunity for social relating and belonging, as a means to emotional well-being.”
  • EATING = GROUNDING: “Eating is a ritual, and as such it’s comforting in its predictability…”
  • EATING = RELAXING: “From the physiological perspective, a choice to eat can be seen as an attempt to directly manipulate the nervous system, by switching on the part of our wiring that is associated with relaxation and rest…”

So, many of us are primed to engage in emotional eating at different times and for various reasons. These experiences can improve, though, says Somov:

1) when eating to cope with emotions, accept emotional eating as a legitimate coping choice, not a coping failure;
2) when eating to cope, first activate the parasympathetic response through relaxation;
3) when eating to cope with emotions, follow a predictable eating ritual, with clear start and end points;
4) when eating to cope, whenever possible, try to do so in company, not in hiding;
5) when eating to cope with emotions, remember that emotional eating does not have to mean emotional overeating.

Related in a twisted kind of way is this spoof on self-directed food-shaming. Watch the edgy “I’m So Bad” sketch from a 2014 Inside Amy Schumer. Hilariously, there are apparently so many other things these women could feel guilt or shame about if they’d just shift the focus away from their eating:

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