Emotional Eating - A Primer

Complete the sentence:

After I have eaten emotionally, I feel...


A) Inadequate - I can't control my emotions


B) That I'm too emotional


B) Something else - it's...

In this section I want to correct some common misconceptions about emotions and get you to be more neutral about them.

Think about this next sentence:

Emotional eating happens not because you are too emotional, but because you are not responding correctly to the emotions you have.

What Is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is when you use food as a way to regulate your emotions.

Emotional regulation is as this Cornell research programme puts it

a person’s ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience

Emotional dysregulation is

an inability to regularly use healthy strategies to diffuse or moderate negative emotions

The problem is therefore not the food, it has two elements: (1) the dysregulation of emotions itself, and (2) the often compulsive turning to food to regulate those emotions.

The Feelgood Factory is a way to replace (2)....but the real liberation from emotional eating is in (1) - learning to regulate your emotions.

The Function Of Emotions

Emotions are messengers that help us course correct, and navigate the challenges that life throws at us.

A messenger is never meant to stick around - but a good one will, until you are ready to receive the message it has for you. The point is that if you can listen to the message and act on it, it will leave your system and life will be better, and you will feel more confident and less out of control around your emotions.

Let’s look at a few difficult emotions that everyone from CEOs in corporate boardrooms to the spiritual industry vilify - and see what their function actually are.

The following I have taken from Karla McLaren’s The Language of Emotions. You may come across other people's interpretations that differ. Remember that what is right is what works long term for you. Maybe if you disagree with some of these interpretations, they can at least help you shape your own thinking on the subject.


Fear is a vital emotion that keeps us alert to threats, and in the modern world, helps us proceed with caution when we are unsure. McLaren distinguishes between

......free-flowing fear, which helps you navigate everything from a dodgy looking online date to a dangerous driver as you cross the road. It is intuition, horse sense.


Stuck fear. This is for example anxiety and paranoia. These will have different messages.

There is so much to say about this, but for the moment throw out those posters which proclaim “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”. This is a much more complex emotion.



Anger is a message telling you that your personal boundaries have been breached. Someone has disrespected you, or you see injustice on the news, or you feel that a certain situation is unfair.

This message is most often telling you to take action. What continually enrages you that you feel you have to put up with?

Taking action does not imply “change the situation”. Maybe you cannot change your boss’ bullying behaviour - but you can speak your truth, and you can look for another job. With close relationships, you can start a dialogue that may lead to greater understanding which stops you being angry (your friend who let you down always assumes you will be late because....)



There are two kinds: appropriate and inappropriate. Appropriate guilt/shame occurs when you have breached your own boundary and acted below your standards - for example yelling at a friend when you are stressed. The message tells you to course correct by compensating - apologising etc.

Inappropriate guilt/shame is a different animal and we will look in depth at that at another point in these Inner Shifts. The main difference is that you never feel you can really compensate for this type of guilt or shame.

Any guilt or shame over your eating is generally inappropriate. Any strategies for compensating such as starvation or over exercising do not restore any integrity. This is all you need to know at this point in time.



Karla McLaren calls this ‘the brilliant stop sign of the soul’. You need some time out from life, and you need to investigate why.

I always challenge the term ‘depression’. While there are people who are genuinely suffering from depression, I believe that there are many more who are struggling with life and feel overwhelmed, but are not depressed. They genuinely need support, but I wonder if labelling themselves as depressed creates a passivity that entrenches their feelings of hopelessness. What they may really be experiencing is (very real) tribal rejection, or (very real) unexpressed anger, or (very real) stuck trauma. All of these require a process of reframing and moving forward in a different way.

NB Having no medical training, I will never tell a client that they are not really depressed, or they should stop their medication etc. ( I have heard both positive and negative accounts of medication and I remain professionally neutral on this topic). It is my job to respectfully challenge you as my client, while empowering you to make the right decisions for yourself.



The message? Something in you has to die - but it is not the whole of you. What can no longer be tolerated in your soul? What absolutely has to go?




The questions that these messages in your emotions trigger are often the most difficult of your life. Many clients learnt as children that it was dangerous to express anger and that inappropriate shame was THE TRUTH. Challenging these long held beliefs (that were soul saving once, but are now killing your quality of life) is not easy and valuable discussions for your sessions.

This work takes courage, but it is the most liberating work of your life. What a weight off to realise that your desire to no longer be here which keeps swamping you is actually a neon danger sign of your overwhelm or need to grieve, rather than an actual wish to die.

Observe yourself: when you feel a difficult emotion, ask yourself: what is the message here?

Be aware that the world is not necessarily going to welcome with open arms the actions in the messages. Eye, there’s the rub - it probably involves proceeding very consciously.

You don’t necesarily need to act on the message it gives you straightaway. Just understanding that there is some function of your emotion is liberating.

I recommend getting a copy of The Language of Emotions if this content speaks to you. When I got it, I used it as a emotional reference to make me feel instantly better when my rage or shame or low feelings overwhelmed me.

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