The Ins and Outs of Emotional Eating

Written by Hannah Brereton, Accredited Practicing Dietitian

Emotional Eating – Why do we do it and how do we manage?

Emotional eating is one of the most common conversations I’ll have with clients in clinic.  When we’re feeling crap it’s almost an instinctive response to reach for the chocolate. We’ll feel better for a moment but that moment is followed by guilt, shame and frustration. In the end we feel worse after eating than we did before…so we eat more.


Why do we emotionally eat?

I believe that emotional eating is a learned behavior. We are smart enough to know that food makes us feel good, so when we don’t feel good we reach for things that will help pick us up.


But why chocolate, ice-cream, brownies etc? Why not a delicious piece of fruit?

If you think back to when you were young, what foods were you rewarded with? What foods do you associate with good times and treats? More often than not they are similar to the foods that you choose to eat when you are feeling low.


Why do we feel guilty after eating?

The reasons why we emotionally eat seems quite straight-forward and natural, so why is it associated with so much guilt. This is a tricky question to answer and there may be multiple facets. Somewhere along the line we decided that there were ‘good’ foods and there were ‘bad’ foods. Eating ‘good’ foods meant that you were nourishing your body and treating yourself with respect. Eating ‘bad’ foods is associated with poor self-control and poor health. Therefore, when you eat bad foods, you’re probably not going to feel too great about that decision given these connotations.

However, as a dietitian, I don’t believe that there are good and bad foods. I believe some foods are more nourishing to the soul and others are nourishing to the body. I believe all foods have their time and place in reaching peak health and performance.

Making food choices is less about being disciplined to only eat ‘clean’ a certain percentage of time, but rather about building mindset skills that allow you to understand your body cues and emotions and choose foods in the right amounts to suit your needs at that particular time – this is called intuitive eating.

Like any skill, it takes time and practice to learn to eat intuitively, however, being able to eat and enjoy all foods is a worthy reward for all your hard work.


3 steps to intuitive eating:

  • Slow down the process – use a diary to record what you eat and how you feel or put a sticky note on the fridge to help you to pause and think ‘do I really want this food?’.
  • Consider if there are other activities you could do to relax you or help you deal with the trigger – try breathing, affirmations, going for a walk, taking a shower, drinking a warm cup of tea etc.
  • Sometimes food is the best thing! Remember that this isn’t about not having ice-cream or brownies, it’s about giving your body what it really needs at a specific time. Sometimes when you are emotional, having some ice-cream may be the best thing for you. Don’t feel guilty, allow yourself to serve some of your treat food in your favourite bowl and sit down in a pretty spot to enjoy the flavours and textures of the food. Relax and savour each bite. In my experience enjoying your comfort food may even result in you eating less and feeling much better afterwards.


Emotional eating is complex and it does take time to work out specific triggers and practice developing long term skills. Work with a dietitian who specializes in this area so that you can enjoy all foods whilst achieving your health and performance goals.

Hannah Brereton is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian located in Brisbane, QLD.

She is passionate about working with women of all shapes and sizes to focus on health, not size.

You can find Hannah on instagram @theathletes_dietitian and on her website

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