emotional eating | self-empowerment

This week in the emotional eating series, we’ll take a look at another topic that is closely linked to emotional/stress eating: self-empowerment. We began this series on emotional eating three weeks ago by taking a look at whether our hunger is physical or emotional. Next, we considered what our triggers are: what is causing the emotion that drives us to eat? And last week, we did some digging into the idea of what self-compassion could do for us: what happens when we allow ourselves to feel our emotions and trust ourselves not to act them out inappropriately.

Many of my clients come to me firmly believing that a lack of self-discipline (AKA willpower) is what has caused or exacerbated their emotional eating problem. (Spoiler alert: what’s missing is a sense of self-empowerment.)

I love this because it is the perfect segueway into the topic of agency and another language game that can lead to an important mindset shift, one that I learned at my nonprofit job as a grant writer: “Don’t ever talk about ‘the problem,'” I was instructed. “Instead, talk about ‘the opportunity.'”

As I mentioned last week, there are two ways to ask a question: one is very judgmental and ends any positive conversation (“UGH! WHY DID I EAT THAT *AGAIN*?!?); the other is curious and opens the door to finding a variety of options, the power to setting ourselves up for success next time (“Huh, why did I eat that again?”)

The distinction between “problem” and “opportunity” is similar: if we mention a problem, there’s a sense that there’s a solution (meaning just one) that will solve it, end of conversation; if we talk about an opportunity, it opens the door to a variety of actions that can be taken—it’s the beginning of a conversation, not an end.

we have choices

Emotional hunger can feel insatiable: the entire bag of chips, the whole sleeve of crackers, an entire cake or pint of ice cream can disappear before we even realize it—and we still aren’t “full.” There’s a sense of being dragged along by our emotions, an inertia that feels unstoppable.

And it’s a sense that many of us can relate to in other areas of our lives: this is the way it has always been, the way it is, the way it will be—whether we’re talking about the direction of a relationship, a career, our overwhelming number of obligations to others—so why fight it?

This is where I often meet my clients: the point at which they’ve lost all hope of things changing unless they can somehow start a new life away from everyone who has claims on their time. The only thing that will make a difference is a plane ticket, a wad of cash, and a change of identity—also known as the Witness Protection Program.

The bad news: the federal government is pretty busy these days, and women who are burning out at increasing rates during the pandemic just don’t seem to be at the top of its list of priorities for the WPP.

As Erin Brokovich writes about our nation’s water crisis, Superman’s Not Coming to save us. Notably, the subtitle of her book is Our National Water Crisis and What We the People Can Do About It (emphasis mine).

There are actions we can take to deal with any crisis, whether it’s personal or local, national or global. We seem to have forgotten that, with the result that we feel disempowered, so we wait for Superman (or Prince Charming or Joe Biden or the Covid-19 vaccine) to come rescue us.

What’s the way out, whether we’re talking about emotional eating or any other situation in which we feel disempowered? It’s not self-discipline or willpower—it’s self-empowerment.


Self-empowerment starts very simply with recognizing that we do have choices, and when we shift our mindset from thinking problem/solution to opportunity/options, those choices become clearer.

And once we see that we have options, we recognize that we do have the power to choose what we do (or eat).

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” He doesn’t say that we will necessarily make the “right choice”—whatever that is—and he does promise us the power to at least make a choice if we take a pause.

For emotional/stress eaters, the pause comes just as we’re reaching for that bag of chips or pint of ice cream: if we can recognize that our hunger is emotional, ask ourselves what triggered it, identify the emotion and what it’s really asking us for, we can often figure out a non-food way to satisfy the hunger, which we’ll dig into more next week.


In the meantime, I offer you an Integrative Nutrition® exercise that might be helpful when you’re feeling like you have no options. Once again, it’s a language game, one that can help you to reframe your relationship to your sense of powerlessness.

Start with a sentence you use that contains the word “should”—yes, that other dirty word that starts with s-h: I should not have eaten that pint of Ben + Jerry’s,” and write down the emotions that come up when you say it. (Think about your energy when you say it: light, heavy, expansive, contracting, etc.)

Rewrite it (frealz or in your mind) using the word “could:” I could have not eaten that pint of ice cream. I could have eaten an apple instead of the ice cream. (How does that feel? Ooo—look at you! You have options.)

Now rewrite it using the word “will:” The next time I feel sad, I will take a walk in nature instead of eating the ice cream. (And look at you now: you are choosing a better option, and I’ll bet you feel a bit more powerful, even if you’re still doubtful about whether you’ll actually succeed.)

When we feel self-empowered (like we have options), we are able to reclaim our agency and act on our own behalf: we’ve set ourselves up to get out of the cycle of stuck.

Feeling cynical? Try it anyway—and let me know what happens.

make the connection

If you’re following along with the series and trying to address what might be emotional/stress eating, here are your action steps/assignments so far:

Because emotional eating (often called stress eating) can often go hand-in-hand with burnout, I’m putting together a new challenge on the topic—if you’re looking for support around this, send me an email and let me know so you can be the first to get details!

[Photo by Ann H from Pexels]