How I Learned to Separate Food from Emotions

Health Coach Stories is a series on the blog where coaches candidly share their personal experiences and struggles with leading a healthy lifestyle. In this heartfelt piece, Mari Anne A. shares her struggles with emotional eating and how her long, difficult journey eventually led the way to becoming a more self-aware, compassionate, and strong individual.

It was at a very early age that I began to associate food with love. Many of my happiest memories as a child centered around large family gatherings on Sundays and an abundance of foods that were lovingly prepared by my grandma, mom, and aunt. Sundays felt like such a welcome escape from the pressures of school and friendship drama, and I will always look back on those gatherings with warm memories.

I started thinking that maybe I was too fat in about 5th or 6th grade, even though I wasn’t. Looking back, it’s hard to identify any one particular reason for my distorted self-image, but perhaps I started noticing how my frame was thicker and stockier than girls who weren’t growing as quickly. Or perhaps it was a combination of messages from movies, television, magazines, and the beauty industry all communicating a common theme that I should be unhappy with my body and appearance. I guess at some point, conventional wisdom told me that I wasn’t good enough as I was and I bought into it because I was a kid and didn’t know any better.

The emotional eating followed me as I got older and had to deal with the stress of big life changes. In college, I found myself on my own for the first time and like many 18-year-olds, didn’t have a solid sense of who I was. Although I stayed physically active as an athlete, a combination of stress and people-pleasing took its toll and I turned to food to cope with how overwhelmed I felt. Even after I left college and had kids, I was still using food as an emotional crutch. After putting the kids to bed, I’d often settle onto the couch with cookies, ice cream, or chocolate, and this became a consistent nighttime routine for me. It was a comforting way to escape and relax after focusing on work and taking care of everyone else all day long. The problem was, guilt and shame were always quick to follow.

Eventually, I got tired of the constant struggle and I wanted more than anything to make peace with food and my body, so I went in search of a better way. I was a smart, capable woman and had it together in so many other areas of my life, so I must be able to figure this out, right? I have always possessed a love of learning so I started on a path of self-discovery and education. I took courses in nutrition, stress reduction, life coaching, weight loss coaching, fitness, and yoga, turning my curiosity and desire to find answers for myself into a career along the way.

A big turning point for me was making a shift from control to care. Rather than get caught up with trying to keep everything tightly under control, I learned to allow myself to do things without doing them perfectly, which gave me more room to breathe and relax. I spent most of my life seeking approval from others when ironically, what I was seeking all along was approval from myself. I started to question why I continued the same negative patterns– eating sweets to soothe myself when I was feeling certain emotions– that were harming me. In working through my behavior, I realized that I was using food as a way to care for myself. It wasn’t a lack of discipline or willpower after all; it was a sign of unmet needs.

I don’t feel like I have everything figured out. But I do feel more self-aware and am more able to pause in those moments of impulse. A red flag warning for me is to notice when I’m having thoughts like, “I need this ice cream to feel better now.” That feeling of urgency is a red flag that I’m eating to soothe anxiety or escape a negative emotion.

One of the most important tools that I now use as a health coach is teaching participants to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger. Everyone will distinguish this in a different way, but one simple technique is to check in with your physical hunger every time you eat to ask yourself how physically hungry you are on a scale from 1-10. If you’re between 1 – 4, you’re likely stress eating or using food as a way to cope.

We’re wired to want to change our behavior first– in this case, the overeating– hoping that will give us more happiness and self-acceptance. However, when you have a pattern of using food to cope with difficult emotions, that approach can feel like you’re swimming upstream. Instead, use your moments of craving as an opportunity to discover the real reasons behind overeating and help you overcome that behavior. Remember that you are fully in control of making the choice to proactively take action instead of automatically turning to food. Here are a few key questions to start with:

“What need has gone unmet right now, that I am trying to replace with food?”

“What will happen if I just sit with this emotion without eating to distract or soothe myself?”

“What are some other non-food things I find soothing?”

This journey hasn’t always been an easy road, but it’s taught me so much, and for that I am grateful. Strength, patience, compassion, and understanding (of myself and others) is a valued gift I couldn’t have learned any other way.


Mari Anne is a Health Coach working and living in Minnesota. She is a certified health coach, life coach, and yoga teacher with a passion for helping people reclaim ownership of their health and well-being. When she’s not coaching, she can be found snowboarding/biking with her family or escaping to her yoga mat. Connect with Mari Anne on Facebook or her blog.