Principle 7: Cope with Emotions without Food

It is my honor to have non-diet Dietitian, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor and Health At Every Size® advocate, Vincci Tsui guest posting today. Vincci’s passions lie in helping people find freedom in their relationship with food and with their body, so that they can worry less and get the most out of life. She is a wealth of knowledge and one of my favorite blogs to read. One of my favorite blog posts of Vincci’s is Embracing, not Fearing, the Potential of Food. Check out the rest of her website and services here. While you are over there, be sure to download a free copy of her eBook, Stop the Food Fight, Start Making Food Peace. Today Vincci is talking all about Principle 7. Enjoy! 🙂 -Amanda

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Principle 7_ Cope with Emotions

I’d like to start this post by saying that I don’t love the way that this principle is worded, as I think it could be interpreted to mean that it’s not OK to eat as a way to cope with your emotions.

My attitudes toward emotional eating changed when I heard this quote from Isabel Foxen Duke on the Food Psych podcast:

“If diet culture didn’t exist, if food was a real, free, liberating thing and it just didn’t really matter what you ate, and no one was judging you or shaming you around what you were eating, or your body size, no one would give a crap about emotional eating, quite frankly.”

Principle 7- Vincci Tsui Photo

Emotional eating is a normal and healthy coping behavior. It’s not surprising why people turn to food to cope with their difficult emotions. Biologically, eating causes our body to release serotonin and dopamine, the “feel good” neurotransmitters. Food is inexpensive and readily available, and frankly, a safer coping mechanism than drugs, alcohol or self-harm.

However, emotional eating can become problematic when it is:

  • The only way you are dealing with difficult emotions
  • Getting in the way of you addressing the situations that are causing these emotions
  • Triggering more difficult emotions, such as guilt and shame, thereby leading to more emotional eating

These problems are what this intuitive eating principle is meant to address. Here is a step-by-step guide to addressing your emotional eating.

1. Press Pause
Often, emotional eating can feel mindless and automatic. So the first step is to create some space for some mindfulness. Practice stopping for a few moments of mindful reflection every time you eat. The questions below assume that you are asking yourself before you eat, but it’s OK if you don’t remember to do this until you’re in the middle of eating. Just taking the time to practice means you are responding to the situation differently than you normally would, thereby changing the eating experience.

2. Hungry
Principles #2 and #5 discussed getting in touch with our physical feelings of hunger and fullness. If you notice that you have a desire to eat, but you don’t feel hungry, then that might be a sign that there is an emotional trigger behind your desire to eat.

Where things can sometimes get complicated is when physical and emotional hunger show up at the same time. A way to help tease this out is to feel your emotions. All emotions have physical sensations that are associated with them – that’s why they’re called “feelings”. Practice noticing how and where different emotions (i.e. happiness, sadness, anxiety, fatigue, etc.) feel in your body.

3. Emotion to satisify
As you get more comfortable in feeling your different emotions, you might notice some patterns in your emotional eating. Often we use food to distract or numb from difficult emotions. Perhaps eating is your way of relaxing at the end of the day. Maybe you like to use food to “chew through” stressful situations. Perhaps you like treating yourself with food, or maybe you’re not sure why you eat. It’s just become a habit.

4. Satisfy emotion
Once you’re able to pinpoint the emotions that you are trying to satisfy, invite yourself to think of some other ways that you can soothe that emotion without food. This list created by Am I Hungry author Michelle May might provide some inspiration.

If you try something different and still decide that you want to eat, that’s OK! You allowed yourself to respond to your emotions in a different way and are learning what works and doesn’t work for you.

Sometimes, you can satisfy emotional hunger while satisfying physical hunger. Principle #6 is all about finding the satisfaction factor.

5. Self Care
Intuitive Eating authors Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch have said that if there were an 11th principle, it would be self-care.[i] While having alternative coping mechanisms is helpful, without regular self-care, it can feel like you’re just keeping your head above water.

Self-care is not about bubble baths and pedicures, but about identifying and meeting your needs, whether they are physical, emotional or social. Regular, sustainable self-care can help you better manage difficult emotions and situations.

Here are some journal prompts to work through for the fifth principle.

Principle 7 Prompts

Special thanks to Vincci for posting for me this week! Be sure to check out her website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts!


  1. Tribole, E. & Resch, E. (2017). The intuitive eating workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.



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