Topic Tuesday: Intuitive Eating

“Sometimes You’ll Eat Emotionally— and That’s Okay, Too” (By: Valerie Martin, LCSW, RYT)

So let’s say you’ve done some soul-searching, uncovered some of your emotional and spiritual hungers, and you’re practicing tending to those in big and small ways. Fabulous, you’ll never eat emotionally ever again, right?! Well, not exactly.

Not only is eating a core element of celebration and gatherings in Western culture (and actually,  pretty much universally), but it’s also pretty likely that you’ll still reach for food at times when you’re feeling bored or sad or anxious. (If this is the case, congratulations — you’re human!) Awakening to your body’s hunger cues and distinguishing between emotional and physical hungers will make you more aware and discerning when it comes to your motivation, but that doesn’t mean you’ll never choose to go for the food.

When you’re starting on the path of Intuitive Eating, it’s easy to get perfectionistic and think that you should be able to ”perfect the science” of only eating when you’re physically hungry. Scenario: A co-worker surprises you with your favorite oatmeal chocolate chip cookies at the office on your birthday. You’re not hungry at all because you just had a satisfying lunch. Does it mean you’re failing at Intuitive Eating if you go ahead and have a cookie?

Now, if you truly don’t want a cookie in that moment, don’t feel like you have to eat it just to be “polite,” of course. What would I do? If I want a cookie, I’m going to have one, even if I don’t exactly feel physically hungry. There’s freedom in the fact that I can savor one cookie, and keep the rest for later. And if I’m eating one cookie mindfully, chances are I’m not going to end up uncomfortably full. On the other hand, if I viewed the cookies as ”off-limits” or “bad,” I’d probably want to devour five of them in that moment, hungry or not. And then I’d feel physically and emotionally bad, and want to give or throw away the rest of the cookies.

Remember that the key is in the awareness. When I’m aware that I’m eating a snack because I’m exhausted after work and just want the taste of something sweet, I can be mindful enough to consciously make the decision to have something and choose the portion that I want. Without awareness, your brain just goes, ”CHIPS GIMME NOW” and then you may not realize you’re still reaching into the bag until you’re three episodes deep into This is Us and no longer have an appetite for dinner. With awareness, you are empowered by choice.

Especially in your early exploration of Intuitive Eating, you may find that you still eat emotionally at times. The key is starting with the awareness and exploring the situation with a compassionate state of mind. Instead of just running with the negative self-talk and guilt that pop in, observe your thoughts and physical sensations with compassionate awareness. Even if you do find yourself bingeing, be kind to yourself afterwards. (I know it’s easier said than done, but so is everything worth doing, right?) You can start to shift from shame to self-compassion by actively doing something kind for yourself. Instead of sulking around feeling like a failure, get outside for a walk with your dog. Take a bath. Read a book and head to bed.

The key to remember is that even if you don’t feel loving toward yourself in that moment, taking an action of self-love is a conscious choice. You can make that choice even if you feel guilty (or any other feeling), because a wiser part of you knows that you are worth being forgiving and gentle with, no matter what. Take a few moments now to brainstorm a few simple ways you can be kind to yourself in moments when you really need a dose of self-compassion.

Try It Out: Make a quick list in your journal of five acts of self-love that you either already enjoy or would be willing to try.

About the Author

Valerie Martin (LCSW, RYT, CSAT Candidate) is a therapist and yoga instructor in Nashville, Tennessee. She works primarily with eating disorders, trauma, relationship issues, anxiety and depression. Valerie’s therapeutic approach is one of mind + body integration, using EMDR, yoga (including trauma-sensitive yoga), Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic (body-based), and experiential modalities. You can find Valerie online at, Instagram, and Facebook,  and reach her at or 615-617-4947.