Listening to emotional eating

Most of the popular advice about emotional eating boils down to this:
•Emotional eating is bad. Don’t do it.
•Emotional eating is something you need to battle in order to lose weight.

But what if that point of view is wrong? What if emotional eating isn’t the enemy to fight, but a path that holds a clue to your freedom? Would it sound too crazy if I suggested that emotional eating can be a good thing? Emotional eating is a natural, hard-wired process that we understand from infancy- when we’re upset and our mother feeds us, we feel better. Eating is just one of the many ways that we can regulate our emotions. If we can step out of judgment around emotional eating, ask the right questions and listen for the answers, we might find that emotional eating can lead to some tremendous insights and healing.

Recently, a nutrition coach asked me, if I could eat any food I wanted everyday with no consequences, what would I eat? I answered honestly- if I could eat anything I wanted without any consequences, I’d eat birthday cake every day for breakfast.

Do you know how people might say that eating their grandmother’s pie at holidays is a way to stay connected to their grandmother, even after she is gone? In this case, it’s not about the pie. It’s really about the relationship to the person who made the pie and how the smell and taste of the pie brings all these memories of them rushing forth in your mind. Well, that is what cake is for me. I’d like to share this insight I had about my relationship with cake, and what I learned from it.


I love cake, and I know somewhere deep in my lizard brain, cake equals love. Not just any cake, but in particular, birthday cake. If the cake is decorated with a thick layer of vanilla buttercream icing, and there’s brightly colored icing piped around all the edges, and there is a thick stack of buttercream flowers on the cake, that’s even better. I will eat a slice of birthday cake upside down. I’ll flip the cake over, separate the spongy cake from the cap of icing, eat the cake first, and then take each mouthful of icing and swirl it around in my mouth before swallowing it. And when it’s your birthday, you get a special cake to celebrate you, and that cake is wonderful. Birthday cake is a special kind of love.


When I was little, my mother used to make elaborately decorated homemade cakes. She had taken some cake decorating classes, and I remember watching her practice piping buttercream roses onto wax paper on the kitchen counter. She made practice cakes for me and my dad, and we happily gobbled up her mistakes. We always got to choose a special cake for our birthdays. After a while she was asked to create celebratory cakes for other people’s special occasions. Once she made a large sheet cake that was served at the grand opening of the office where my dad worked. She was also one of the go-to moms when my school needed a special cake or cupcakes for bake sales or other events.

I remember one cake in particular that my mom made for somebody’s special occasion. She bought a brand-new Barbie doll for that cake, and I wasn’t allowed to play with the Barbie. She baked a huge dome, cut a cylinder out of the center of the dome, and slid the naked Barbie into the center of the cake dome. She frosted the cake dome in white, then piped an intricate white lace pattern onto the cake (and onto the naked Barbie’s body). When she was finished, the cake looked like Barbie was wearing an enormous white lace dress with a hoop skirt. That doll cake was a big deal.

My parent’s marriage had a lot of troubles, and they split up. After my parents divorce, I had a very difficult relationship with my mother. I was often left to care for my two younger brothers while she worked. When I was  in elementary school, after school every day I would walk to the babysitter to pick up my brothers. I was expected to take them home, cook them dinner, and make sure they got baths and into bed on time. When I was in middle school, my mother began leaving us for days at a time, even when she was not working. She would leave a little bit of money on the kitchen table, and that would have to be stretched to cover food for three kids for the weekend… or longer, since I often didn’t know when she would be coming back.

It seemed like my brothers were always hungry, and I struggled to figure out what to feed them. I can still remember the day that I discovered Hamburger Helper. There were clear instructions on the side of the box, all I needed to do was brown some ground beef, and the boys would happily eat it. They liked it!

I learned how to cook by following the directions on the side of boxes. Sometimes I would splurge on a cake mix and a can of frosting. Cake mixes also have instructions on the side of the box, but they never turned out like my mom’s special cakes. I could only make rectangle cakes in a sheet pan. The cans of frosting I could find on the grocery store shelf didn’t come anywhere close to the homemade buttercream I remembered that my mom used to make. No matter how many times I tried, I couldn’t reproduce the buttercream. (Note from the adult me: It might have helped if I had the recipe.)


My memories of birthday cake were wound up with memories of feeling loved, nurtured, and protected. It’s not necessarily about the cake itself, although it is partly about the sweetness of the frosting. It’s also about the sweetness of your mom making you a cake for your birthday and all the associated feelings that go with that.

What I have learned about birthday cake is this: When I start craving cake, when my mind starts screaming “birthday cake!” it’s a symptom of something deeper. My craving for cake is a sign that I need to take a breath and ask myself, where in my life am I missing the feelings of sweetness, comfort, joy, nurturing, and being protected?

My rational mind knows that I could eat birthday cake every single day for the rest of my life, and all the cake in the world would not be able to satisfy those emotional needs. Cake is never going gain the power to fill up what went missing in my young life. My lizard brain reasonably assumes that if I eat birthday cake, I can reconnect with those feelings that seem to be missing, even if buttercream frosting is an incomplete substitute for your mother’s love. Birthday cake is really a place-holder for those feelings.


I have learned that feeling a craving for birthday cake is the Bat Signal indicating that those emotions are needing some attention. It’s really not about the cake. It’s about how the cake got tied up with the emotions that the birthday cake represented.

So here’s your challenge. Can you listen for the message that your emotional eating is trying to send you? If I were to continue down the typical path, believing that emotional eating is bad, wrong, and should be judged, I would have never begun to explore the deeper message that craving birthday cake was sending me. I don’t mean to suggest that I never eat cake when I’m feeling the need for nurturing. I do eat cake, especially on my birthday. But I also have a deeper awareness of what this is about, and I can go about finding ways to nurture myself that have nothing to do with buttercream frosting. I can address the emotional needs directly instead of addressing them incompletely with sugar.



5 Comments Permalink
5 comments on “Listening to emotional eating
  1. Beautifully written – what a great reminder to listen to the messages that emotional eating sends us instead of judging and immediately going to a negative place of thinking we are doing something wrong. Thanks!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this. When battling with emotional eating, instead of self-loathing I ask myself “What is too hard for me to deal with right now, that I have to have sweets?” That’s the first step toward acknowledging the issues really at play. Other than that, I try and exercise regularly, so that the impact of overeating is lesser.

  3. I don’t see things as right or wrong, rather do they help us or harm us. Some people eat when they feel certain emotions, some bang their head on the wall. Too much of either will harm us.
    And the wall.

    • I think the point is that we can learn a pattern of coping with emotions that works for us at one point in our life, say childhood, that no longer serves us at another point in life. When we come to understand that the coping mechanism no longer serves us, we can explore different options.

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