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Taking the Harm Out of Emotional Eating

MeeHere’s a question that guides my clinical mind: “What do clients want?  And how do I help my clients feel ok about what they want and help them get what they want while minimizing problematic behaviors and facilitating desired change?” This very question is at the core of humanistic harm reduction (HHR).  And it is at the core of my Mindful Emotional Eating approach.

When my clients present with concerns about “emotional eating,” I ask them about what they want to get from eating.  What I hear is basically this:  “I wish I could now and then eat to cope but without overdoing it.  I want to have the option to eat when I feel bad or stressed and I don’t want to feel bad or guilty about my eating (and my choice of coping).  And, most importantly, I don’t want to feel out of control about eating when I am stressed.  I want to be able to cope by eating and feel that I am still in control of my eating.  I want to have a cookie at the end of a stressful day and not slip into binge-eating.”

In sum, you want the best of both worlds – you want your cake and eat it too.  Is that possible?  I am convinced that it is.  So what stands in the way?  The belief that eating to cope and feeling in control are somehow mutually exclusive, the unrealistic taboo against emotional eating.

Not so! You can have exactly what you want. Yes, you can eat to cope and, yes, you can still feel in control (both during and after the emotional eating episode). How?  By making your emotional eating more mindful and, therefore, more controlled and more effective as a coping tool.

I call this approach mindful emotional eating (MEE).  Linda Craighead calls it effective emotional eating (EEE).  But we could also call it harm-reduced emotional eating (HREE).  Let me briefly explain what I mean.

Mindful Emotional Eating satisfies 2 self-regulation fantasies: to eat and to feel in control of eating. Mindful emotional eating allows you to pursue change without sacrificing what you want.  As I clinically see it, emotional eating is not the problem – it’s emotional over-eating that is a problem.  Put differently, the problem isn’t emotional eating as such but mindless emotional eating.  Why?  Because mindless emotional eating leads to emotional over-eating.  Thus, the proposed solution is – make your emotional eating mindful to reduce emotional over-eating.  This is no act of willpower – it’s a matter of skillpower, a matter of learning how to eat-to-cope mindfully and in controlled moderation.  The idea is not to end emotional eating but to take the harm out of it.

Pavel Somov is the author of Eating the Moment (2008), Reinventing the Meal (2011), and Mindful Emotional Eating (2014)

Taking the Harm Out of Emotional Eating

Pavel G. Somov, Ph.D.

Pavel Somov, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice and the author of 7 mindfulness-based self-help books. Several of his books have been translated into Chinese, Dutch & Portuguese. Somov is on the Advisory Board for the Mindfulness Project (London, UK). Somov has conducted numerous workshops on mindfulness-related topics and appeared on a number of radio programs. Somov's book website is and his practice website is

Marla Somova, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Pittsburgh, PA. She is the co-author of "Smoke Free Smoke Break" (2011).

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APA Reference
Somov, P. (2016). Taking the Harm Out of Emotional Eating. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Dec 2016
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