We don’t always eat just to satisfy physical hunger. Many of us also turn to food for comfort, stress relief or to reward ourselves. It’s understandable that in the current environment, many of us are experiencing heightened feelings of stress, uncertainty and anxiety. This might be the result of financial pressures, year-end work fatigue (it’s that time of the year), fear for our own health or the health of loved ones and uncertainties around the future.
A survey was done by SN and it was found that over 50% of us are eating more snacks than usual. On top of this, almost 50% of us reported eating when bored and 25% felt out of control with our eating habits. And in those instances when we do eat, we usually tend to reach for “junk food”, sweets, and other comforting but relatively unhealthy foods. You might reach for a pint of ice cream when you’re feeling down, order a pizza if you’re bored or lonely, or swing by the drive-through after a very stressful day at work.
Are you an Emotional Eater?
- Do you eat more when you’re feeling stressed?
- Do you eat when you’re not hungry or when you’re full?
- Do you eat to feel better (to calm and soothe yourself when you’re sad, mad, bored, anxious, etc.)?
- Do you reward yourself with food?
- Do you regularly eat until you’ve stuffed yourself?
- Does food make you feel safe? Do you feel like food is a friend?
- Do you feel powerless or out of control around food?
I would like you to know that, emotional eating happens to the best of us. We all have those days and moments, myself included and so no, you don’t lack some sort of supernatural willpower.
The Emotional Eating Cycle:
Occasionally using food as a pick-me-up, a reward, or to celebrate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism—when your first impulse is to open the refrigerator whenever you’re stressed, upset, angry, lonely, exhausted, or bored—you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the real feeling or problem is never addressed. Emotional eating is using food to make yourself feel better, to fill emotional needs, rather than your stomach.
However, emotional hunger can’t be filled with food. Eating may feel good in the moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there. And you often feel worse than you did before because of the unnecessary calories you’ve just consumed. You beat yourself for messing up and not having more “willpower”.
Compounding the problem, you stop learning healthier ways to deal with your emotions, you have a harder and harder time controlling your weight, and you feel increasingly powerless over both food and your feelings. But no matter how powerless you feel over food and your feelings, it is possible to make a positive change. You can learn healthier ways to deal with your emotions, avoid triggers, conquer cravings, and finally put a stop to emotional eating.
Learn the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger:
Before you can break free from the cycle of emotional eating, you first need to learn how to distinguish between emotional and physical hunger. This can be trickier than it sounds, especially if you regularly use food to deal with your feelings.
Emotional hunger can be powerful, so it’s easy to mistake it for physical hunger. But there are clues you can look for to help you tell physical and emotional hunger apart:
Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. It hits you in an instant and feels overwhelming and urgent. Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes on more gradually. The urge to eat doesn’t feel as dire or demand instant satisfaction (unless you haven’t eaten for a very long time).
Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods. When you’re physically hungry, almost anything sounds good—including healthy stuff like vegetables. But emotional hunger craves junk food or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush. You feel like you need cheesecake or pizza, and nothing else will do.
Emotional hunger often leads to mindless eating. Before you know it, you’ve eaten a whole bag of chips or an entire pint of ice cream without really paying attention or fully enjoying it. When you’re eating in response to physical hunger, you’re typically more aware of what you’re doing.
Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied once you’re full. You keep wanting more and more, often eating until you’re uncomfortably stuffed. Physical hunger, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be stuffed. You feel satisfied when your stomach is full.
Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach. Rather than a growling belly or a pang in your stomach, you feel your hunger as a craving you can’t get out of your head. You’re focused on specific textures, tastes, and smells.
Emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, or shame. When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you’re unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed because you’re simply giving your body what it needs. If you feel guilty after you eat, it’s likely because you know deep down that you’re not eating for nutritional reasons.
WAYS TO MANAGE EMOTIONAL EATING:
1. PRACTISE MINDFUL EATING
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you’ve finished a meal and not remembered actually eating the food? You’re not alone – many of us are focused on something else when we eat, so the act of eating is done on autopilot.
Mindful eating is an important tool to help us become more aware of what we’re eating, how much we’re eating, and why we’re eating it. In the long run, this can help with weight loss by controlling our portion sizes and staying in tune with what our body actually needs.
The goal of mindfulness, in general, is to practice paying attention on purpose and non-judgmentally to one single thing, which is the complete opposite of multitasking. In the case of mindful eating, this means turning your full attention to the process of choosing, preparing, and eating your food, whether that be meals, snacks, or drinks.
- BE PREPARED
Another effective strategy you can try is ‘if/then‘ scenarios. Take a moment to fast-forward to 6 months in the future, and imagine that you’ve failed with your healthy lifestyle changes.
Now try and tell the story of why this happened. What caused you to go off track? What did you struggle with or find difficult? Why was it hard to restart?
Now that you have this information, you can start to develop a plan to stop these scenarios from happening in the first place. This is where our ‘if/then’ scenarios come in.
For each barrier or challenge you think you might face in the future, think about the action you’ll take in this situation.
- If I’m bored at home and get the urge to visit the pantry, then I’ll listen to a podcast, so my mind has something else to focus on
- If I’m feeling upset after watching the news and I get a craving for ice cream, thenI’ll sit down and try a brain training app
- If I had an awful day and feel overwhelmed with a lack of routine, then I’ll call my friend for a chat
Try to write down a full list of all the possible scenarios that you foresee as being a potential challenge. Then when you’re faced with these situations in the future, you’ll feel better prepared with a plan to manage them.
If you find yourself faced with one of your triggers and your current ‘if/then’scenario doesn’t work – that’s ok! It may take a few attempts before you find an alternative outlet that’s really effective in soothing your emotions.
Research has also shown that the best tasks to do to take your mind off food are cognitively challenging ones. This means going for a walk, meditation, or taking a bath may not be effective ways to distract yourself. However, something that engages your brain can be a better distractor, such as:
- Sudoku puzzles
- Brain training apps
- Chess or scrabble
- Calling a friend
- Learning a new dance routine or taking a dance class
- Learning a musical instrument or language
- Playing a board game
- Listening to a podcast
- You might like to try some of these cognitively challenging tasks in your ‘if/then’ scenarios!
- TAKE AWAY THE GUILT
It’s also important that you try to take away any feelings of guilt that can arise during or after an episode of comfort or emotional eating. One way to do this is to stop labelling foods as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘junk food’, ‘treat’, or ‘syn’. This can foster a negative relationship with food and create an ongoing cycle of comfort eating. Instead, there should be foods we enjoy every day and foods that we enjoy less often.
Try to avoid putting strict rules around food as well, like ‘I can’t eat a bag of chips during the week’ or ‘I’m not allowed to drink fizzy drinks ever again’.
Generally, strict rules tend to have the opposite effect of making us crave these foods even more, then causing feelings of guilt or shame if we break one of these rules.
Try to have a more balanced viewpoint, such as ‘I’ll only have chocolate when I truly feel like it.’ Then allow yourself to enjoy the chocolate when you want it and move on afterwards.
At the end of the day, every one of us will have different triggers for emotional eating. Likewise, we need an individualised approach when it comes to feeling in control of our emotions.
There is so much more to health than the food you put in your mouth. That’s why we take a more holistic approach and focus on mindset, stress, sleep, and exercise, as well as nutrition.
Keep in mind that there’s a difference between emotional eating and BED – Binge Eating Disorder which is a severe mental illness. Overeating every now and again is perfectly normal, however, if you’re experiencing binge-eating episodes at least once a week for three months, it’s important to seek help from a qualified healthcare professional.
4. LEARN TO ACCEPT YOUR FEELINGS – EVEN THE BAD ONES
While it may seem that the core problem is that you’re powerless over food, emotional eating actually stems from feeling powerless over your emotions. You don’t feel capable of dealing with your feelings head on, so you avoid them with food.
Allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable emotions can be scary. You may fear that, like Pandora’s box, once you open the door you won’t be able to shut it. But the truth is that when we don’t obsess over or suppress our emotions, even the most painful and difficult feelings subside relatively quickly and lose their power to control our attention. To do this you need to become mindful and learn how to stay connected to your moment-to-moment emotional experience. This can enable you to rein in stress and repair emotional problems that often trigger emotional eating.