What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is not about food, it is about feelings!
Emotional eating can be brought on by feelings of
The strongest food cravings can often hit when you're at your weakest point emotionally. You may turn to food for comfort (consciously or unconsciously), when facing a difficult problem, feeling stressed or even feeling bored.
Emotional eating will more than likely sabotage your weight-loss efforts if not addressed. It often leads to eating too much, especially food that is of a high-calorie, sweet and fatty nature.
The good news is that if you're prone to emotional eating, you can take steps to regain control of your eating habits and get back on track with your weight-loss goals.
Emotional eating is eating as a way to suppress or soothe negative feeling and emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness, these feelings and emotions stem from an unpleasant or uncomfortable experience you have encountered such as major life events or, more commonly, the hassles of daily life can trigger negative emotions that lead to emotional eating and disrupt your weight-loss efforts. These triggers might include:
Work or other stressors
Although some people eat less in times of strong emotions, if you're in emotional distress you might turn to impulsive or binge eating, quickly consuming whatever is available without enjoyment.
In fact, your emotions can become so tied to your eating habits that you automatically reach for a treat whenever you're angry or stressed without thinking about what you're doing.
By eating to “sooth” those feelings, your mind has now associated the feelings and soothing sensation so when your are in a similar situation, your mind now pushes you to do what it knows best, to eat!
Food may also be used as a distraction. If you're worried about an upcoming event or thinking over a conflict, for instance, you may focus on eating comfort food instead of dealing with the painful situation.
Whatever feelings or emotions drive you to overeat, the end result is more often than not the same. The effect is temporary, the emotions return, the cycle begins again and you likely then bear the additional burden of guilt. Your emotions trigger you to overeat, you beat yourself up for getting off your weight-loss track, you feel bad and you overeat again.
What causes emotional eating?
Anything from work stress to financial worries, health issues to relationship struggles, bullying, physical, mental, emotional or even sexual abuse, attachment issues (your relationship, or lack of a relationship with a parental figure), feelings of low self worth (self esteem), may be the root cause of your emotional eating.
It’s an issue that affects both sexes. But according to different studies, emotional eating is more common with women than with men.
5 signs of an emotional eater
Most people think emotional eating is due to a lack of self-control. It is not! If emotional eating were a simple issue of discipline, we could easily find this discipline without torturing ourselves over fad diets, shakes, pills and constantly obsessing about who is eating what and when, and, of course, there would be no eating disorders. Emotional eating is about FEELINGS and how you perceive your self and life’s experiences.
Emotional eating can be a direct result of not being conscious of what or why you’re eating. Therapists call this unconscious eating. Unconscious eating is when you’re done with your meal, and you continue to pick at it, slowly eating the remaining portion that you intended to leave behind. It can also be putting peanuts or crackers or any other food in your mouth, just because it’s in front of you.
The solution? Try to remain mindful of what and when you are eating. I know it can be tedious to focus completely on your eating, especially at first! Start slowly and avoid self-judgment as you try out a new way of being. For more on mindful eating, see this article.
2. Food As Your Only Pleasure
I’ve often asked people what they would have to feel if they did not binge or overeat, and the common answer is, “I would have nothing to look forward to.” And at the end of a long and hectic day, a big bowl of ice cream can be especially effective in temporarily soothing our exhausted, hard-working selves. Why? According to many sources (e.g. this article), eating sugars and fats releases opioids in our brains. Opioids are the active ingredients in cocaine, heroin, and many other narcotics. So the calming, soothing effects you feel when you eat ice cream and BBQ potato chips are real. And breaking these habits can be like kicking a drug habit.
The solution? Find other ways to reward and soothe yourself besides food (and other self-destructive behaviours). Will these other ways be as effective at soothing you as food? Absolutely not! The things you come up with will help somewhat, but in order to truly give up emotional eating, you are also going to have to practice tolerating difficult feelings. Which leads us to #3.
3. Inability to Tolerate Difficult Feelings
In our culture, we learn from a young age to avoid things that feel bad. Unfortunately, the ways we have found to distract ourselves from difficult feelings are not always in our best interests. Without the ability to tolerate experiencing life’s inevitable yucky feelings, you’re susceptible to emotional eating.
The solution? Practice letting yourself experience difficult feelings. I know, much easier said than done! I know you don’t like feeling mad, sad, rejected, and bored. And people often ask me, “What’s the point in feeling mad? It doesn’t change anything.” Well, it may not change the source of your anger, but it will prevent you from having to blunt your feelings with behaviours you’d like to stop — like eating.
4. Body Hate
It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s true: Hating your body is one of the biggest factors in emotional eating. Negativity, shame, and hatred rarely inspire people to make long-lasting great changes, especially when it comes to our bodies or our sense of self. Many people tell me they will stop hating their body after they reach their goal weight. I say you have to stop hating your body before you can stop the emotional eating cycle.
The solution? Unfortunately, this one is multi-layered, complicated, and unique for each person. To truly make permanent progress in this area requires more than what is possible for me speak about in a blog post. Sorry, friends!
Letting yourself get too hungry or too tired is the best way to leave yourself vulnerable to emotional eating. When your body is hungry or tired, it not only sends strong messages to your brain that signal it to eat, but when we’re hungry and tired, we’re not on our A game. This leaves us less equipped to fight off cravings or urges.
The solution? You guessed it! Get plenty of sleep, and eat several small meals during the day. (I’m a genius, right?) I know you’re going to tell me that you don’t have time, but if your goal is to stop emotional eating, you’re going to have to make those two things a priority. There is no way around it.
Emotional eating is a powerful and effective way to find temporary relief from many of life’s challenges. If it didn’t work so well, no one would do it. In order to stop this cycle of emotional eating, you have to make a commitment to reach deep inside yourself to find a place of grit and strength, and hopefully the above reminders can assist you in your journey.
5 Myths about emotional eating
1. Not all emotional eating is about negative feelings, sometimes it can be caused by positive feelings – FALSE!
2. You need to have willpower & self-control to stop emotional eating. – FALSE!
3. Food is the issue. It’s delicious & everywhere!
Replacing emotional eating with “self-care” or distraction is the answer! – FALSE!
4. You will be happy when you lose weight! – FALSE!
You will lose weight when youre happy
How to overcome emotional eating / how to stop emotional eating
Keep a food diary. Write down what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, how you're feeling when you eat and how hungry you are. Over time, you might see patterns that reveal the connection between mood and food.
Tame your stress. If stress contributes to your emotional eating, try a stress management technique, such as yoga, meditation or deep breathing.
Have a hunger reality check. Is your hunger physical or emotional? If you ate just a few hours ago and don't have a rumbling stomach, you're probably not hungry. Give the craving time to pass.
Get support. You're more likely to give in to emotional eating if you lack a good support network. Lean on family and friends or consider joining a support group.
Fight boredom. Instead of snacking when you're not hungry, distract yourself and substitute a healthier behavior. Take a walk, watch a movie, play with your cat, listen to music, read, surf the internet or call a friend.
Take away temptation. Don't keep hard-to-resist comfort foods in your home. And if you feel angry or blue, postpone your trip to the grocery store until you have your emotions in check.
Don't deprive yourself. When trying to lose weight, you might limit calories too much, eat the same foods repeatedly and banish treats. This may just serve to increase your food cravings, especially in response to emotions. Eat satisfying amounts of healthier foods, enjoy an occasional treat and get plenty of variety to help curb cravings.
Snack healthy. If you feel the urge to eat between meals, choose a healthy snack, such as fresh fruit, vegetables with low-fat dip, nuts or unbuttered popcorn. Or try lower calorie versions of your favorite foods to see if they satisfy your craving.
Learn from setbacks. If you have an episode of emotional eating, forgive yourself and start fresh the next day. Try to learn from the experience and make a plan for how you can prevent it in the future. Focus on the positive changes you're making in your eating habits and give yourself credit for making changes that'll lead to better health.
Look at the Way You Eat
How you eat can be more important than what you eat. The total amount of food you eat, your attitude toward food, how you balance your meals and snacks, and your personal eating habits can play a much bigger role in emotional overeating than the specific foods you choose to eat. Take time to analyze your eating patterns, learn more about normal eating vs. emotional overeating, and develop new self-help strategies to address both your emotional and physical relationships with food. Practice saying “no,” not only to unhealthy foods, but also to emotionally-charged situations that sabotage your efforts to develop better eating habits.
Recognize Addictive Behavior
For years, research studies were devoted to the question of food addiction, whether or not someone could be addicted to specific foods, especially those made with refined products like white flour, sugar, salt, and fat, and if these foods, in turn, were responsible for some overeating and binge-eating behaviors. Since it could not be proven that food itself is addictive, researchers began to look at the addictive qualities of the behaviors. Elements of addiction include engaging in the addictive behavior (such as overeating), losing control, preoccupation with the behavior (eating), finding only temporary satisfaction, and enduring negative consequences (becoming ill or overweight from overeating).
Separate Hunger Cues from Emotional Cues
It can be difficult to recognize and understand the difference between eating in response to hunger and eating in response to an emotion. Learn to separate the two and self-regulate your eating by eating mindfully, and paying attention to hunger signals. Practice rating your hunger: On a scale of one to ten, just how hungry are you? If you’re not feeling hungry or you’re just a little hungry, you may rate that somewhere between one and four. Wait until you reach five, truly hungry before you eat (but don’t allow yourself to get overly hungry to the point where you overeat).
Create a Schedule
Eating regularly-scheduled meals and, for some people, regularly scheduled snacks, can prevent overeating if you stick to the schedule. On the other hand, irregular eating habits usually spell trouble because they result in random eating and overeating. Generally speaking, most people schedule three meals and one or two snacks or “mini meals” at specific times of the day. Real hunger usually kicks in starting about three hours after your last meal. Depending on your eating habits and the time of day, a small snack may be sufficient at that point; if not, you’re getting a signal that it’s time for your next meal.
Adjust Your Eating Patterns
Some studies have found that skipping breakfast, eating late at night and other unusual eating patterns can lead to weight gain for some people. That doesn’t mean everyone can or should eat breakfast as soon they wake up in the morning, nor does it mean you can’t eat anything at night. But if eating routines aren’t helping you lose weight or control overeating, it may be time to adopt a new pattern. Short-term studies have also found that eating your main meal midday (for lunch), instead of later in the day, or what may be considered normal dinnertime, can help facilitate weight loss and weight control.
Find Your Balance
Living a balanced life means you’re basically satisfied with all or most aspects of your life. It means you are meeting your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. When it comes to food and eating, imbalance means your diet contains too little of the most healthful foods or too much of the least healthiest foods. An imbalance in other areas of your life can lead to emotional eating that throws off your physical balance so that you become sick, or lethargic, or overweight. To find your balance, work to improve those areas of your life where you are unhappy or unsatisfied.
Substitute Healthy Behaviors
If you’re used to eating in response to emotional situations, what can you do instead? For a start, make a list of activities you might enjoy that don’t involve preparing, eating or shopping for food. One of the simplest, easiest and healthiest alternatives to emotional eating is walking: regular walking, speed walking, walking on a treadmill, walking your dog. Craft activities like knitting or felting not only pass the time and give you something physical to do, but allow you to be creative and productive.
A network of family and friends, including professional help in the form of a therapist or coach, if necessary, can be as important to your success as your own motivation and efforts. Those who care about your well-being can help by cheering you on, sharing ideas for healthier meals, recognizing the emotional underpinnings of your overeating issues, and perhaps even helping to diffuse some of the emotional situations that trigger your overeating. Surround yourself with people willing to lend an ear, offer encouragement and motivation, or maybe even join in as cooking, walking or workout buddies.
Look to Yourself
To be successful, you have to believe in yourself and stay motivated by an ongoing belief that you can accomplish anything you set out to do. You can’t be happy and successful all the time; that’s not realistic. But you can learn to focus on your successes, not on your failures. You can push yourself to keep seeking solutions rather than losing hope or giving up when you hit an obstacle. Other people can help to a large degree, but it’s up to you to find your strengths and use them to do the inner work, the emotional work that only you can do.
When to seek professional help
If you've tried self-help options but you still can't control emotional eating, consider therapy with a mental health professional. Therapy can help you understand why you eat emotionally and learn coping skills. Therapy can also help you discover whether you have an eating disorder, which can be connected to emotional eating.