Whether you’re feeling happy, sad, stressed or anxious, many of us may turn to food when we’re experiencing a certain emotion. In this post, adapted from Diet Lies and Weight Loss Truths, author Melody Schoenfeld talks us through how to break the habit.
What is emotional eating?
A basic definition of emotional eating is spontaneous, non-hunger-based eating that is triggered by some sort of emotion, such as stress, depression, boredom, panic, anxiety, social situations, and even joy and celebrations. Emotional eating is often compared to binge eating, but there is a difference between the two; that difference is essentially the quantity of the foods being eaten. While emotional eating might be something like tearing into a pint of ice cream after a breakup, binge eating is rapidly consuming huge amounts of food to the point where you are phenomenally overstuffed. A binge-eating session might include hiding food or making sure binging sessions happen when you are alone. While emotional eating and binge eating aren’t the same thing, they can be intertwined—emotional eating may lead to binge eating, or it may be part of an existing binge-eating disorder.
Why do I turn to emotional eating?
There is a reason why emotional eating feels good in the moment—eating kind of forces your body to relax, at least temporarily. Your body does not digest well when you’re upset, so your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and causes a “rest and digest” condition, so you’ll often calm down a bit while you’re eating. For some people, eating a lot of really tasty but not-so-healthy food (cake, candy, etc.) triggers reactions in the body that tell the brain that it needs food and dampens the reactions that tell the body to control the need for food. For these people, the brain always senses that it’s starving, even when the body has consumed more than enough energy. This is a condition known as leptin resistance.
Most of us live in a high-stress world (whether it is of our own making or not), and for those of us who are susceptible to it, stress exacerbates leptin resistance. Guess what else contributes to stress? That’s right—failed dieting. So there ends up being this vicious cycle: A person tries a diet, gets frustrated, gets off the diet, gets stressed out due to the diet not working, eats in response to the stress, and ends up back at square one. The result is an inability to decipher real hunger signals, so eating happens regardless of whether the person is hungry or not.
Another thing that can contribute to emotional eating is a woman’s monthly cycle. Women appear to binge eat the most during periods of negative emotions, which are generally worst during the mid-luteal and premenstrual phases of their cycles. During this time, fluctuations in the levels of hormones called estradiol and progesterone interact to contribute to emotional-eating tendencies.
For many people, emotional eating starts in childhood. It may be that a parental figure exhibits dysfunctional eating patterns that the child emulates, or it may be that the parent enforces a dysfunctional eating pattern in the child that overrides hunger sensations (i.e., phrases like “clean your plate!” or giving junk foods to pacify a distraught child, etc.).
There are other causes of emotional eating. One of those is an emotional blockage—the inability to express or identify one’s feelings. Not being able to express oneself can lead to feelings of frustration, depression, and isolation, and often things become internalized. This, of course, leads to more stress, and we saw earlier how stress can cause emotional eating. In this case, the person is essentially “eating their feelings.”
Another cause is almost the opposite—people who have difficulty controlling or managing their emotions can also end up lashing out and becoming very frustrated, with the same stress pattern appearing. Either one of these emotional traits may have been learned in childhood or may have developed over time.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from abusive or traumatic experiences in childhood or adulthood can wreak havoc on the body’s ability to regulate hunger signals. Normally, the body responds to stress by decreasing appetite (because the body needs to “rest and digest,” shutting down the appetite until everything calms down). However, in some cases of PTSD, appetite signals get mixed up, and the opposite happens—the stress causes the body to think it needs to eat (which, as we discussed earlier, will probably force it to calm down a bit).
How do I stop emotional eating?
First of all, it’s important to realize that emotional eating is only a problem if it’s a chronic issue. If you had a bad day and ate a sleeve of Oreos once, that doesn’t necessarily constitute a problem. If you do something like that every time you’re feeling bored, stressed, sad, or angry, and it’s become a regular thing that derails your health and happiness, then the emotional eating has become a pattern and needs to be dealt with.
1. Know your triggers
The first strategy to use when dealing with emotional eating is figuring out what triggers you. It may not be obvious at first, so one thing I recommend to everyone is to keep a food log for at least a week. It doesn’t have to be forever—this is just to understand unhealthy patterns so that we can break them.
2. Become mindful
When you eat based on your emotions, you are often on autopilot. As soon as you feel sad, stressed, bored, or anxious emotion, you reach for all the snacks, and you don’t really think about it much. Now is the time to start thinking about it. Becoming aware of what and why you are eating in the moment can put a jolt in your usual automatic response to pacify an emotion with food. When you find yourself reaching for food in the wake of a triggering situation, try first asking yourself the following questions:
- Am I really hungry right now, or am I just eating to eat?
- Will this food solve my problem?
- Will this food make me feel better right now?
- Will this food make me feel better in one hour?
- What is something else I can do right now to address my problem?
Taking the time to ask yourself these questions can pull you out of autopilot and make you consider your actions before you go back to old habits. You can then take one of the following additional steps.
3. Be prepared
When you are not in a trigger situation, take some time to make a list of nonfood-related things you can do to help yourself get through a rough spot. You might, for instance, choose to “take a walk,” which is an awesome idea. But what if it’s raining, or what if it’s midnight? That’s why having a few options that cover all your bases is a good idea.
Now that you have your list, keep it with you! Put a copy on your fridge, put a copy in your wallet, paste a copy to your bathroom mirror, or anywhere you can easily see it and be reminded of it no matter where you happen to be. Pick something feasible on the list and do it—don’t stop and think about it too much. Get your brain off food as quickly as you can and redirect to another activity.
4. Learn coping skills
Learning to regulate and respond appropriately to emotions can be an important step in removing the need for food-soothing. If you are open to it, this may be best achieved through standard or enhanced behavioral therapy, or even through a support group. A quick Internet search for “emotional eating support group” pulls up a host of different groups, both virtual and in-person, that you might find useful to help learn how to express your emotions healthfully.
5. Live in the present
We often berate ourselves for having eaten something we think we shouldn’t have and label ourselves “bad” or “failure” as a result. This often makes people think, “Well, I screwed that up. Might as well just call it quits now.” It is so tempting to let one setback negate all your efforts. But remember this: You cannot change what you have already done. You can only change the present. Quitting everything obviously isn’t going to improve your situation, so ask yourself this:
What is one thing I can do to change the present?
It is possible that you tried to do too much at once. In that case, scale it back and try making incremental small changes. Or perhaps you tried to push yourself to change something you weren’t ready to change yet. In that case, give that one thing a rest and concentrate on making positive changes elsewhere. You don’t have to be perfect—you just have to be headed in the right direction. Every small step makes a difference. It can be hard to sometimes see that in the moment, but taking a step back and getting some perspective can help. In any event, even though it’s easy to just say “to hell with it” and go back to your old ways, try not to let yourself take the easy way out. Stop beating yourself up, take some time, take a breath, clear your mind, and think about one small way you can do things better right now.
6. Slow down your eating
It takes your body a while to figure out that you’re full, so don’t outpace it. Try taking twice as long to eat as usual. Savor every bite; think about how it tastes, what the texture is like, how it makes you feel when you eat it—that sort of thing. This is one way to remain mindful while you eat so that you don’t end up halfway through a bag of crisps before you realise what you’ve done.
7. Delay gratification
When you’re tempted to emotionally eat, try delaying your access to food, even if it’s just for a few minutes. The longer you can delay access, the better. But it might just be five minutes at first. Still, that 5 minutes (or 20 minutes, or whatever you can manage) does a whole lot: It can give you more of a sense of control of what and when you are eating, and it gives you time to ask yourself those mindfulness questions I mentioned earlier. Plus, by the time your food delay has passed, your craving might have passed, too.
8. Make a plan
Emotional eating doesn’t just happen when you’re feeling bad or bored. It also happens during social occasions and when you want to celebrate yourself or have an “I earned this” moment. If you overdo it during social events and outings, make a plan for those times. At restaurants, have the waiter or waitress pack up half of your food before bringing it to the table so you don’t munch on food because it’s in front of you (and then you’ll have your lunch for the next day—bonus!) Get appetizer portions instead of full portions, or share a full meal with a dining partner or share a few appetizers. If you want to go whole hog, adjust what you’re eating for the rest of the day so that you have room to indulge a little in the evening. If alcohol is your nemesis, get one drink and make it last the entire evening. With your drink, get a huge glass of water; with every sip of your drink, have a big gulp of water. That way, you’ll still get to drink your alcohol, but you won’t down glass after glass, and the water is a method of staying mindful of your intake.
Find ways to celebrate yourself that have nothing to do with food—give yourself a mini-vacation (or a maxi-vacation if you can!), a spa day, or an outing to somewhere interesting, maybe something at the store you’ve been eyeing.
If emotional eating has become a problem for you, then the eight tips above may help you get back on track. Whilst they may seem simple at first, they can help put you back in control of your eating.
Diet Lies and Weight Loss Truths
Melody Schoenfeld with Susan Kleiner
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