What is Emotional Eating and How to Stop It

Emotional Eating
Sometimes our emotions get the best of us; it happens, we’re only human. Though we each have our unique way of dealing with our feelings, as a dietitian, there’s a common strategy I see with many of my clients: reaching for food. If you find yourself eating when you’re sad, bored, or stressed, you’re not alone. Everyone engages in emotional eating at some point in their lives. We can’t expect ourselves to be perfect and never use food for comfort; however, regular emotional eating can become an issue. It often leads to overeating, and “comfort” foods also tend to be high in refined sugar, salt, and saturated fats.

Too much unhealthy eating increases our risk of developing chronic health conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. If you have a pre-existing condition, overeating for comfort can end up leading to the opposite result. For example, emotional eating can trigger symptoms if you have gut issues. This habit can also worsen hormonal problems such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) or premenstrual syndrome (PMS). For those who don’t have any health issues, emotional eating can still leave you feeling uncomfortably full and lethargic for the rest of your day.

So, what’s an emotional being to do? Though we can’t expect ourselves to eat healthy 100 percent of the time, there are concrete strategies you can use to decrease how often your emotions lead you to eat.

What Is Emotional Eating? 

The first step to decreasing any kind of negative behaviour is to gain an understanding of it. Emotional eating is when you engage in eating in response to your emotions. Notice how broad this definition is; we’re not just talking about eating a tub of ice cream after a breakup. Emotional eating also includes grabbing a chocolate bar after a frustrating day at work, munching on a bag of chips because you’re bored, or digging into some cake after an argument with a friend. Whenever we let feelings dictate our eating decisions that’s emotional eating. It’s important to understand this definition because sometimes, we confuse emotional eating with physical hunger. 

If you are experiencing physical hunger but don’t realize it, this can cause major problems. I have seen clients beat themselves up over their “emotional eating,” when really their body is simply trying to tell them it’s hungry. They interpret their high appetite and overeating as personal flaws and feel guilty. A lot of people respond to this guilt by getting extra strict with their diet; however, this just makes their hunger and cravings more intense, ultimately making them feel like they’re out of control around food. We can prevent this vicious cycle by recognizing and satisfying our physical hunger.

Though you might think it would be obvious to you when you are physically hungry, there are a few factors that blur the line between physical hunger and emotional eating. If any of these factors are present in your life, spend some time working on them. You might notice that what you thought was an emotional eating problem goes away.

Lack of Sleep 

We all feel drowsy when we don’t get enough shut-eye, but did you know that your appetite is also affected? Lack of sleep causes an increase in the hormones cortisol and ghrelin. Cortisol is a stress hormone that affects our metabolism, and ghrelin stimulates our appetite. When these hormones are high, we feel hungrier and crave carb-dense foods like sweets and savoury treats.1 Do you reach for a pastry for breakfast when you have an early start to your day? Do you reach for chips in the evening when you’re feeling burnt out? It’s likely because you’re tired.

Decreasing your cravings and overeating often boils down to getting enough sleep. At a minimum, adults need seven hours of quality sleep each night do what you can to make sleep a priority in your life!

Undernourishment

Your struggles with food might be caused by plain ol’ hunger. If you don’t eat enough, or you have imbalanced meals, this can cause your appetite and cravings to intensify. Many of us skip one or more meals throughout the day because we’re either too busy or we’re trying to lose weight. Regardless of the reason, if we’re not giving our body enough nourishment, it’s going to send us signals so it can get what it needs. These signals feel like ravenous carb cravings and feeling like a bottomless pit when we finally sit down to eat. We can prevent our bodies from getting to that state of desperation by feeding ourselves properly.

I suggest eating within two to three hours of waking up, then eating every three to four hours after that. This will prevent you from going too long without eating and provides a game plan so you don’t mindlessly graze throughout the day. Also, make sure your meals are balanced and contain a source of carbs, fiber, protein, and unsaturated fats. 

Prevention Strategies 

Now that we’ve separated emotional eating from unsatisfied physical hunger, let’s talk about how to prevent emotional eating. Before we get into these strategies, however, I’d like to take a moment to remind you that it will take time to build your emotional muscles. If you’re used to food being a coping mechanism, using an alternative strategy will feel strange at first. Change takes practice and a lot of patience. From time to time, you’ll still engage in some emotional eating, and that’s ok. What’s most important is that you continue to practice these strategies so that you can strengthen your emotional muscles over time. Eventually, you will find that you engage in emotional eating less frequently.

Step 1: Sit with your feelings

The next time you feel like eating, take a moment to reflect inwards. Tune in to the sensations in your body. Are you physically hungry? Everyone experiences hunger differently; some people feel it in their stomach, others get “hangry” and impatient, or you might sense your energy levels dipping. Knowing your personal signs of hunger can help you realize when they are absent. If you want to eat but you don’t sense those signs of physical hunger, you’re likely experiencing emotional hunger.

Once you recognize your emotional hunger, it’s important to pinpoint the exact emotion you’re feeling. You might find this is easier said than done. To make the process easier, I recommend moving to a quiet space with minimal distractions. If possible, sit or lie down so that you can focus. Give yourself adequate time for self-reflection by setting a timer for five minutes and spend that time asking yourself, What am I feeling right now? Then, label the emotion (e.g., bored, angry, stressed, sad).

Step 2: Identify what you really crave

Now that you know exactly what you’re feeling, give some thought to your needs arising from that emotion. What would relieve that emotion? Here are some examples:

» rest or extra sleep 

» alone time 

» creative expression 

» entertainment/distraction 

» emotional support 

» self-care 

» fun/pleasure 

» venting 

» Connection

Step 3: Take action

The last step to coping with your emotions without food is taking action that will help you meet your needs. Here are some examples:

» Fun/pleasure: Go see a movie, host a game night, give yourself a manicure, get a massage 

» Venting: Hash things out with a friend, allow yourself to cry as much as you need to 

» Connection: Ask for a hug from a friend/family member/ your partner, snuggle with your pet

Self-compassion 

In my opinion, self-compassion is the key strategy for dealing with emotional eating. Guilt and shame don’t help us make healthy lifestyle changes; these emotions usually just prolong the cycle of restrictions followed by overeating. On the flip side, if we practice self-compassion, we give ourselves the grace to take a look at why our mistakes happened. It’s this reflection that will help you make real progress in decreasing your emotional eating.

The next time you engage in emotional eating, rather than wasting time on guilt, take some time to pay attention to the factors surrounding your slip-up. This way, you’ll realize why you ended up reaching for food to cope with your emotions. Then, you’ll know exactly what changes you need to make to prevent the same thing from happening in the future. For example, let’s say you polish off a bag of cookies after you get home from work. You might want to ask yourself if you took enough breaks that day to prevent yourself from getting overwhelmed; or, you could think of ways to clear your mind, like going for a walk, venting to a friend on the phone, or taking a bath. 

Don’t forget that change takes a lot of practice and patience. If you give up because you made one mistake, you’ll never see significant change stick with it and you’ll reap the benefits. Be sure to reach out to a healthcare professional, like a registered dietitian or therapist, if you need further support with your eating habits.

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