What is Emotional Eating & How Can I Stop?
Everyone likely has had moments where they turn to food when they are stressed, anxious, or are feeling down. For instance, maybe after a long marathon of a work day, you decided that you absolutely need that fast food, or chocolate bar. Or you may have even convinced yourself that you deserve it for making it through the many obstacles of the day. While these singular moments may not be great for you (as it’s always important to be aware of the function of these behaviors in your life) they aren’t necessarily a problem. Or they aren’t a problem yet, at least.
What is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is exactly what it sounds like: you eat food in order to avoid or distract yourself from dealing with your emotions. What may seem like a harmless habit at first, can really spiral into a dangerous trend, much like any other addiction. Not only can emotional eating sabotage your weight loss goals, it can also cause you to gain a significant amount of weight, which in turn has a number of implications for one’s self-concept or self-esteem. This is especially true if you are tempted towards foods that are high in calories, sugary, or fatty, which is most likely the case, as these are what we call comfort foods.
The biggest issue arises when you frequently and consistently turn to food to cope with your emotions. We should always seek to raise awareness of the means, whether internal or external that we are using to regulate our emotions.
Emotional eating can lead to the development of an eating disorder or other health issues, including obesity. This is often in addition to developing issues like high blood pressure, diabetes, and various other health conditions that are associated with obesity. Overeating when stressed creates an unhealthy habit that often repeats itself in lieu of actually taking the time to do the hard work of processing through emotions.
Why This Happens
To stop the cycle of emotional eating, it is important to know some of the medical and psychological underpinnings of why this happens. People tend to turn to emotional eating as a way to suppress the negative emotions that they are struggling with. Whenever people feel uncomfortable emotions such as sadness, stress, anger, and loneliness, they may turn to food for comfort. Because of the neurotransmitters released when we eat, individuals who have used eating to regulate emotions as a strategy in the past have most likely seen some success in this approach, at least for the short-term. This is also a common occurrence when there is a major life event that has occurred, such as a death in the family or other significant traumatic experience.
Eventually, eating in this way becomes automatic and your natural response to feeling stressed. In some ways, emotional eating can be very similar to the high one might experience when using substances, or fill a similar role in one’s life. However, the distraction from your negative emotions that you get when you eat is only temporary. As soon as the emotions come back, you may feel guilty about eating and overeat once again.
How to Stop Emotional Eating
It is important to learn how to stop this dangerous cycle. There are several different approaches that are known to help emotional eating, but these are some of the most effective options you can try.
Noticing the Triggers – What is causing you to eat that entire pint of ice cream? Next time you recognize that you might be “eating your feelings”, think about why you are doing this. Ask yourself if you are actually hungry. If you’re not hungry, what emotion are you feeling that has made you reach for your comfort food? Was your boss being overly critical today? Are you worrying about finances, or what your partner said to you about the future of your relationship?
These are all questions to ask yourself when you are trying to figure out your triggers. Saying it aloud, or writing it down may be the first step to take in order to admit to yourself that it has become a problem, or to notice the specific patterns of eating that have emerged.
After you have brought awareness to the triggers of your emotional eating, you can start doing things to overcome these triggers. Maybe if you really need to eat something, keep a healthier option on hand like carrots to satisfy the need without worrying about the calories. Or, instead of eating, why not go for a walk? Give yourself the space to think through the events of the day without having access to any of the food that you may have convinced yourself will make it better.
Set yourself up for Success – Prevention is always the best way to stop something from happening. If you know that it will be tempting to reach for a bag of chips in order to de-stress, don’t have them or similar items in your house. You can find healthier alternatives that can satisfy your cravings without adding extra calories into your diet. By denying yourself access to these old methods of coping, you are allowing yourself the space to form new habits.
Learn Effective Coping Skills – Life is stressful. You cannot avoid all of the negative emotions that life is going to throw at you. In ignoring these issues and turning to food, this serves as a distraction rather than actually coping with what’s really going on in your life. Good coping skills take time to learn and practice. Whether it is through writing or art, practicing mindfulness or nonattachment to your thoughts, cultivating “processing” coping skills, rather than ones focused on “distraction” will be the key that allows you to feel, understand, and express your emotions in a healthy manner.
Exercise – Exercise is a great thing to combat your emotional eating. Not only is exercise a fantastic way to improve your emotional health, it can help you burn calories, and work in direct opposition to the temptation to overeat. Exercise is also a great way to engage the body in a new way, whether it is a simple walk, dancing around the house, or a more strict exercise regimen.
Running and jogging are great because you can enter into the natural world, taking in fresh air and new sights as you go. Studies have shown that running and jogging are particularly great exercises for clearing your head, and it is well known that the hormones released when completing aerobic exercise serve to make people happier.
Yoga is another popular workout that can be great for helping with emotional eating. Yoga and meditation help to encourage awareness of oneself and cultivating a posture of mindfulness, both of which are incredibly important for a strong emotional health. Yoga can help you to relax and unwind after a long day without being too strenuous, and is another great way to get in touch with the body, and feed it what it actually needs.
These tips, in addition to seeking professional help, are great first steps to helping you overcome your emotional eating problems. It may seem easier to seek out comfort in food rather than dealing with life’s difficulties, but by “eating your emotions” you are also harming your body. The excess calories that you are needlessly consuming can have an adverse effect on your physical health, and every chocolate bar in response to a bad day is creating a habit that becomes more and more ingrained. When emotional eating becomes your primary or only means of coping, it may be time to seek assistance from a therapist to learn some new coping skills, and to help you return to an emotionally healthy track.
To learn more about how we can help, call Nsight now at (949) 629-3730 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Rachel O’Connor, the counseling content specialist at Theory About That