We eat to feel better or relieve stress, we don’t always eat just to satisfy physical hunger. When we do emotional eat, we tend to reach for junk food, sweets, and other comforting but unhealthy foods.
Emotional eating is plain and simple it is using food to make us feel better - to fill that emotional need, rather than your stomach. However, emotional eating doesn’t fix the problems, in fact, it usually makes us feel worse and afterward, the original issue of why we are comfort eating remains and to exacerbate the problem as now you also feel guilty for overeating.
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?
The emotional eating cycle
Occasionally using food as a pick-me-up, a reward, or to celebrate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But eating as a primary coping strategy is unhealthy and never addresses the initial problem or feelings.
Emotional hunger can not be filled with food. Eating can feel good in the moment, but the trigger feelings are still there when we have consumed the unnecessary calories and then this adds to the initial feelings with negativity.
This aggravates the problem, we stop finding healthier ways and strategies of dealing with emotions, and then we struggle controlling our weight, and our relationship with emotions and food because it becomes a vicious circle. How can we learn healthier ways to deal with emotions, avoid triggers, conquer cravings, and manage emotional eating.
The difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger
Before we break free from the cycle we need to recognise the differences between emotional and physical hunger.
Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. It is instant and feels overwhelming and urgent. Physical hunger, comes on gradually the need to eat isn't as desperate.
Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods. Physically hungry, any food sounds good right down to healthy foods and vegetables. Were as with emotional hunger we desire junk food or sugary snacks that give us an instant rush.
Emotional hunger often leads to mindless eating. In a blink of an eye we have eaten a packet of crisps and we are opening a second without paying attention or we open a packet of biscuits and we are minutes later throwing the packaging away and not enjoying the food we are eating. However, when eating for physical hunger we are aware and in control of what we are doing, enjoying and taking our time eating a packet of crisps and feeling satisfied when finishing it, only eating one or two biscuits then putting the remaining away for another day.
Emotional hunger doesn't have a satisfied feeling when full. You keep eating and wanting more and actually making yourself poorly and in pain with an uncomfortably stuffed feeling. With physical hunger, you are satisfied on much less and recognise when you have eaten enough without becoming full or at the point of fullness.
Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach. giving us twinges and rumbling tummies its a craving that we can not release from our thoughts/head.
Emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, and shame. Something you don't feel with physical hunger because you are feeding a need with physical hunger. The guilt comes from acknowledging you’re not eating for nutritional reasons.
Emotional hunger vs. Physical hunger
*Comes on suddenly *Comes on gradually
*Needs satisfying instantly *Can wait
*Craves specific comfort foods *Open to options
*Isn’t satisfied when full. *Stops when you’re full
*Triggers feelings of guilt, powerlessness, and shame *Doesn’t make you feel bad
Identify your emotional eating triggers
The first step to quelling emotional eating is to identifying your personal triggers:
What make you reach for comfort foods?
We mainly eat our emotions when we are upset/feel unpleasant, but it can also be triggered by positiveness too, in a rewarding way.
Common causes of emotional eating
Stress. - stress triggers our hormone, cortisol. Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and fried foods—foods that give us a burst of energy and pleasure.
Stuffing emotions. - Eating is a way to temporarily silence or “stuff down” uncomfortable emotions, i.e. anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, resentment, and shame... While you’re numbing yourself with food, you avoid difficult emotions you don't want to feel.
Boredom or feelings of emptiness. - Eating to simply give you something to do, to relieve boredom, or to fill a void in your life, distracts from the underlying feelings of purposelessness and dissatisfaction with your life.
Childhood habits. - Eating may be driven by nostalgia - of cherished childhood memories, where good behaviour, and achieving good results at school was rewarded with meals out, cakes, sweets etc... or cooking with parents and eating the efforts of cupcakes, cookies...
Social influences. - Getting together with friends and family over meals is a great way to relieve stress, but it can also lead to overeating. It can also lead to overeating. It can also lead to overindulging just because food is available or perhaps you could be encouraged to overeat as its easier to go along with others.
Keep an emotional eating diary
You probably recognise yourself in a few of the descriptions. But even so, you want to get even more specific. One of the best ways to do this and identify the patterns behind our emotional eating is to keep track with a food and mood diary.
Every time you overeat or feel compelled to reach for your version of comfort eating/food, take a moment to figure out what triggered the urge. If you backtrack, you’ll be able to identify the event that caused the emotional eating and the cycle. Write it all down in your food and mood diary: what you ate (or wanted to eat), what happened to upset you, how you felt before you ate, what you felt as you were eating, and how you felt afterward.
Over time, you’ll see a pattern emerge. Once you identify your emotional eating triggers, the next step is identifying healthier ways to feed your feelings.
Find other ways to feed your feelings
Not knowing how to manage your emotions in a way that doesn’t involve food, means that all logical nutritional advice which only works if you have conscious control over your eating habits. It doesn’t work when emotions hijack the process, demanding an immediate payoff with food.
In order to stop emotional eating, we need to find alternative ways to fulfil ourselves emotionally instead of resulting to foods to comfort.
Alternatives to emotional eating
If you’re depressed or lonely, call someone who always makes you feel better, or play with your pet, or look at a favourite photo or cherished memento.
If feeling anxious, expend your nervous energy by dancing to your favourite song, doing a body scan, squeezing a stress ball, or taking a brisk walk.
If you’re exhausted, treat yourself with a hot drink, take a bath/shower, light some scented candles, or wrap yourself in a warm blanket.
If you’re bored, read a good book, watch a comedy show, explore the outdoors, or turn to an activity you enjoy (scrapbooking, crochet, knitting, sewing, puzzles, sudoku, crossword...).
Pause when cravings hit and check in with yourself
Most emotional eaters feel powerless over their food cravings. When the urge to eat hits, it’s all you can think about. You feel an almost unbearable tension that demands to be fed, right now! Because you’ve tried to resist in the past and failed, you believe that your willpower just isn’t up to snuff. But the truth is that you have more power over your cravings than you think.
Take 5 before you give in to a craving
Emotional eating tends to be automatic and virtually mindless. Before you even realise what you are doing, you’ve reached for a tub of ice cream and polished off half of it. But if you can take a moment to pause and reflect when you’re hit with a craving, you give yourself the opportunity to make a different decision.
If you can put off eating for five minutes? Or just start with one minute. Don’t tell yourself you can’t, just tell yourself Wait. While you're waiting, check in with yourself. How are you feeling? What’s going on emotionally? Even if you end up eating, you’ll have a better understanding of why you did it. This can help you set yourself up for a different response next time.
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. Instead of dealing with your feelings head on we comfort eat.
Allowing ourselves to feel uncomfortable emotions can be scary and feel like we are opening up Pandora’s box and we won't be able to close it. But the truth is if we don’t suppress our emotions and deal with them head on, the feelings subside relatively quickly and lose their power over our attention.
To do this we need to become mindful and learn to connect with the moment-to-moment emotional experience.
Indulge without overeating by savouring your food
When you eat your emotions and feelings we eat quickly, mindlessly consuming food without thought. You don't notice tastes, textures, fragrance of your food you also don't recognise body’s cues of fullness. But by eating mindfully savouring every bite enjoying the food, you are less likely to overeat. By taking deep breaths before starting eating, by focusing on the experience of eating, pay attention to the textures, shapes, colours and smells of your food. How does each mouthful taste? How does it make your body feel?
By slowing down in this way, you’ll find you appreciate each bite of food much more. You can even indulge in your favourite foods and feel full on much less. It takes time for the body’s fullness signal to reach your brain, so taking a few moments to consider how you feel after each bite—hungry or satiated—can help you avoid overeating.
Practice mindful eating
Eating while you’re also doing other things—such as watching TV, driving, scrolling through your phone—can prevent you from fully enjoying your food. Since your mind is elsewhere, you may not feel satisfied or continue eating even though you’re no longer hungry. Eating more mindfully can help focus your mind on your food and the pleasure of a meal and curb overeating.
Support yourself with healthy lifestyle habits
When you’re physically strong, relaxed, and well rested, you’re better able to handle the curveballs that life inevitably throws your way. But when already exhausted and overwhelmed, any little hiccup have the potential to up skittle you straight to food. Exercise, sleep, and other healthy lifestyle habits help us get through difficult times without emotional eating.