Everyone copes with difficult situations differently. Some turn to food for comfort when they're at their weakest point emotionally. This could be facing a difficult problem, dealing with a lot of stress, or even just boredom! Emotional eating is common, and it's not necessarily bad. It's so common that there are certain foods labeled as 'comfort food'! Those comfort foods make us feel better after a stressful day at work or help us cope with negative emotions we might be confronting.
There's nothing wrong with eating a treat here and there, we all need a bit of ice cream from time to time. However, it can get out of hand and can lead to overeating high-calorie foods thus leading to weight gain and potential health problems if it becomes a consistent habit. This is why it's important to learn how to overcome emotional eating, to help you break the habit of eating when you face certain emotions so you can lead a healthier life.
We're going to guide you through what emotional eating is, common triggers, and tips to help you overcome it so it doesn't get out of hand and ruin any fitness goals you might have had!
What is emotional eating?
It is a pattern of eating in which people get the urge to eat as a way to suppress uncomfortable emotions, negative feelings, or stressful situations. This is why it is often referred to as stress eating. We have all experienced this at one point. It could be eating ice cream after a bad day at work, or just eating a bag of chips because you're bored. It's when it happens constantly that it becomes bad.
Emotional eaters frequently use food as a coping mechanism for dealing with their emotions. The eating pattern is often associated with binge eating foods which are usually unhealthy, but comforting for the person. After they eat this way they might feel guilt or even shame which leads to a cycle of excess eating. This often leads to unhealthy eating habits, weight gain, and it can also have an effect on their overall health and happiness.
But why is food often used as comfort for emotional issues?
Emotional eaters feel like they have an empty void that needs to be filled, and typically food is used as a way to fill that void. It creates a feeling of fullness, but it's only temporary.
Stress is normally what triggers emotional eating, but other triggers include:
- Boredom: When we're not out being busy and active we tend to turn to mindless eating when we're bored at home to fill the time. It's really important right now that we try to differentiate emotional vs physical hunger. Before grabbing your 5th snack of the day, take a minute and think am I really hungry, or am I just bored?
- Habits: Your eating behaviors are often learned from your childhood. For example, your parents giving you a cookie or treat after falling down from your bike, or maybe they reward your good report card with ice cream. You pick up on those behaviors so as an adult you instinctively reach for a cookie after having a rough day.
- Social influences: It's so easy to overeat around friends or family. We all have that one family member, usually, grandma, who encourages us to eat more. Or friends that you meet up with frequently for dinner and drinks. This doesn't mean you need to stop hanging out with your friends and family, but just be mindful during a social outing.
How to stop emotional eating
Now that you have a better understanding of what emotional eating is and the triggers, we have five ways to help you overcome emotional eating so you can get back on track with better and healthier eating habits.
Find your trigger
Identify the stressors in your life that lead you to mindless eating. What is triggering you to eat specific foods? A trick to identifying your triggers is by keeping a food diary. It sounds like a lot of work, but even just writing down a note on your phone works!
Here are a few things you can log down:
- What you're feeling at that moment - Is it boredom? Anger? Stress? Or maybe you're just hungry! Whatever it is, write it down.
- On a scale of 1-10 how hungry are you at that moment - This will help you determine if you were hungry or just dealing with a stressful situation.
- What you are currently doing or working on - Are you working on something that is stressful or unpleasant?
Tracking what you eat and writing what you're feeling at that moment will help you discover whether you're eating for the wrong reasons or not. After a week or two of writing everything down review your journal. Reviewing it will help you find what triggers you so then you can find a different and better way to face those emotions.
Mindfulness is the act of being present and aware. Try practicing mindful eating by slowing down and paying more attention to what and how you're eating.
Studies show that practicing mindfulness has led many people to successfully fight food cravings and reduce stress. The Journal of Obesity conducted a study that was about mindful intervention for stress eating to reduce cortisol and abdominal fat. They had two groups of women, one was controlled, and the other group underwent mindfulness training. That group of women learned stress reduction techniques, how to recognize hunger, and pay attention to taste. The group of women that practiced mindful eating were less likely to stress eat and lost more belly fat compared to the control group.
If you're going to eat - identify what you're feeling in that moment, take a few deep breaths, and if you still want to eat then eat. Just eat slowly and pay attention to the taste.
Be active (or find a hobby)
Stress is one of the most common reasons why people overeat. When your stress levels are high your body starts to produce high levels of cortisol. Cortisol is our stress hormone, and when it's heightened it triggers us to crave sweet and salty foods. To control our cortisol levels, we have to find an activity that will help us destress.
Exercising is widely known to help reduce stress and release endorphins which cause us to feel happy. But usually, people that are stressed either can't find the time to work out or are just too overwhelmed to do it. Try not to overwhelm yourself by finding an activity that gets you moving, but isn't going to increase your stress levels.
So, if your stress levels are usually high after work then maybe go on a walk with your dog or a friend instead of heading straight to the couch. Practice yoga, spend some time outdoors gardening.. Find an activity that will have your body moving, but most importantly, that will help reduce your stress levels.
Be kind to yourself
We tend to beat ourselves up after eating something unhealthy, but we should be understanding and have some self-compassion. Be a friend to yourself, especially during hard times. After binge eating instead of talking down to yourself and feeling guilty, be more understanding, tell yourself "it happens to the best of us" and move on. Not beating yourself up after emotionally eating can help break that cycle of eating out of failure and help you make better choices later.
Find healthy alternatives
If you still can't find techniques that help then just try to make healthier food choices. Instead of reaching for unhealthy foods like a bag of chips, grab a bag of baby carrots or your favorite veggies instead to munch on. Buy dark chocolate instead of regular milk chocolate, eat frozen fruit, or try sugar-free or dairy-free ice cream. There are various healthy food swaps you can try that might even replace your favorite unhealthy comfort foods! The point is to try to make healthier options that will make you and your body feel good.
Overcome emotional eating so it doesn't control you
It's hard to avoid all those delicious comfort foods, and nearly impossible to stop yourself from eating all junk foods. Actually repressing your food cravings can lead to binge eating, which then leads to that cycle of eating mentioned earlier. This article is not meant to help you find ways to completely stop eating unhealthy, but to help control eating behaviors you may have after being triggered by certain emotions. So, you can still eat all the foods you love in moderation, and actually, listen to your body instead of your emotions all the time.
Hopefully, these tips help you identify your triggers to help control your emotional eating. Just remember.. be kind to yourself, be mindful, and eat healthy as much as you can.