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Emotional Eating: What Is It & How To Gain Control Over It

Emotional Eating: What Is It & How To Gain Control Over It

This year has been an emotional rollercoaster, to say the least! The pandemic that hit us has led to us staying home most of the time and not being able to socialize like we usually do. This can take a toll on people, it gets lonely, bored, and stressful.

All those emotions on top of having to stay in can turn into a lot of bad eating decisions... Leading many of us to throw our good eating habits out of the window and bringing back our bad habits. We must resist this and try our best to gain control of emotional eating. It's common for people to use food for comfort, that's why there are so many delicious things 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! It becomes a bad habit when you overdo it and start eating for the sake of eating instead of for sustenance and for our fitness goals.

Keep on reading to learn about emotional eating and what triggers it so you can learn how to handle it before you let it 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 reach for food to soothe and suppress 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 weight gain, and it can also have an affect on their overall health and happiness. 

But why is food often used as comfort for emotional issues?

When a person has a negative emotion they 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 temporarily.  

Triggers

Stress is normally what triggers emotional eating, but other triggers include:

  • Boredom

Boredom comes right after stress as a common trigger for emotional eating. When we're not out being busy and active we tend to turn to mindless eating when we're bored at home to fill that time and void. For those of us sheltering in place this is a huge trigger right now. A lot of us are probably filling our days with snacking... Don't get me wrong, I love snacks! But we have to limit the amount of snacks we eat to make sure that we are not overeating. So 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. Now I'm not saying you should stop hanging out with your friends and family, but just be mindful during social outings. 

How to stop emotional eating

I did extensive research on different coping mechanisms on how to handle emotional and stress eating. I picked these five because I have personally found them helpful when it comes to eating when emotional or stressed...

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. I know 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:

  1. What you're feeling at that moment - Is it boredom? Anger? Stress? Or maybe you're just hungry! Whatever it is, write it down.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 way to face that emotion that doesn't involve food. 

Practice mindfulness

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 stave off 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.[1]

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 more attention to the taste.

Be active (or find a hobby)

Stress is one of the most common reasons as to 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 causes us to feel happy. But usually people that are stressed either can't find the time to workout or are just too overwhelmed to do it. My advice is to not overwhelm yourself even more, find 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. 

Just because lifting weights is my favorite form of exercise, doesn't mean it's going to be yours. But I highly suggest if you have the opportunity to strength train then try it out! You might end up loving it and have something to practice daily that will have a positive impact on your body and mind.

Be kind to yourself

We tend to beat ourselves up after eating something unhealthy, but we should be understanding and have some self-compassion for ourselves. 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. Like 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. The point is to try to make healthier options that will make you and your body feel good. 

I want to help you at least have control over your cycle of emotional eating, just understand that this is not coming from a bad place. 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 I mentioned earlier. I want you guys to understand that 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.

I really hope 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. 

Iulia ☺️

1. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/jobe/2011/651936/

2. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320935#physical-vs-emotional-hunger

3. https://www.psycom.net/mental-health-wellbeing/5-ways-to-stop-stress-eating-and-why-you-should/