Effective Tips to Stop Emotional Eating
We have all been there… We had a long and stressful day at work, with no time to eat a proper lunch, fought our way through the crowds to get home, the house is a mess, and there is a list of things that need to be taken care of before bedtime. We somehow find ourselves craving junk food – pizza, chips, ice cream, chocolate, etc. “I just need to take a break”, we tell ourselves and before we know it, we had devoured large amounts of junk food and feel stuffed and guilty. We call this emotional eating or stress eating.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is the tendency for many people to respond to stress by craving and consuming high-calorie, high-fat and high-sugar/high-carbohydrate foods even when not hungry. Most emotional eaters crave comfort foods that have low nutritional value and they often feel guilt and remorse after they are done eating.
Most people experience emotional/stress eating at some time in their lives. This behavior is sometimes a part of a bigger mental health issue, such as depression, but most often it is a response to acute or chronic stress.
Emotional eating should not be confused with eating disorders – bulimia or binge eating disorder. Binge eating disorder (and bingeing in bulimia) is characterized by recurrent episodes of compulsive overeating, eating significantly larger amounts of food in a short period of time than most people, and it has to occur regularly, at least weekly for months, to be diagnosed.
Why do we engage in emotional eating?
There are both physiological and psychological reasons for emotional eating.
From a physiological point of view, the stress hormone, cortisol, may play a part in stress eating. When the body experiences stress, it produces higher levels of cortisol and starts the fight-or-flight response. This means that our heart and breathing rates increase, blood flows to the muscles, and we often feel hungry. Our body needs fuel (glucose=sugar) to fight or flee and it craves junk food to quickly acquire the fuel. While this is a very normal and helpful process in the case of momentary stress, it becomes problematic when we experience chronic stress. When we are under constant, low-level stress, such as work or school-related stress, family stress, history of abuse, etc., our body produces high levels of cortisol most of the time, which leads to chronic emotional eating patterns.
Psychologically speaking, when we engage in emotional eating, we may try to fill an emotional void, we may want to check out and relax, we may associate food with reward or punishment, or it may represent the only enjoyable thing in our day. Emotional eating is often preceded by certain uncomfortable feelings that we have a hard time tolerating, like boredom, sadness, anger, guilt, or loneliness. When experiencing those feelings, we respond by trying to make ourselves feel better by eating highly palatable comfort foods. Unfortunately, this only brings temporary relief, as after we eat, we often experience guilt and remorse.
How can we stop emotional eating?
When we overeat or eat for emotional reasons, we engage in mindlessness. We are not fully aware of what we are eating, how much we are eating and what we are experiencing. When we focus on the present moment and fully experience it, we are in tune with our body’s fullness signals as well as our own emotional state. A helpful idea is to take 5 deep breaths before each meal. This allows our body to relax and gives us a chance to “check in” with ourselves emotionally and physically before eating.
Another way to become more mindful around eating is to practice mindfulness meditation regularly. There are many guided meditation sessions on YouTube or on apps like Headspace and Calm. Even a 5-minute practice daily can make a difference in our self-awareness.
Focus on the actual problem
Emotional eating, while enjoyable in the moment, does not take care of the actual problem we are dealing with. We need to slow down and ask ourselves, “what is really going on?” Identifying the real issue will give us a chance to fix it or at least be aware of it and respond to it appropriately and more effectively than eating junk food.
Think long-term and anticipate consequences
Emotional eating equals instant gratification without much regard to long-term consequences or goals. Unfortunately, emotional eating and overeating can lead to negative consequences in the long-run including obesity, diabetes, digestive issues and even food dependence. Think about things you value in life and how healthier eating and general well-being makes achieving almost any goal much easier. It also contributes to living a more meaningful, satisfying life. So before you give in to your comfort food cravings next time, pause and think about your long-term goals and the potential consequences of emotional eating.
Unfortunately, we live in a very stressful world. Developing healthy self-care habits and ways we can manage our stress are more important than ever. A very effective strategy to manage our stress is physical exercise. Regular physical activity helps control our stress chemicals, helps stabilize our mood, decreases depression, anxiety and sleep problems, and reduces emotional eating.
While having a glass of wine at night can have a positive, calming effect on our body and mind, moderate to heavy drinking and/or substance use actually heighten the body’s stress response, not to mention the negative psychological consequences. Using alcohol or drugs only helps us avoiding facing the real issues directly, and prevents us from developing effective ways to deal with our problems and everyday stress.
Other helpful stress-management strategies include organizing our schedule in a way that allows us to take breaks and have some free time regularly as well as engage in enjoyable, fun activities and connect with our friends and family.
If you need help learning ways to cope with stress effectively, working with a qualified mental health professional can help.
Identify triggers and change behavior
If we regularly give in to our comfort food cravings at times of stress, emotional eating can become a habit. Habits are hard to break because they are so automatic and require no effort to engage in. If you find that emotional eating is now an ingrained habit for you, you will have to become aware of what is happening first to break it. Keeping a log of your cravings can be a good way to start. Try to identify when cravings tend to appear – what situations, time of day, places and people trigger the cravings. Once you can anticipate cravings, you can create a plan of action and problem-solve. You may need to make sure that you pack a healthy lunch and block off half an hour on your calendar so you can walk outside and eat peacefully in a nearby park. Maybe you need to practice deep breathing before a staff meeting because the stress of speaking in front of a group of people makes you crave chocolate. Maybe you need to go for a walk at night to take some time for yourself and relax a bit. Becoming aware of what is happening and being able to anticipate it will give you options in terms of how to change your behavior to avoid giving in to your cravings.
Enjoy a small amount of the food you are craving
We all eat for emotional reasons sometimes and there is nothing wrong with indulging every once in a while. If you decide to give in to the craving, make sure you are doing it mindfully and give yourself permission to really engage in and enjoy the experience without any guilt or remorse. Make that piece of chocolate or slice of pizza count. Sit down, take a few deep breaths, and focus on savoring and enjoying your food.
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