Emotional eating is when food is used to soothe difficult emotions. It is one of the most common strategies people (particularly women) use to feel better when under stress or when dealing with uncomfortable emotions. If you didn’t see my earlier post on this you can find it here. It contains a self-assessment to find out if you’re an emotional eater.
Eating as a way of coping with problems is common and yet it’s easy to forget that eating comfort foods doesn’t solve the real underlying issues. You’ll still be left with negative emotions and then add to that the guilt you feel because you over-ate.
There are some coping strategies you can use to feel better that don’t include over-eating unhealthy foods.
Here are some things you can do to stop emotional eating:
- Because emotional eating is usually about eating certain kinds of comfort foods, try to shop and choose foods when you’re not under stress or feeling any negative emotions. When these foods aren’t available or involve more than just going to the kitchen cupboard to get them, you’re less likely to eat impulsively and may turn to something besides food in order to feel better.
- Identify the things that trigger emotional eating for you. Your awareness of these triggers alone can help you avoid the triggers and can allow you to recognise when you feel “hungry” because of your emotions. Have a go-to list of other things you can do to change your behaviour and feelings that don’t involve food. A coach can be really helpful in learning healthier coping strategies if you need help with it.
- Keep a diary or journal around your emotions and eating. That way you can better identify which things trigger unhealthy eating and which foods you’re choosing to eat when you are under stress. With emotional eating, awareness is half the battle. Write down your moods as they happen and think of non-food choices you can make rather than eating.
- Sometimes the food craving comes first. Write down the food craving you have and take the time to understand what the trigger for the craving was in much as detail as possible. For example, if you had a bad day at work, and instead of having a healthy dinner, you choose to eat crisps and ice cream, this tells you that stress triggers you to eat junk food. If you’ve had a row with your other half and you reach for the biscuits, this tells you that being upset or angry triggers you. Deal with the trigger directly instead of stuffing it into your mouth. Look for specific patterns of eating and emotions so you can try and avoid them in the future or have alternative coping strategies. And don’t forget that emotional eating is not always linked to negative emotions. Are you someone who celebrates every little occasion with food and drink??
- Think about non-food ways to handle your stressors. Too many people who are trying to lose weight or eat healthily, fail to take into account the emotional eating part of their lives. Just because you know that a tub of ice cream has x-amount of calories in it, doesn’t mean you won’t reach for it when you feel triggered by stressors. Think of other rewards you can give yourself when you are happy as well as when you need comforting. It might be something you buy for yourself that is not food or something nice you can do instead of eating. Even a short walk can help put your stressors into perspective without having to resort to food.
- Take a break between the times you feel the urge to eat some kind of comfort food and the actual eating process. You might find that the urge to eat passes if you just wait a little while. Emotional eating often involves an immediate desire to eat and intense cravings. If you give yourself a chance to put your emotions into perspective, you may not even feel like eating the comfort food or you’ll eat less. You’ll have more time to make different choices too.
- Accept your feelings for what they are, whether they are good or bad feelings. Know that you are emotionally eating because you have no control over your feelings rather than having no control over your eating. Identify and accept how you feel, allowing it to settle in as comfortably as the feeling can and allow the feeling to stand for itself rather than trying to run away from it. If you are sad, recognise it, accept it, and let it out in a healthy way rather than eating to hide the emotion. Even if you can’t help it and you eat anyway, at least you’ll understand why it’s happening and can try to avoid the same pattern in the future.
- Practice healthier lifestyle habits. This means making sure that you get enough sleep at night and that you exercise at least a little bit when you are under stress. Don’t overestimate the value of resting or taking a short nap when you are stressed out. Even 10 minutes of exercise is good for you or going for a short walk.
Eating and stress do not have to go hand in hand. There are ways you can cope with stress and negative emotions that don’t involve food. Once you develop your own alternative coping strategies, you’ll naturally eat less and will feel a stronger disconnect between emotions and eating.
Hopefully, you got some takeaways here that you can apply to your life and start looking at ways to alter your eating habits and moving towards being healthier.
Good luck and let me know how you get on!