So you’ve just finished polishing off a quart of ice cream and wonder to yourself...how did this happen?
You probably weren’t even aware that you were eating as much as you were as quickly as you were but notice that after you’ve finished the guilt and shame start to arise. You feel bad that you’ve let your guard down and allowed yourself to eat an unhealthy choice of dessert.
Maybe you got home after a stressful day at work and immediately grabbed the chips and started furiously munching away with no regard to stopping yourself...what happened here?
Today we discuss emotional eating. We’ll start with a general overview of what emotional eating is and then go into 5 ways in which you can help yourself become better at managing and controlling these responses to stress.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is something that is common in many adult professionals and parents. You might have felt this or perhaps experienced exactly what happens with emotional eating.
You come home from work and have several big stressors going on in your head.
You might be worried about a response from a boss from a project you just completed.
You might be stressed because you don’t have any time for yourself before you need to run your kids to practice.
You might feel ashamed of how you look in the mirror which creates serious negative self-talk.
These are all possible causes as to why someone would dive into a bag of chips, overindulge in a treat or simply binge on their dinner.
It’s the feeling that your life is out of your control and the only way for you to find that control is to fill your body with food. If you often reach for food when you are feeling down, you are probably an emotional eater.
Negative feelings can be unsettling and if they are routinely in your life - they can almost seem inseparable to your daily expectations.
For example if you have a very stressful job and always find yourself reaching for that bag of candy you stashed in your desk - this is a habit of yours that just seems normal.
Have a big project to get down in an unreasonably short amount of time? Let’s grab a kit-kat to help us feel better about this crappy feeling and get something that makes you feel good.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with reaching for food to help make you feel good. Food is supposed to do this..it’s supposed to satisfy cravings, give you energy to help with a clear mind, give you energy to help you focus, and it’s supposed to be a pleasurable experience.
Emotional eaters however often make eating their primary go-to when feeling stressed and overwhelmed and in most cases they don’t even know it’s happening! This style of eating is usually unconscious and will lead to weight gain over time.
To help understand more deeply lets look at emotional hunger and true hunger.
The difference between emotional hunger and true hunger
If you think you are an emotional eater try thinking back to your most recent “binge”.
Did your hunger seem to suddenly come on as if you have been fasting for 2 days and now feel this intense hunger?
Now I can understand sometimes after not eating for awhile I have gotten extremely hungry where I believe I can eat all the food in the fridge. There are moments when you are truly hungry and your body is craving nutrition.
However the key to this question is noticing if it suddenly comes on. In my previous example, I probably felt that hunger coming on for some time an hour or 2 before hand. Maybe I started to feel irritable and felt the stomach grumbling.
When you have emotional hunger guiding you to your decisions, you might not have been feeling hunger just 30 minutes prior to this moment. Now you are in the moment when this extreme hunger comes on. This might be a sign to you that there was some event that has triggered this intensity.
Do you desire a variety of foods or very specific foods?
For the seasoned emotional eater - this is an easy one to see. Are you noticing that you get very specific cravings during these times? Do you NEED to have something salty and crunchy? Do you feel the craving for something sweet?
When you feel a craving for a specific type of food you might be experiencing emotional hunger.
If you notice that you are craving a variety of foods you might truly be hungry. For example if a piece of chicken over rice and broccoli sounds really enticing for you in the moment - you are experiencing true hunger.
Do you feel the sensation of fullness and take it as a cue to stop eating OR do you binge on food and not feel the sensation of fullness?
If you feel the sensation of fullness coming on while you are eating you are very much in tune with your body and therefore not in your head/emotions. Starting to put the fork down and sit back to notice that you are satisfied is a good way for you to know that you have just had true hunger.
On the other hand I know we’ve all been through this before - sitting down and mindless snacking on food with no experience of fullness. You are most likely eating very quickly and are not allowing your body to truly experience fullness. If you don’t feel full and are in an emotional state - you are far more likely to continue to eat way past the amount of food that you may physically need. From that point on it’s all about your emotional state.
I can relate to this one a bit as there have been many nights where I’ve felt upset that the day was coming to an end. The stress of waking up early the next day and knowing I have a long time before I can relax is a trigger for me to open up some pretzels and go to town on them. Often I’ll feel like crap after I finally put the bag to the side and notice I am way overfilled. This was emotional hunger.
Lastly, do you experience negative feelings about eating? Do you feel guilty or shameful after?
When you are truly hungry your body actually needs the nutrients to help sustain it. In most cases if you are eating because of true hunger you won’t feel any shame or doubt that you’ve eaten something that wasn’t “good for you”.
Emotional hunger however often triggers a response of shame and guilt after a binge. You might know in your head that you don’t even want this food but instead continue to snack. Becoming aware of this can immediately lead you to feeling guilty that you’ve indulged in this and that you “let your emotions get the best of you”.
This only furthers the perpetual cycle of emotional eating because now your response to eating is an emotional one! You have gotten down on yourself and no longer believe in yourself. This doubt becomes your next reason to binge.
All is not lost for you emotional eaters out there. There is always hope and there is always a way to circumvent and adapt to new activities that can aid you in your journey to find peace with food.
What you can do to help with your emotional eating
Let’s go over 6 solid ways to help get you to recognize and overcome emotional eating.
1 . Find 3 other ways to cope with stress
You already knew this one was coming - emotional eating is but a bandage to a larger issue. Your stress manifests itself in binge eating and it’s important to understand that this is just one way to cope with stress.
I recommend trying to find 3 other ways to cope with stress when it arises in the moment. Stress doesn’t have any regard for what you are doing and where you are when it comes up. It’s therefore important to have various methods to help work through it. Some ways that can help are:
Read a book
Going for a walk
Do a hobby you enjoy
By having a varied amount of coping mechanisms you’ll give yourself the best chance to give your attention to these methods rather than hitting the pantry for some cookies!
The key here that you need to practice these new methods. Try some out and see if they work for you next time you have a pending project or huge party you need to prepare for!
2. Start a food journal
Not only can a food journal help to keep you on track and accountable to what you are eating each day, it can also help you to figure out what times of days and what types of foods you are more likely to go for in a stressful state.
Sometimes it's easy for us to avoid even thinking about what we ate when it wasn’t a “healthy” decision. How many times have you eaten a snack only to forget you even had it later that day? The unconscious mind tries to keep us safe from ourselves, the reality of situations go unnoticed.
A great way to use a journal is to write the food you ate, when you ate it, and how you felt before and after eating it. This will start to piece together the puzzle of your emotional roller coaster on those binge days.
3. Take binge worthy foods out of your pantry
If you don’t have the food in your house - you make it a lot harder to immediately reach for your comfort food when feeling stressed. Think about the amount of energy and work it takes to leave your house, go to the store, pick out a snack, pay for it, drive back home and finally get to eat it. By then, you might not even need it!
We are huge believers in setting your environment up for success and this is a powerful tool. By keeping your tempting foods out of the house or in hard to reach places you give yourself a better chance of finding different coping mechanisms in times of stress.
I promise you that you will survive without that piece of cake or ice cream. You will find another way to work through your stress. Use tip#1 here to help give you ideas on what you can do.
4. Be mindful of portion size
This one is easier said than done - in a time when you are so overwhelmed it’s hard to consider taking a serving of your favorite treat and only eating the set amount. Once the bag is in your hand you already know you will be munching away until that bag is done!
This is a good tip for those who are finding it hard to use other coping mechanisms but still want to control their emotional eating. By having just a little bit less you’ll put yourself in a better position to not only better your health but more importantly, have you feeling like you have control! If you are feeling better about yourself you’ll treat your body with care and love.
5. Get rid of distractions
When you couple a stressful time with mindless eating you are sure to set yourself up for a binge worthy of champions. If there were awards that went out on who could binge the most, it’s definitely people who combine coping with food with coping with a mindless activity (such as watching TV).
Becoming more mindful of your eating habits, your experience with the taste and texture of food will allow you to stop when you feel satisfied.
If we talk about emotional hunger and true hunger - this feeling of noticing satiety is an important one that helps ensure that you are truly hungry.
It’s okay to be hungry and it’s okay to go to food when you are stressed. If you can maintain a certain level of mindfulness while eating - you’ll be far more likely to get just enough out of the treat.
Less distraction and more attention creates complete control!
6. Work on Positive self-talk
Saving the best one for last here...take notice of how you talk about yourself, to yourself. Often with emotional eaters it’s very easy to have this common thread of “I’m not good enough”, “I don’t have control”, “I’m fat and disgusting”.
These thoughts may seem like truth in your head but they are simply things we tell ourselves. If we are feeling shame that we aren’t exactly at the level of health we desire, it’s going to be far easier to believe that you in fact don’t deserve good health.
This turns into a vicious cycle that goes something like …
Stressful event ---> Binge ---> Guilt --->Negative thoughts --->Repeat
The negative thoughts about oneself are enough to set off a stressful event. “I’ll never lose any weight, I don’t deserve to”.
Instead of tearing yourself down, build yourself up and look for things to praise rather than things to bring you down. For example if you did binge on a treat and you start having that familiar judgmental feeling coming on - try to revert this and focus on something that was positive.
For every negative thought about yourself - try to say 2 good things about yourself. Are you awesome at doing your job? Are you a great provider for your kids? Do you get along well with your parents?
I know it may sound like you are diverting your attention but what you are actually doing in these moments are building yourself up. Shame and guilt will happen but ultimately it’s about how you can move forward from those feelings.