Do you eat when you are bored, lonely, sad, angry, overwhelmed? Do you eat to avoid things, to procrastinate, or because you need a distraction? Are you stuck in the cycle of emotional eating and the cycle of pain and the self disgust that comes along with it?
Most of us are emotional eaters from time to time, but for those stuck in the cycle of using food to self soothe or stuff emotions it can be very painful. I am going to share a little about emotional eating and then give you 4 strategies that you can start to implement today to help you feel more in control around food.
What is Emotional Eating?
Food is entangled with emotion, we eat at family occasions, we eat at celebrations, we seek out comfort food after a rough day. We start to lick our lips when we show up at a BBQ and smell the food on the grill, we get wide-eyed when the waiter brings around the dessert tray and we see the mouth watering tasty treats. Food engages our senses, takes us back to a pleasant memory. The truth is that food can and should be pleasurable.
To start to assess if you have an unhealthy relationship with food you might start to ask;
- Does my emotional eating cause problems in my life?
- Would I prefer to stay at home and eat rather than socialize?
- Do I run to the fridge or the candy machine when I am upset?
- Am I mindlessly putting food in my mouth when I am not at all hungry?
- Do I try to hide how much I eat from others?
If you answered yes to even one of those questions your relationship with food is probably not the healthiest. Many people eat to celebrate an occasion or go for some comfort food when they have had a tough day. However when it is a daily occurrence and you are putting your health at risk, then you may have a form of disordered eating that needs to be addressed. While emotional eating is not a diagnosable eating disorder itself, it is a common symptom of people with eating disorders.such as Bulimia or Binge Eating Disorder.
Another simple way of putting it is this, emotional eating is when you use food in an attempt to manage your moods, it is a coping strategy rather than a way to nourish your body. More often than not reaching for food is an unconscious response rather than a rational choice.
Why Eating to Self Soothe or Escape Doesn’t Work
People who overeat to calm their emotions usually feel bad about what they’re doing. They are upset about their relationship with food. After they have consumed a lot of comfort food in order to make themselves feel better about something, they realize what they have done. This causes them to feel distressed and frustrated.
Guess what happens? They answer those negative emotions with more food. This creates a vicious cycle where poor health, obesity, overweight, diabetes and depression are often the rewards for this unhealthy eating practice.
If you are concerned you may be responding to your emotions with food try taking the following test offered free by Psychology Today.
It takes about 25 minutes, and is located at the following link.
The Cause Or A Symptom Of Depression
Depression may develop as a state of emotions that leads to mood-based eating. You are depressed over your financial situation, a lack of control in your life, a failed relationship or some other perceived loss or failure.
Your brain remembers that when you ate certain comfort foods and junk foods in the past, the chemicals in those foods caused a release of “feel good” hormones.
Your brain sends out an immediate hunger signal, begging you to locate and consume the unhealthy comfort foods which uwill lead to a positive though short-term emotional feeling. So it seems that your emotional eating was caused by your depressed mental state.
Depression can absolutely lead to stress eating, and many times, the feelings which accompany this unhealthy eating habit can lead to depression. However, the two are not always connected.
Emotional eating can also occur when you are overjoyed and want to celebrate. You turn to pleasurable foods to reinforce a wonderful event in your life that has caused positive emotions. When you eat this way frequently, celebrating positive feelings by overeating, you reinforce the use of food to deal with emotions and can cause damage to your body when the foods are comfort and junk foods.
The problem now becomes the feelings that emerge as a result of over eating or eating unhealthy foods.
After you have finished gorging on unhealthy food, (let’s face it, most of us aren’t stuffing our self with celery and carrots) you may experience frustration, self-hatred, and even depression.
You can’t believe that once again you ate so much, and you are angry with yourself you may feel disgusted with yourself, bloated, uncomfortable in your body. This self-doubt as to why you can’t control your eating can blossom into full-blown depression. And the cycle continues, now your eating is fueling the depression symptoms that you were trying to escape.
So What Do You Do Instead
The following strategies were developed from Mindfulness and Cognitive Therapy techniques as well as my work with addictions. Emotional Eating is a habitual behavior and has many of the same symptoms as an addiction.
Strategy #1 Using Mindfulness STOP
The word stop is used here as an acronym to help you remember steps to mindful awareness. The first thing you want to do when you realize that you are going for food and it has nothing to do with hunger is to Stop.
S – Stop and be present, Present moment awareness without judgment is what mindfulness is all about. Do some deep breathing, get grounded in your body.
T – Take stock. What do you notice, are you physically hungry? Are you feeling a certain way and it feels uncomfortable, is it possible you are thirsty. Are you bored? Taking the time to check in helps you become aware of patterns and triggers.
O – Observe, just stay in the present moment, once you have determined that you are reaching for food and you’re not physically hungry, what are you really in need of? Are you lonely, angry, tired, worried? What is something you can do that may actually help you feel better rather than just distract you and create another problem.
P – Practice something different. Changing behaviors is like learning any new skill, practice makes perfect. You start to change the neural pathways in your brain when you respond differently. Every time you give into the impulse to eat you make the behavior more difficult to change. Even if you have been using food your whole life, you can change, patience and commitment to change are key.
Strategy # 2 – Check In With Self Talk
This fits well with the mindfulness technique. Once you are aware that you are reaching for food and it has nothing to do with physical hunger it’s time to bring the rational brain on board.
What are you saying to yourself about the need to eat at this moment.
- Ask yourself what would it feel like to not give into this impulse right now.
- Would it be the worst thing in the world to say No to the food now?
- Are you really just bored?
- Is there another way to celebrate?
Ask some questions, as in strategy 1, it takes a minute to be clear what the thought process is, and check in with your mood. If you are saying to yourself, “I had a rough day I deserve to have something decadent and delicious for dinner?” Is it possible to do something healthier to let go of the stress of the day?
It is often helpful to be aware of what the mind chatter is and to challenge our thoughts.
Strategy #3 – Delay The Urge
In the addiction community it is common knowledge that if you give yourself some time when you have a craving or an impulse to engage in your addictive behavior or drug of choice that you can often become interested in something else and the urge will go away.
With emotional eating it is important to realize that if you are not physically hungry you are having an urge or an impulse to eat. You are responding to an uncomfortable feeling and food is not the answer.
With this strategy;
- You check in and realize this is not physical hunger and you are having an urge.
- Next you acknowledge that you don’t want to give into it this time.
- Have a list of 5 to 10 things you will do instead of eat.
- Have it written down and posted throughout your home so it will be present and easily accessible when the urge or craving comes up. (ex: Take a walk, write in your journal, read, call a friend, meditate)
Give yourself permission to let the thoughts about food go and get engaged in a behavior that will engage you. Ideally it is something creative but if it is cleaning the bathroom that’s okay too. Whatever it is, it needs to be something that you focus your thoughts and attention on. What you will notice sometime later in the day is that the thoughts about eating have passed.
This might be a good time to sit with your journal and reflect on what was going on that you were vulnerable to the thoughts creeping in.
Strategy 4 – Stop Emotional Eating With Mindful Eating
Mindful eating and emotional eating are both eating practices, one that will lead to personal peace, harmony and health, and the other providing an opposite set of outcomes.
How Can You Stop Eating Emotionally by Being Mindful?
Emotional eating can also be termed stress eating. This is because it often occurs as a response to stress. However, any emotion, either positive or negative, can trigger the unhealthy eating behaviors that are attached to emotional eating.
You may turn to unhealthy amounts of comfort food and junk food because you just bought your first new home, or got fired from a job, or some other emotion-packed event occurred in your life.
Mindful eating takes your emotions out of the equation. Have you ever had a parent, teacher or instructor tell you to keep your mind on what you were doing? They are telling you to be mindful of your actions.
When you focus and concentrate on whatever it is you are engaged in, your performance improves as do the results, and you limit the possibility of failure, injury and other possible negative outcomes.
In the same way, mindful eating is nothing more than being mindful of the eating process. When you eat mindfully, you focus on the texture, smell, taste, feel and sound of your eating experience.
You truly recognize each bite and chew your food sufficiently and thoughtfully. You prepare your food without thinking about anything else. You enjoy the cooking process as much as eating.
Much of emotional eating is mindless. You are not thinking about the eating process or what you are eating. Instead, you are thinking about your feelings and emotions. Being mindful about the whole eating process doesn’t allow for your emotions to take control.
You can’t give into positive or negative emotions, and develop negative eating behaviors because of those emotions, when you recognize and mindfully experience how, what, when and why you are eating.
Formula for Replacing Emotional Eating with Mindful Eating
The next time you are about to eat, or you are thinking about planning a meal, ask yourself the following questions.
WHY do I want to eat? What is the core reason, the truthful, honest reason, that I’m about to eat? Am I physically hungry? Am I eating out of habit? Am I eating simply because of the time of day? Is there some deep down emotional need that is causing me to eat for comfort, or as a reward?
WHAT food am I about to eat? Is it comforting food to feed my emotions? Could I eat healthier food? If I am truly hungry and not emotionally eating, why not eat a healthy meal of fresh fruits and vegetables instead of junk food, comfort food or fast food?
The key to this process working is honesty. When you ask yourself, “Why am I eating,” you need to answer that question honestly. Don’t simply tell yourself that you are hungry. Ask yourself why you are hungry.
Is your hunger coming from your head or your heart instead of your stomach? This process involves being mindful of your moods before you eat, as well as being mindful of what you eat and why you are eating it.
When you force yourself to be aware of the food you are eating, the time you are eating it and what the underlying reason is that you are eating, this mindfulness can reveal that you were about to eat because of an emotional need.
In this way, if you eat mindfully at every meal and snack, you rob unhealthy emotional eating from causing poor nutrition habits. This is how being mindful at mealtime can reduce, or totally eliminate, your emotional eating episodes, and the poor health conditions they lead to.
We have a culture that seems obsessed with physical image and therefore supports disordered eating. Extreme dieting, over exercising are often applauded. There seems to be a new diet on the market weekly, and people are encouraged to engage in extreme behaviors and deprivation diets to lose weight.
All of this makes it challenging and fosters unhealthy relationships with food. For some individuals with disordered eating there is no attempt to build a healthier relationship with food or understand the food/mood connection, the focus is on weight loss body image not emotional and physical health.
If this is something you are struggling with I encourage you to try the strategies above for ending the pain of emotional eating. You might also check out my articles on PSTEC and Emotional Freedom Techniques for additional tools to help with ending emotional eating. I would love to hear your successes.
Please note that the above information is educational. If you have a full-blown eating disorder which is life threatening you should seek treatment from a professional counselor, or inpatient treatment facility that specializes in eating disorders. The above information is for those that have an unhealthy relationship with food, eat for emotional reasons but do not meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder.