Breaking Free From Emotional Eating

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 eat emotionally 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. Following is a little about emotional eating. I’ve also included 4 strategies that can help you begin breaking free from emotional eating, end the cycle, and 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.

However, for those that use food to self soothe or cope it can be problematic. 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.

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 to check in on your relationship with food is this,  you use food in an attempt to manage your moods, you use it as as a coping strategy rather than as a way to nourish and fuel 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 consuming a lot of comfort food to make themselves feel better, they realize what they have done. This causes more negative feelings. Often after eating to self soothe there is a feeling of distress and frustration.

Guess what happens? They deal with those negative emotions with more food. This creates a vicious cycle where poor health, weight issues, possibly obesity, diabetes, and self- loathing and depression are often the outcome of this unhealthy eating practice.

Emotional Eating – Cause Or 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 will 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. This 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. (This does take awareness, learning to check in on physical hunger versus emotional hunger is an important part of the process.)

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 just 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, ask “What do I really in need right now? 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 potentially 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 are key. The something different may just be saying “no”, it might be reaching out to your support system, it might be dealing with the issue at hand rather than avoidance.

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 or self soothe?

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 that really going to relieve the stress of the day or create something else to be stressed about. Is it possible to do something healthier to let go of the stress of the day?

It is important to become 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 a craving or urge will pass given some time. If you give yourself at least 20 minutes when you have a craving or an impulse to reach for food, 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;

  1. You check in and realize this is not physical hunger and you are jsut having a craving or urge.
  2. Next, acknowledge that you don’t want to give in to it this time.
  3. Have a list of 5 to 10 things you will do instead of eat.
  4. Have these 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 capture your focus. 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 is that the thoughts about eating have passed.

Once the urge has passed, it 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 will lead to personal peace, harmony and health, and the other not so much.

How Can You Stop Eating Emotionally by Being Mindful?

Let’s first talk about what mindful eating is and then explore how it can help with emotional eating.

Mindful eating takes your emotions out of the equation. Mindful eating is nothing more than being really present during the eating process. Start with making a conscious choice. Even if you know you aren’t hungry and decide to grab some comfort food anyway, own it.

Then eat it consciously as well. When you eat mindfully, you focus on the texture, smell, taste, feel, and even sound of your food. 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 may be thinking about your feelings and emotions, or you may be doing something else just as mindless and numbing yourself out. Being mindful about the whole eating process doesn’t allow for your emotions to take control, but it also doesn’t allow you to completely numb out.

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. Check in with your body, is it true physical hunger?

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. A food/mood journal might help.

Mindful Eating Habits

  1. Eat in a comfortable environment without distractions.
  2. No multi-tasking while eating.
  3. Eat in a seated position, preferably at a table, not the car or in front of the TV.
  4. Taste, smell, chew, feel the texture, hear the crunch, notice the colors.
  5. Enjoy your food, eat it slow and savour the tastes.

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.

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.

In Conclusion

We have a culture that seems obsessed with physical image and therefore supports disordered eating. Emotional eating can extend to other unhealthy habits such as extreme dieting, over exercising, or even binging and purging. Because of the focus on body image, it seems like 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. It could be merely an unhealthy coping strategy, a learned behavior because it worked in the past.  There may be some core issues from the past that have fueled this way of self soothing. It could be beneficial to work with a therapist or Wellness Coach to have support and heal past issues.

If this is something you are struggling with I encourage you to try the strategies above for ending the pain of emotional/disordered eating. You might also check out my article on Emotional Freedom Techniques for an additional tool to help with ending emotional eating. I would love to hear your successes.

Please note that the above information is educational. If you are struggling with an 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.

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