Simple Steps to Stop Emotional Eating
February 9, 2023
Perhaps your day’s gone all wrong: you were late for work, forgot to prepare for a big deadline, then you missed your bus home, only to find yourself walking in the rain… what a rubbish day.
To soothe the stress, you reach for a pillow-sized bag of chips and open the freezer to grab a tub of your favorite triple-chocolate-chunky-chip ice cream to then finally flop on the couch with a feel-good film. “Aaahh, that’s better.”, you say.
However, before you know it, you’ve accidentally inhaled the entire family bag of chips, the tub is empty and you're sitting there feeling pretty bloated.
We all overeat from time to time, but this common habit is just one form of emotional eating.
If you can relate to this, don’t worry, you’re not alone! We’re here to help overcome this unhelpful habit.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is the act of eating food in order to deal with uncomfortable emotions, instead of satisfying hunger.
The process has four stages:
- Trigger: Stress or discomfort is initiated and the individual has an inability to process these emotions.
- Eat: An individual will snack, binge on their favorite foods in order to find emotional regulation.
- Comfort: A brief sense of false comfort from food seems to ease the feelings associated with the trigger.
- Hangover: After this tasty hit of dopamine wears off, the reality of unmanaged emotions hits, often teamed with a sense of guilt, shame from this behavior.
Using food for comfort is not uncommon, in fact, 27% of adults admit to overeating or eating unhealthy foods in order to overcome uncomfortable feelings.
Unfortunately, if left unchecked, this cycle can become not only detrimental to your goals, but also to your health. Emotional eating has been linked to weight gain, changes in body image and even eating disorders such as binge eating.
What causes emotional eating?
Whether you’re feeling depressed, anxious, lonely or bored, emotional eating has a variety of triggers. Most obviously, we can turn to emotional eating through external stressors, like:
- Work stress
- Relationship difficulties
- Financial concerns
- Health issues
However, our internal world can also be a roller coaster, once again, prompting this habit. For example, an emotional eater may have an inability to process or manage emotions, or even identify the feelings at hand.
Because our bodies need food in order to survive, it’s no wonder that food sends positive signals to our brain, providing a sense of comfort and safety. However, this clever evolutionary system can also be our downfall.
Is emotional eating an eating disorder?
While emotional eating is a form of disordered eating, it is not classed as an eating disorder.
Disordered eating can also look like:
- Labeling foods as “good” or “bad”
- Frequent dieting
- Consistent restriction
- Being very irregular with meal timings
- Negative emotions (such as guilt or shame) associated with certain food groups
- Being very rigid with food choices
An eating disorder by definition is when an individual meets certain clinical criteria, based upon not only their habits and behaviors, but also their physical status.
If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one, please seek professional support. You do not have to be diagnosed with an eating disorder in order to receive the help you deserve.
Emotional vs. Physical Hunger:
While they are very different, it can be hard to determine which you’re experiencing if you aren’t connected to your body.
- Comes on quickly
- Specific cravings
- Triggered by uncomfortable emotions
- Slowly progresses in intensity
- Easily satisfied
- Less specific cravings
- Physical sensation in stomach
To overcome emotional eating, the first step is introspection - the act of looking inwards! When we can recognize and sit with the sensations that arise within us, without acting upon them immediately, we get the chance to make informed and healthy decisions.
Next time you feel any symptoms of emotional hunger, ask yourself: “Am I hungry or am I feeling (stressed/sad/lonely/anxious)?”
How to stop emotional eating:
Unfortunately, the journey to overcome emotional eating is not a quick one. It will take practice, awareness and will power, but it is worth it!
The first step is to identify the root cause:
You feel a pang of hunger and you dive head first into the candy cupboard without thinking.
Remember to ask yourself this question: “Am I hungry or am I feeling (stressed/sad/lonely/anxious)?”
This process gives us the gift of internal awareness. We get the chance to connect to our body, to listen, and to provide for ourselves in different ways. Sometimes yes, you will simply be damn hungry, and other times, you may be experiencing an emotion that deserves to be processed in order for you to reach a better state of mental and emotional well-being.
Next, it’s time to find a healthier way to cope:
Ask yourself, “How can I deal with this emotion? What do I need right now?”
When we start to gain greater clarity and self-awareness, our deeper needs emerge. You may find yourself needing to ‘talk it out’ with a loved one or even moving your body to let the emotions flow!
There are many ways to cope with and process difficult emotions, so finding the right one for you is vital to find success.
Some healthy options are:
- Mindfulness: Meditation, breathwork and journaling can be great techniques to feel more at peace with yourself and your situation, working to calm the nervous system, process your emotions and ease your cravings.
- Exercise: Working up a sweat can be a great way to get out of your brain and into your body, providing a feeling of grounding and calm, boosting your dopamine and serotonin, as well as burning off that overwhelming energy!
- Ensuring you’re eating enough: This may sound obvious, but often when we restrict ourselves too much, or even forget to eat, we end up heading towards the other side of the spectrum - a binge! Getting enough healthy and satiating calories throughout the day helps you to regulate your hunger hormones and to avoid that restriction trigger. Focus on feel-good foods that are full of nutrients and protein to keep you full and energized!
- Plan your meal timings: Finding a structure that works for you is pivotal in reaching your health goals. Planning regular meal timings can help you to become more consistent with your eating habits and will train your brain to find calm in healthy habits. Intermittent fasting can be a great way to structure your day. If you have struggled with emotional eating, we recommend that you start slow with a 16:8 schedule and ease into increasing the length of your fasts as your body adjusts. The benefits of intermittent fasting can help emotional eaters through blood sugar regulation, increased energy levels and greater mental clarity.
When to seek help:
If you can relate to this article, and your eating patterns are having a negative impact on your mental or physical well-being, you may be ready to receive a little more support.
While change might feel daunting, it’s important that you have access to the help that you deserve. Studies show that support and accountability help individuals to adhere to healthier eating patterns and behavior change.
Start by taking the first step; accepting that you're ready for a fresh start.
Once you’re ready to get the ball rolling, the conversation for change will come more naturally.
Reach out to a trusted friend or family member, or approach professionals in your area who specialize in behavior change or nutrition.
You are amazing, and you deserve to live a life filled with joy!
We’re here to support you at Fastic! If you’re ready to take your first step today, download our app for free and get started.
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