Do you find yourself grabbing a box of cookies or a bag of chips when you are upset? Or craving junk foods when you are stressed? Or using food as a reward when you get that big promotion?
It’s very common to find comfort in food on occasion, but emotional eating can lead to excess weight gain and to an unhealthy pattern of disordered eating. Emotional eating becomes a problem when people turn to food on a regular basis to soothe or repress negative feelings. There is usually guilt or shame associated with this pattern of eating, which can become a vicious cycle.
Recognizing the signs of emotional eating.
Emotional eating is basically eating in response to how you feel—whether that’s anger, sadness, stress, or joy—rather than eating in response to actual physical hunger. Physical hunger comes on gradually, while emotional hunger happens suddenly. If you’re eating in response to your emotions, you’ll feel the urge to be satisfied immediately, and you’ll usually want to satisfy those cravings with high-fat or high-sugar foods. The problem is that no matter how much you eat, you won’t ever feel truly satisfied.
This type of eating almost always comes with feelings of shame and guilt. Eating in secret or hiding food packages are also signs that you may have a problem with emotional eating.
It’s no surprise that women tend to be more likely to be emotional eaters than men. Women are more likely to have negative body images and are more prone to anxiety and depression, which can all lead to disordered eating patterns. Some women may only eat their feelings occasionally, while others may do it more frequently. If it is negatively impacting your health with increased weight gain, or bingeing, or purging, it’s time to seek professional help.
Awareness is the answer.
Emotional eating can be referred to as “mindless eating” because you may not really think about what you’re doing, and you allow your unconscious habits to take over.
If you find yourself diving into a pint of ice cream after a hard day at work, or eating half a bag of chips while standing in your pantry trying to decide what you want to eat, you may be “mindlessly eating.” The first step in controlling emotional eating is awareness.
The key is to become more aware of what you eat and when you’re eating it, as well as how you feel. Keeping a food diary can be a helpful way to track your eating habits and recognize any patterns you may have with eating or grabbing junk food when you are feeling particularly anxious, stressed, or upset. You can use a written journal or use an app on your phone to log your eating habits. Often, if you have to write down what you’re eating and why, you may realize you’re eating for the wrong reasons and can redirect your approach to deal with your feelings in a different way.
Overcoming emotional eating.
You can get a handle on emotional eating. There are several techniques that can help you refocus and learn what triggers make you want to turn to food in response to how you’re feeling. Find the strategy that works for you, and realize that it can take some time to break long-held eating habits.
• Keep a food diary – As mentioned above, keep a food and feelings diary. Writing down how you were feeling at different times when you began to eat mindlessly will give you something to refer back to to gain insight into and greater awareness of your uncontrolled eating.
• Remove temptations – If you know you reach for the cookies or candy bars when you’re stressed or upset, stop buying those types of junk foods. If the foods aren’t readily available in your pantry, you can’t turn to them during times of stress.
• Practice mindful eating – Take time to enjoy a serving of chips rather than the whole party-size bag. Plan healthy, nutritious meals for yourself and your family, so you’ll be less inclined to overeat at other times.
• Find support – Enlist others to help you with your emotional eating issues, whether it’s a spouse, friend, or family member. You can also reach out to help lines, online support groups, or therapists.
• Use distractions – If you feel the urge to eat lots of junk food when you’re feeling upset or angry, find something else to distract you instead. Take a walk, call a friend, play a video game, or read a magazine.
• Seek alternatives – Find ways to reward yourself other than with food; find other more constructive ways to deal with negative emotions. Treat yourself to a home facial or a manicure, go shopping, take a hot bath and read, or whatever will relax you so you can more healthfully deal with your emotions.
Most importantly, don’t beat yourself up if you slip up. Realize it will take time to break old habits of emotional eating, and allow yourself to make mistakes and show yourself some grace. Just acknowledge your mistake and keep going, and you’ll gradually be able to break unhealthy eating patterns.