When we emotionally eat we're eating for reasons outside of our physiological needs, i.e. our hunger. There's something else going on - maybe we're bored, tired, sad or stressed. Maybe we're procrastinating or seeking pleasure. Ultimately, we're treating food as a refuge within the moment, or a place to escape how we're feeling.
Emotional eating is exceptionally common. Food is nourishment and fuel, yes, but it can unknowingly become so much more - a source of happiness, a way to self-medicate and soothe, or a way to suppress certain feelings we might not want to deal with. If you read this and identify with any of it, you really are not alone.
A deliberating aspect of emotional eating is the guilt that may follow a binge which, on a larger-scale, can contribute to a negative relationship with food, feelings of worthlessness or a lack of willpower. Here's one example of how this might manifest in real-life:
We think, 'I need to lose weight'. So, we cut out our favourite food in an attempt, because we feel it will help. We're motivated for a day or so, but then after a stressful afternoon we really, really, crave that food we've cut out. We tell ourselves no, we're not going to give in. But, we literally can't stop thinking about it. And so, of course we cave, eat a mouthful, feel good for a second, and then the mean talk starts - we tell ourselves how worthless we are, and why couldn't we have just stuck to our plan? And so, we proceed to eat another three servings of our favourite food. We self-sabotage and make ourselves feel worse, because we've 'stuffed up' and so why should it matter?
Spoiler - we haven't 'stuffed up' and we're certainly not worthless. We're never any of the nasty things we call ourselves. We’re simply struggling with a feeling/idea/situation/moment, and food may be providing temporary comfort.
Food tastes good, so it can make us feel good, and as humans we're wired for pleasurable sensations. When we experience emotions we may not want to deal with - whether from a big life event, or even just day-to-day niggles - we may reach for something that tastes yummy to make us feel better (whether consciously or not).
While for some emotional eating may only be an occasional occurrence, for others it's experienced much more frequently where it can become quite disruptive and consuming. There's really nothing wrong with occasionally using food as a treat, celebratory tool, or pick-me-up, it's when food becomes a coping mechanism that it's important to dig a little deeper as to what's really going on.
Emotional eating may be triggered from/when:
We are upset about something, whether financial, relationship, health or work related.
We are bored or procrastinating something that we may not want to do.
We're fatigued, and it's making us feel 'blegh'.
We're being restrictive with our diet - which can lead us to obsess over everything we've said 'no' too.
Childhood habits, which have been carried over into adulthood .e.g. eat your veggies and you'll get ice cream.
The foods we typically reach for are often refined/processed, sweet and high in sugar, or carbohydrate/fat based e.g. biscuits, chips, chocolate, ice-cream or lollies. Why is this? Why is it that on classic prime-time television, whenever a girl gets dumped, she sits on the couch, crying, while eating a pint of ice cream? Why is it that we don't we crave kale? As well as tasting really good, these foods also cause the release of certain 'feel-good ' hormones. While we may feel 'better' after eating them, it's usually just for a moment. It's kind of like that shopping high we get when we buy something new and cool - it's often only new and cool until the moment passes.
Taking back control
Ultimately, food will never truly satisfy a lingering emotional hunger, so it's important to look for other ways to helps us work through what we're feeling and take back control. Here's some aproaches to try:
1. Press pause - what are your triggers?
Identifying the feelings we're experiencing during an episode of emotional eating is often an important first step in developing a healthier relationship, with both ourselves and food. Really allowing ourselves to feel, and just sit, with our emotions is both uncomfortable and confronting, but ultimately it can be liberating and insightful. If we can take a moment to pause and reflect over where and when we’re hit with a craving, we can create space to think, figure out how we're feeling and start to see if a pattern emerges.
- When you feel the urge come on to emotionally eat, press the pause button for five to ten minutes. Don’t tell yourself you can’t give in to the craving, rather tell yourself to wait. The forbidden is tempting.
- While you’re waiting, check in with yourself - how are you feeling? What’s going on emotionally? Are you stress/tired/or anxious? Are you feeling board? Try and identify the feeling, and then write it down. Identifying the issue can help make us more aware what our triggers are, possibly setting us up for a different response next time. Once you've identified how your feeling, try writing down a few sentences exploring why this may be. Look into buying a specific book to document these thoughts in.
- If you find you still want the item of food after pausing, make a conscious decision to have it. Sit with it and enjoy it. Take the time to eat it. Savour it. There's nothing wrong with what you're eating.
2. Eat regularly throughout the day
When we're hungry controlling food cravings or preventing binges can be no easy feat. It is hard to fight our biology, and if our blood sugar levels are low then our appetite will drive us to eat - and for those who emotionally eat, this can turn rampant.
- Be mindful of eating regularly - this may mean 3 meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner), and 2-3 snacks per day for you. Play around with what leaves you feeling nourished and fuelled.
Try and remove yourself from the situation. Do an activity that will physically you remove from the environment, e.g. kitchen/living room/bedroom, that you may emotionally eat within. A distraction will help shift your focus, and you may find if you manage to override the urge in that moment, you will feel so strong afterwards. It's like building muscle - the more you work at it, the stronger it gets. Here's some ideas:
- Go for a walk
- Have a shower
- Get comfy - get a heat pack/brew a nice tea, get changed into something snug
- Paint your nails
- Take a bath
- Brush your teeth
- Deal with the task ahead that you're procrastinating
- Talk to someone about it - to family/friends/someone you can trust
4. Mindful eating
Emotional eating can often be automatic in nature, and almost mindless - before we even realise what we’re doing, we’ve reached for a pack of biscuits and polished half of it! A good way to combat mindless eating is mindful eating. Try and begin making small changes around how you’re eating, by bringing some more mindfulness to the table – this is a great skill to build for supporting our health and digestion too.
- Try and eat without distraction. Turn off your screen, put away your phone, and really be present when you eat.
- Use your senses – taste your food, smell it, appreciate it and chew it. Make sure to chew each mouthful at least 20 times. By chewing your brain will recognise it’s full sooner and you’re less likely to overeat.
- Remove the word “no” around food, and give yourself permission to eat. Avoid putting foods into 'good' and 'bad' pile. I am the nutritionist that preaches balance - eat healthy most of the time, indulge some of the time.
5. Healthy lifestyle habits
Supporting ourselves with healthy habits lead to two things - firstly, it helps us feel better equipped when making decisions in moments of trial. We're typically more snappy when we're tired, more angry when we're hungry (there's even a term for it.....h-angry), and more overwhelmed when we're drowning under our workload. Everything is harder when we're not feeling our best. By supporting ourselves with healthy lifestyle habits we feel more in control, across the board, which often also includes with our food choices.
Secondly, committing to healthy habits can help lead us to a place where we may feel more love and respect for our body, which in turn can help our relationship with food.
Here's some ways to support your health:
- Move your body. Exercise is a wonder pill for our body. Move daily if you can, or aim for a minimum of 3x a week. Find an exercise that you enjoy - this will help make it easier to regularly show up.
- Make time to relax. What calms you? What do you love doing? Try and make downtime a regular part of your life. Schedule it in, like a meeting with your boss.
- Eat a balanced diet. Aim for most of your diet to be filled with nourishing healthy foods. Don't restrict foods that may be a little less nourishing - enjoy them as treats, they will nourish your soul.
- See a professional for extra help. If you find you're really battling, then look into getting outside support. Why do it alone if you're struggling? Yes, it can be difficult to talk about these things, but a trusted health professional (whether a pyschlogist, nutritionist, dietician...) will help give you the tools in your toolkit to find your feet again.
- Limit time on social media and curate who you follow. Social media can be both a blessing, and a curse. There's a big wide world out there. Follow those who uplift you, and unfollow those who may contribute to aniexty.
I guess at the end of the day, this isn't a complete 'guide'. Emotional eating can be complex, with many factors coming into play that can affect our behaviour. However, I've tried to sum it up as best possible and I hope it this read helps provide some guidance.