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 method to self-soothe, or suppress certain feelings we might not want to deal with.
A deliberating aspect of emotional eating is any feelings of guilt that we can attach to the act, which may 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, 'today has been really tough at work'. We feel like a few pieces of chocolate, but last week we cut chocolate out because we’re trying to lose weight. Now we’re really, really, craving it. 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 because it tastes great, but then the mean talk starts - we tell ourselves why couldn't we have just stuck to our plan? And so, we proceed to eat another three servings. We self-sabotage and make ourselves feel worse, because we've 'stuffed up' and so why should it matter? We’ll start again next week.
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 or 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, or we begin to binge on larger quantities, that it's important to dig a little deeper as to what's really going on.
Emotional eating can have a wide range of trigger, including:
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're saying 'no' to.
Childhood habits, which have been carried over into adulthood .e.g. ‘eat your veggies and you'll get ice cream’.
Often we can’t eliminate some triggers either - and this is okay! Something else will always pop up or manifest anyway. We get much further through accepting and working with our emotions, and not against.
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 tub of ice cream? Why is it that we don't we crave vegetables? 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 or the first few bites.
Feeling more in control
Ultimately, food will never truly satisfy a lingering emotional hunger, so it's important to become aware of how we’re feelings around food, any patterns emerging, and if it’s worth working through them, perhaps, with the help and assistance of a qualified practitioner if necessary. Here's some considerations to keep in mind or try:
1. Press pause exercise
Identifying the feelings we're experiencing during an episode of emotional eating can be useful in developing an understanding around what often drives us to emotionally eat. Allowing ourselves to feel and sit with our emotions can be both uncomfortable and confronting, but ultimately liberating and insightful. If we can take a moment to pause and reflect over where and when we’re hit with a desire to emotionally eat, we create space to understand ourselves, behaviours and wiring, more deeply. Remember this is not about eliminating triggers or emotions - it’s about becoming more mindful of what they are and how we respond.
Here’s a three-step exercise to do - I recommend buying a notebook to document the below in:
When you feel the urge come on to emotionally eat, press the pause button for ten minutes. I recommend clients set a timer on their phone with an alarm, so they don’t have to worry about checking the clock.
While you wait explore the following three questions:
IDENTIFY how you’re feeling: Check in with yourself - what emotion/s are you experiencing?
Identify the emotion and write it down e.g. anger, anxiety, sadness, boredom, fear, insecurity...
EXPLORE how you’re feeling: Jot down why you may be feeling this way. Did something specific happen at work? Are you under lots of pressure? Did someone say something that triggered you? Remember there may not be anything obvious - so take the time to explore, without judgement.
Write a few sentences exploring why you’re feeling this way...
CONSIDER what would help solve the root cause: for this, look into ways that would/could deal with the emotion that doesn’t involve food.
Write one or more ways you could deal specifically with the issue at hand. For example, talking with someone you trust, starting a project that you’ve been putting off, taking a walk outside...
Once the 10 minutes are up either:
Eat and enjoy: make a conscious decision to either enjoy a portion/serving of a food without guilt (e.g. 1-2 biscuits, a few squares of chocolate). If you’d like to enjoy it, take the time to eat it slowly and mindfully, and chew it well. There’s nothing wrong with you eating it.
Diffuse or distract: now you’ve identified what needs to be done to help get to the root cause of the problem, respond to it with one of the ways you identified. If you choose to distract yourself, utlisie a technique that makes you feel good and tops up your self-love tank!
2. Remember that it’s okay
There is nothing wrong with occasionally using food as a treat, celebratory tool, or pick-me-up. However, with the attachment of feelings of guilt to our actions a negative relationship with food, and ourselves, may start to develop; which may snowball overtime into something more complicated. Giving ourselves permission to eat what we want and when we want, can help remove some self-imposed pressure or guilt around food, and ultimately, hopefully leave us feeling more comfortable with our choices. So, you’ve had a bad day and want some chocolate? You can have chocolate, this is okay. Take the time to enjoy it.
3. Are you eating regularly throughout the day?
When we're hungry controlling food cravings or preventing overeating 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.
4. Try a distraction
Emotional eating can sometimes be fleeting - once the wave of emotion passes, you may feel fine with any desire to emotional eat having dissipated. During the ‘wave’, try doing an activity that will physically you remove from the environment you’re in, e.g. kitchen/living room/bedroom, that you may emotionally eat within. A distraction will help shift your focus, and you may find override the urge in that moment. 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
5. 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.
6. 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.
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 anxiety.
PLEASE NOTE: Emotional eating can be complex, with many factors coming into play that can affect our behaviour. Please - if you’re struggling at all it’s important to get the right help and assistance. Consider seeing professional for if required - the one you chose to see may depend on where you’re at. Yes, it can be difficult to talk about these things, but a trusted health professional (whether a psychologist, nutritionist, dietitian...) will help give you the tools in your toolkit to find your feet again.