Stop Emotional Eating

Written By: Heather
Heather Kempton Coquitlam Couples Counsellor

How to Recognize and Stop Emotional Eating

It’s the reason why so many diets fail: We don’t always eat just to satisfy hunger. Many of us also turn to food to relieve stress or cope with unpleasant emotions such as sadness, loneliness, frustration, or boredom. Often leading to feelings of guilt and shame, contributing to a sense of powerlessness and loss of control. By practicing mindful eating, you can change the emotional habits that have sabotaged your nutrition in the past, and regain control over both food and your feelings.

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is using food to change your emotional and mental state therefore, eating to satisfy emotional needs, rather than to satisfy physical hunger. You might reach for a jar of peanut butter when you’re feeling down, reach for candy if you’re bored or lonely, or swing by the drive-through after a stressful day at work.

Having treats or food on the unhealthier side is not a bad thing when made with a healthy mindset. Meaning you are aware of why you are choosing this type of food, and you are not experiencing feelings of guilt, shame or sense of powerlessness. However, when eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism—when your first impulse is to open the refrigerator whenever you’re stressed, upset, angry, lonely, exhausted, or bored—you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the real feeling or problem is never addressed.

Emotional hunger can’t be alleviated with food. Eating may feel good in the moment or distract you from the feelings you are trying to avoid, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there. And you often feel worse than you did before because of the unnecessary calories you’ve just consumed in combination with the digestive discomfort that may be felt.

No matter how powerless you feel over food and your feelings, it is possible to change your mindset and gain control over daily decisions associated with food. You can find healthier ways to deal with your emotions, learn to eat mindfully instead of mindlessly, regain control of your body composition, and finally put a stop to emotional eating.

Are you an emotional eater?

  • Do you eat more when you’re feeling stressed?
  • Do you eat when you’re not hungry or when you’re full?
  • Do you eat to feel better (to calm and soothe yourself when you’re sad, mad, bored, anxious, etc.)?
  • Do you reward yourself with food?
  • Do you regularly eat until you are uncomfortably full?
  • Does food make you feel safe? Do you feel like food is a friend?
  • Do you feel powerless or out of control around food?

The difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger

Emotional hunger can be powerful, so it’s easy to mistake it for physical hunger or dehydration. But there are clues you can look for to help you tell physical and emotional hunger apart. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. It hits you in an instant and feels overwhelming and urgent. Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes on more gradually. The urge to eat doesn’t feel as dire or demand instant satisfaction (unless you haven’t eaten for a very long time).

Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods, being different for each individual. When you’re physically hungry, you may be more inclined to fuel your body with nutritionally dense food. When experiencing emotional hunger on the other hand, you typically crave junk food that provide an instant rush like sugary or salty foods with little nutritional density.

Emotional hunger often leads to mindless eating. Before you know it, you’ve eaten a whole bag of chips or an entire pint of ice cream without really paying attention or fully enjoying it. When you’re eating in response to physical hunger, you typically feel more in control of your nutritional choices. Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied once you’re full. You keep wanting more and more, often eating until you’re uncomfortably full and possibly even feeling sick. On the other hand, you feel satisfied when your stomach is full when you are responding to physical hunger.

Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach. Rather than a growling belly or a pang in your stomach, you feel your hunger as a craving you can’t get out of your mind. You are focused on specific textures, tastes, and smells.

Emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, or shame. When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you’re unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed because you’re simply fuelling your body for what it needs. If you feel guilty after you eat, it’s likely because you know deep down that you’re not eating for nutritional reasons.

Identify your emotional triggers to eat

What situations, relationships, places, or feelings make you reach for the comfort of food? Most emotional eating is linked to unpleasant feelings, but it can also be triggered by positive emotions, such as rewarding yourself for achieving a goal or celebrating a holiday or special event. Common causes of emotional eating include:

Stress – Ever notice how stress makes you hungry? When stress is chronic, your body produces high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and fried foods —foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure. The more uncontrolled stress in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief.

Numbing emotions – Eating can be a way to temporarily silence or “numb” uncomfortable emotions, including anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, resentment, and shame. Numbing yourself with food allows you to avoid the difficult emotions you’d rather not feel.

Boredom or feelings of emptiness – Do you ever eat simply to give yourself something to do, to relieve boredom, or as a way to fill a void in your life? You feel unfulfilled and empty, and food is a way to occupy your mouth and your time. In the moment, it fills you up and distracts you from underlying feelings of purposelessness and dissatisfaction with your life.

Childhood habits – Think back to your childhood memories of food. Did your parents reward good behaviour with ice cream, take you out for pizza when you got a good report card, or serve you sweets when you were feeling sad? These habits can often carry over into adulthood. Or your eating may be driven by nostalgia—for cherished memories of grilling burgers in the backyard with your dad or baking and eating cookies with your mom.

Social influences – Getting together with other people for a meal is a great way to relieve stress, but it can also lead to overeating. It’s easy to overindulge simply because the food is there or because everyone else is eating. You may also overeat in social situations out of nervousness. Or perhaps your family or circle of friends encourages you to overeat, and it’s easier to go along with the group.

Identify other ways to feed your feelings

If you don’t know how to manage your emotions in a way that doesn’t involve food, you will find it challenging to maintain consistency in following a nutritionally dense eating plan. Diets so often fail because they offer logical nutritional advice which only works if you have conscious control over your eating habits and have adapted a healthy way of coping with stress and emotions. It doesn’t work when emotions hijack the process, demanding an immediate payoff with food. In order to stop emotional eating, you have to find other ways to fulfill yourself emotionally. It’s not enough to understand the cycle of emotional eating or even to understand your internal and external triggers, although that’s a huge first step. You need healthier alternatives to food that you can turn to for emotional fulfillment and coping with stress.

Alternatives to emotional eating

If you’re depressed or lonely, call a supportive friend, play with your dog or cat, read a good book, or choose an activity to do that you enjoy.

If you’re anxious, expend your nervous energy by dancing to your favourite song, squeeze a stress ball, or engage in exercise. Moving the body can help tremendously in changing your mindset when experiencing anxiety.

If you’re exhausted, treat yourself with a hot cup of tea, take a bath, light some scented candles, or wrap yourself in a warm blanket. Give yourself permission to take a moment to relax and get yourself into a calm state.

If you’re bored, read a good book, watch a comedy show, explore the outdoors, or turn to an activity you enjoy (woodworking, playing the guitar, playing sports, scrapbooking, working out etc.).

What is mindful eating?

Mindful eating is a practice that develops your awareness of eating habits and allows you to pause between your triggers and your actions. Most emotional eaters feel powerless over their food cravings. When the urge to eat hits, you feel an almost unbearable tension that demands to be fed, right now. Because you have tried to resist in the past and been unsuccessful, you believe that you are a failure and do not possess willpower. But the truth is that you have more power over your cravings than you think. You need gain a better understanding of your relationship with food and the behaviours you choose to manage your emotions and stress. It is therefore, essential to identify healthy alternatives to emotional eating in order gain awareness and control over your emotions.

Take a moment before you give into a craving

Emotional eating tends to be automatic and virtually mindless. Before you even realize what you’re doing, you’ve reached for a tub of ice cream and polished off half of it. But if you can take a moment to pause and reflect when you’re hit with a craving, you give yourself the opportunity to make a different decision.

Can you put off eating for a few minutes? Don’t tell yourself you can’t give in to the craving; remember, the forbidden is extremely tempting. Just tell yourself to breathe and bring your attention to the present moment.

While you’re waiting, check in with yourself. How are you feeling? What’s going on emotionally? What do you need? Even if you end up eating, you’ll have a better understanding of why you made a particular choice. When identifying your current mindset you will bring more awareness and a sense of control to feeling more confident about making a healthier choice in the moment.

Learn to accept your feelings

While it may seem that the core problem is that you’re powerless over food, emotional eating actually stems from feeling powerless over your emotions. You don’t feel capable of dealing with your feelings head on, so you avoid them with food.

Allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable emotions can be scary. You may fear that, like Pandora’s box, once you open the door you won’t be able to shut it. But the truth is that when we don’t obsess over or suppress our emotions, even the most painful and difficult feelings subside relatively quickly and lose their power to control our attention. To do this you need to become mindful and learn how to stay connected to your moment-to-moment emotional experience. This can enable you to rein in stress and repair emotional problems that often trigger emotional eating. Here is a list of 6 steps to mindful eating:

  1. Begin with your shopping list. Consider the health value of every item you add to your list and stick to it to avoid impulse buying when you’re shopping. Fill most of your cart in the produce section and avoid the centre aisles—which are consumed with processed foods—and the chips and candy at the check-out counter. Prior to grocery shopping check in with how you are feeling emotionally and if you are hungry. You are more likely to buy more and be tempted by less nutritional dense food when feeling emotional distress or hunger.
  2. Come to the table with an appetite—but not when ravenously hungry. If you skip meals, you may be so eager to get anything in your stomach that your first priority is filling the void instead of enjoying your food. Be conscious of how much water you are consuming daily, as often people reach for food when dehydrated.
  3. Be aware of how much food is required to fuel your body for optimal performance. It may be helpful to limit the size of your plate to nine inches or less. Some find it helpful to measure their food portions to what corresponds to their nutritional needs. You can gain more awareness on what your body requires by working with a nutritionist.
  4. Appreciate your food. Pause for a minute or two before you begin eating to contemplate everything and everyone it took to bring the meal to your table. Silently express your gratitude for the opportunity to enjoy delicious food and the companions you’re enjoying it with.
  5. Bring all your senses to the meal. When you’re cooking, serving, and eating your food, be attentive to colour, texture, aroma, and even the sounds different foods make as you prepare them. As you chew your food, try identifying all the ingredients, especially seasonings. Become present with how your body and mind are feeling while you are eating. Give yourself 10 to 15 minutes before returning for seconds, giving your body and mind time to process the food you have just consumed.
  6. Take small bites and chew thoroughly. It’s easier to taste food completely when your mouth isn’t full. Put down your utensil between bites. Put down your electronic devices or stay away from eating in front of the tv, as we often eat more when we are distracted. Chew well until you can taste the essence of the food. (You may have to chew each mouthful 20 to 40 times, depending on the food.) You may be surprised at all the flavours that are released and how much this helps in the digestive process.

In all, changing your mindset can transform the way you think about food and set the stage for a lifetime of healthy nutritional habits. Like most of us, you’ve probably eaten something in the past few hours. And, like many of us, you may not be able to recall everything you ate, let alone the sensation of eating it. Because we’re working, driving, reading, watching television, or fiddling with an electronic device, we’re not fully aware of what we’re eating. By acknowledging that you have  control over the food you choose to eat and believe that you are capable of focusing, you may find a higher rate of success in fuelling your body with nutrition dense foods when hungry. In essence, mindful eating means being fully attentive to your food—as you buy, prepare, serve, and consume it.

If you are struggling with maintaining consistency with healthy nutritional habits or are experiencing a sense of powerlessness and guilt around food, please feel free to contact Heather Kempton for support in helping you regain control over your nutritional habits and emotional mindset.