Emotional eating can wreck your weight-loss efforts and sabotage your health goals. But what it is? Here we will discuss emotional eating, why we do it, and how to break the habit! The good news is that if you’re prone to emotional eating, you can take steps to regain control of your eating habits and get back on track with your health.

What is Emotional Eating?

“Emotional eating” is a term used to describe the act of using food to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness. It isn’t only major-life-events that can trigger negative emotions.  More commonly the hassles of daily life can trigger negative emotions that lead to emotional eating.  These triggers might include:

  • Relationship stress or conflict
  • Stress at work (including long hours or night shift work)
  • Fatigue
  • Financial pressures
  • Health problems

Stress eating is a real phenomenon, and its affects us more often than you think. If continued over the long term, emotional eating can backlash leading to severe physical health issues.

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Photo by Luísa Schetinger

Why do we do it?

There are some people who eat less when they encounter strong emotions, but for many of us, the opposite is true. Emotional distress can cause us to turn to food for comfort. Food is seen as an escape, instantly evoking feelings of comfort, happiness, and relaxation. However, when we “eat our emotions” we can quickly turn to impulsive or binge eating and consuming whatever’s convenient without even realizing what we are eating! And of course, the food choices that bring the most comfort are high-calorie, low-nutrient choices: macaroni & cheese, bacon, pizza, chips, chocolate, ice cream….

This can lead to an automatic response for us to turn to food because our emotions are so strongly tied to it. You can quickly develop a habit of automatically reaching for food whenever you’re angry or stressed as a way of coping.

Food can also serve as a distraction. If you’re worried about an upcoming event or stressing over a conflict, you may turn to eating comfort food as a way of taking a break from the painful situation.

Whatever emotions drive you to emotionally eat, the end result is often the same. The effect is temporary, the emotions return, and you fell guilt about the set-back in your health goals. This leads to an unhealthy cycle — your emotions trigger you to overeat, you beat yourself up for binging unhealthy food, which in turn makes you feel bad and causes you overeat again.

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What are the bad-effects of Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is not just a mental aspect but equally impacts your physical health too. It leads to serious fluctuation of body weight, hunger hormones, and sleep hormones.

  • Poor Emotional Health: Emotional eating results in food becoming your only source of comfort. By not finding other ways to deal with stress and emotions, you cannot break the cycle. Everyone needs a way to decompress and deal with stressors in life.
  • Medical Health Issues: Uncontrolled and unhealthy eating will take a serious toll on your physical health in the long run.  Extra abdominal weight increases the risks of diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disorders.
  • Sleep disturbance: Eating late at night can lead to acid reflux disease which interferes with your sleep. This can lead to a bad cycle of waking up more tired each morning, making you more susceptible to poor food choices, and likely to overeat during the day.
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Photo by Kinga Cichewicz

How can I tell if I am an Emotional Eater?

One of the first steps in recognizing that emotional eating is affecting your health is to identify triggers. Here are some ways to can tell if you’re simply eating to satisfy your emotions rather than using food as fuel:

  • You eat when you are Stressed: Any emotional turmoil in your day ends with you seeking solace in food.
  • There is no control over your urges to eat: No matter how much you try, you simply cannot control your eating urges. You know that you shouldn’t eat but you give in anyway because of the stressors of the day and justify it.
  • Your body weight Fluctuates: You do well with healthy daily living most days, but one bad day at work, or a stressful week sends you into a binge of unhealthy food habits. You easily gain weight without even realizing it.
  • Food cravings hit you even when you aren’t hungry: Random food cravings set in regardless of whether you’re hungry or not. And you often fall prey to these food cravings.
  • Eating comforts you or signals a “break”: You find emotional comfort in eating because it uplifts your mood and recharges you mentally. You notice that your diet and eating habits are strongly linked to your emotions and stress.
  • You rarely feel truly hungry: You don’t have true hunger pains and find yourself constantly feeling bloated from emotional eating.

These are just a few ways to tell if you are an emotional eater. The first step to changing this habit is to recognize that you do it. Once you realize that you use emotional eating to cope with stress, you can move on to the next step of treating it accordingly.

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So How do I get back on Track?

Although it may be quite a challenging task, controlling your emotional binge eating urges is possible!

  • Keep a food Journal. Write down when you eat, what you eat, and what you are feeling when you eat. This can help identify a pattern in order to be able to correct unhealthy habits and create awareness!
  • Use Stress Management Techniques. Try actions such as yoga, meditation or deep-breathing to calm your stress and decompress during the day. Using these techniques throughout the day to keep stress low will prevent stress build-up and the need to come home and cope by emotional eating.
  • Healthy quick-food options. Keep snack options ready that you enjoy eating but are filling and low-calorie alternatives. For example, steamed cauliflower with shredded cheese or cut-up veggies with low-fat dip are good options. You can read this post about “Tricking your Tastebuds” for more ideas and food tips.
  • Avoid eating just because you’re bored. The best way to tell hunger from boredom is to ask yourself “would I eat an apple or broccoli right now?” If the answer is “yes,” then you’re probably hungry. But if the answer is “no,” think of a different activity that you could do instead.
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Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes
  • Eat mindfully. In other words, every time you eat, portion your plate, sit down at a table, and focus only on eating. It takes approximately 20 minutes for your mind to signal that you are “full,” therefore removing distractions helps prevent overeating. Don’t eat in front of the TV, or in bed, or at your desk. Train your mind to consider the act of eating as a hunger-triggered event only.
  • Get support. If you are struggling with emotional eating, join a support network. This is one reason that groups such as Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig are successful. You identify and encourage others that are going through the same thing!
  • Take away temptation. Try to avoid keeping comfort food in the house or easily accessible. Pack lunch for days when you aren’t at home, eat a healthy breakfast, and don’t skip meals.
  • Don’t deprive yourself. There is a difference between eating a balanced diet vs emotional eating. If you want to go out for wings and beer with friends, do that. However, be aware of why you are doing what you’re doing. Don’t grab binge-worthy food to cope with stress.
  • Learn from setbacks. As with most things, change takes time. This is a process. You will have good days and bad days. You may find that sometimes you stress-eat. Forgive yourself and start fresh the next day. Try to learn from the experience and make a plan for how you can prevent it in the future. Celebrate the times when you DON’T emotionally eat. Focus on the positive changes you’re making in your eating habits and give yourself credit for making changes that’ll lead to better health.

When to seek Professional help

If you’ve tried self-help options but you still can’t control emotional eating, consider professional help. Join a support group or seek the skills of a mental health therapist. This can help you understand why you eat emotionally and learn coping skills for the future. Visit my Coaching page to find out how I can help your with this and other personal wellness coaching topics.

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Sarah
Hello! My name is Sarah and I am a Wellness Coach and Healthcare Provider with 15 years of experience. I am passionate about intentional, balanced living and created this blog to help others live a mindful life focussed on Self Care! Here you will find resources covering topics from health, finance, self-discovery, psychology, to balance, mindfulness, and intentional living. Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions.

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