How many times have you eaten too many chips during a sports event, or dished up an enormous bowl of ice cream because you’re feeling sad?
While overindulgence occasionally is just fine, eating to cope with emotions that you don’t want to face, might not be.
Emotional eating is more common than you might think. Research shows that 75% of all eating is emotionally driven. It is a way to escape, numb, or even amplify our feelings.
In some cases, emotional eating might tip over into addiction. Author and retired physician Gabor Maté defines addiction as “a complex psycho-physiological process manifested in any behavior in which a person finds pleasure and relief and therefore craves, but suffers negative consequences without being able to give it up… The issue is not the external target or the behavior — the issue is one’s internal relationship to it.“
There might be a fine line between the two, but here I am focused on the habit of emotional eating. If you do find that the definition of addiction rings true for you – especially if food is not the only substance you seek for comfort – you might consider professional help.
Back to emotional eating…
If you feel that you might be using food to provide comfort when you have strong emotions, here are some key questions to determine if you are an emotional eater:
- Do I eat more when I’m stressed?
- Do I eat when I’m not hungry or when already full?
- Do I eat to feel better (to calm and soothe when sad, mad, bored, anxious, etc.)?
- Do I reward myself with food?
- Do I regularly eat until uncomfortable?
- Do I feel powerless or out of control around food?
There’s a biological connection between emotional eating and stress. Stress produces cortisol and this hormone causes us to crave sugary, fatty and salty food. It’s actually a survival mechanism that we don’t need any longer.
The next time, you are faced with “hunger,” here are some key questions to ask to differentiate between what type of hunger you are feeling – physical or emotional:
- Emerges gradually and can be postponed
- Can be satisfied by any foods
- Once full, you are likely to stop eating
- Doesn’t cause feelings of guilt
- Feels sudden and urgent
- Causes specific cravings for things like pizza, ice cream or candy
- Increased likelihood to eat beyond physical fullness
- Likely results in feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment
Changing the pattern of emotional eating is a long-term journey. There are some things that are useful as first steps.
One method that can help is becoming more mindful around food, eating patterns and behaviors. It is helpful to keep a journal or food log where you record what is eat, the day and time, what you were doing/thinking/feeling right before you ate, if you were physically hungry or not. Additionally, it is helpful to consider how you felt after you ate. For instance, did you feel overly full, guilty, ashamed or even angry with yourself? These are all valid observations to record. The point with the journal is not to try to “fix” anything, but to notice patterns and begin to label feelings built up around foods.
Once you have begun a food journal, there are other methods you might employ to work through a tendency to emotionally eat:
- Find another way to de-stress – maybe a walk, bath, reading might work
- Make sure you get enough rest – lack of sleep can exacerbate stress and emotional eating
- Be aware of environment – if certain people or situations trigger mindless eating, consider foregoing those for a period of 14-30 days
- Make sure you are well hydrated – often times our bodies confuse hunger with thirst. Next time you feel hungry, drink a glass of pure water
- Avoid the mad rush for food at the end of a long day when motivation to eat “healthy” has waned – this is where meal prepping comes in handy