Your day has been long. It seems like the morning started out with stress that you carried with you right into your work day, where nothing went well. Dragging yourself home after work, you pick up dinner from a drive thru then find yourself sitting on the couch, eating a bag of chips, a handful of cookies, and maybe some popcorn or ice cream later on. You aren’t hungry, but you can’t seem to feel full or satisfied. At bedtime, you feel sick, exhausted, and no better than you did when you got home. This is emotional eating, and it’s more common than you think.
What is emotional eating?
So, what is emotional eating? Simply put, it’s eating based on your emotions rather than your needs. More than one in three adults in the U.S. report stress or emotional eating. Of those adults, nearly half practice emotional eating once a week or more. This type of eating, motivated as it is not by hunger or to match activity, can cause many different health problems, including obesity, cardiovascular illness, and diabetes.
Emotional eating is often related to not only stress but also anxiety and pain. Anxiety and pain both cause a deeply emotional response. Those who turn to emotional eating for comfort or relief from stress, anxiety, or pain may be making their feelings even worse as they feel guilt or shame for their actions. If there are children in the house observing the behavior, that can add stress and anxiety as well.
Fortunately, there are ways to reduce or eliminate emotional eating.
1. Keep healthy food in the house
While this does not address the quantity component of emotional eating, it does help tremendously with the quality part. You may still feel the urge to binge eat as an emotional response, but if your available choices are fresh fruit and vegetables, this limits the weight gain that is often associated with emotional eating.
If your kids see you eating like this, it looks to them as if you are simply getting extra vegetables. Until you can address the underlying issues that are prompting your emotional eating, this is a good place to start.
2. Keep a journal
This may seem like a catch-all suggestion, but keeping a regular journal of your moods, activities, and foods may help you to see what patterns trigger emotional eating. Remember the answer to “what is emotional eating” – it’s any eating that’s triggered by emotions. By keeping a journal, maybe you will notice stress around certain events or types of events, or maybe it is people in your life who are difficult for you and cause stress or anxiety.
This journal can be doubly important for pain patients. A journal that tracks what you are eating along with your physical and emotional response can be invaluable when it comes to identifying food triggers for pain. It’s hard to say what comes first: pain that triggers emotional eating, or vice versa. A journal can help you find out.
3. Substitute something positive for emotional eating
Many times we eat because we are bored. Emotional eating is the extreme version of that. The fact remains, though, that emotional eating fills time in the day. To help you stop, you will need to find something positive as a substitute. Maybe it’s a class you have always wanted to take. Maybe it’s a daily walk with friends, or maybe meeting someone for tea. Perhaps it can be as simple as quiet time with a book.
Whatever you choose, make sure that it is something that fills you up and adds to your life. Trying to calm your anxiety, pain, or stress with a high-stress, demanding activity may be counter-productive.
4. Practice self-care
Self-care can include things like relaxing baths with aromatherapy, a massage, or a quiet time and space for meditation. When you are trying to reverse the deeply-held patterns of emotional eating, it is crucial to take care of your body, physically and mentally.
Self-care can also include meditative exercise like yoga or alternative therapies like acupuncture. A qualified acupuncturist will be able to help you relax and perhaps relieve some of the emotions that are triggering your eating.
5. Don’t hide from negative emotion
As a human being it is impossible to only experience positive emotion. There will be times when you feel sad, scared, mad, lonely, anxious, and frustrated. Rather than seek temporary pleasure and suppressing of those feelings, tell yourself that it’s okay to have them. They will pass, and they are part of your entire experience. Give yourself permission to feel whatever you are feeling without judgment.
Sitting with your negative feelings and allowing them to happen can also help you to get to the depth of why you are prompted to eat when you are feeling emotional.
6. Eat only when you are hungry
This is harder than it seems. We are programmed for three squares a day with some snacks, but many people just aren’t that hungry. Eat only when you feel actual hunger. If you are not ravenous at a “regular” mealtime, it’s okay to either eat very lightly or just wait until you feel hungry.
The other side of the coin is to not skip meals if you are, in fact, hungry. You are re-learning to listen to your physical body and what it needs. If you are truly hungry, do not deprive yourself. Eat a healthy meal.
7. Practice mindful eating
This last tip goes hand-in-hand with eating when you are hungry. Mindful eating is the practice of paying very close attention not only to eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full but also to the act of eating itself. Reading, playing on your phone, or watching TV while you are eating can cause you to consume many more calories during the meal without really having experienced the pleasure of any of them.
Eat slowly, with relish. Savor each bite of food, whether it is a luxurious dinner out or a simple piece of toast. Sit quietly, chew slowly, and enjoy each meal. Consider the sharp contrast between this way of eating and reaching repeatedly into a bag of chips on the couch. Which will ultimately bring the most pleasure?
Are you now or have you been an emotional eater in the past?