At the end of a long, hard day, or after a bad meeting, most of us look for some comfort food to negate feeling bad. We’ve seen this move replayed in pop culture so many times that we know that a girl eating ice cream straight from the tub wearing her pyjamas means that she is trying to get over a horrible experience. Unfortunately, some people tend to forge a seemingly unbreakable link between making themselves feel good and food.
What is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is when you gravitate towards food to feel better regardless of whether you are hungry or not. The precursor to emotional eating is negative emotions such as anger, stress, or sadness. Whenever an emotional eater feels these emotions, they will reach out to a bag of chips or cookies. Most of the types of foods associated with emotional eating are high in salt, fat, or sugar, as these are known to cause a spike in our mood. After eating, though you might feel a temporary high, you will also experience an emotional low.
What Causes Emotional Eating?
There is a whole list of reasons behind emotional earing, that psychiatrists and doctors are still researching. For some, a stressful event or life change might cause emotional eating. Being fired from your job or moving to a new city might cause stress, which might make you turn to food. There are also those individuals who have formed a habit or a connection between feeling better and consuming food. Getting through traffic, or the days leading to an office evaluation, or just plain anxiety can seem to be placated through food.
There can also be a history of childhood trauma or abuse where the child learns to hide away emotions, which they feel they can’t express safely, behind food.
How to Distinguish Between True Hunger Cues and Emotional Cues
Emotional hunger might seem closely related to real hunger, but there are several signs that you can look out for to tell the difference. One of the main things to look out for is whether you are experiencing any negative emotions. While a negative sentiment does not mean that you are only emotionally hungry, its presence is worth stopping for a minute to assess your hunger.
Emotional hunger tends to develop suddenly unlike physical hunger which builds up slowly. If you are feeling emotional hunger, you might also feel strong cravings that you must satisfy immediately. Finally, even after eating your fill, emotional eaters do not satiate their hunger pangs.
Possible Side Effects of Emotional Eating
For some, emotional eating does not develop into something that can potentially harm them. Unfortunately, they seem to be in the minority. Here are some side effects of emotional eating:
1. Developing an Eating Disorder
If the link between negative emotions and the food is not broken, some people can develop eating disorders ranging from stress eating disorder to bulimia to binge eating. These disorders are very serious and can affect your health adversely.
2. Stomach Pain or Nausea
Emotional eaters tend to eat a lot of food very quickly. This tends to add stress to the digestive system which could lead to the formation of gas or discomfort that can last for days. Most of the food associated with emotional eating is not healthy, and this can add further stress to your stomach.
3. Weight Gain
If you emotionally eat regularly, it might lead to weight gain and the many problems associated with it. A high BMI indicates a propensity to heart disease, diabetes, fatigue, and high cholesterol. Since the consumption of food is firmly linked with emotions, you might find it hard to eat healthy to lose weight.
How to Stop Emotional Eating – 10 Best Ways
There is no particular way to stop emotional eating; different things work for different people. Here are the 10 best ways for you to approach emotional eating and possible solutions that may work for you.
The first aspect of stress eating to address would be the root cause. In most cases, emotional eating is triggered by some form of psychological strain or mental strain. This can range from the loss of someone to move to a new city. When you consider that almost any aspect of life can be traumatic, you also begin to understand that emotional eating is a coping mechanism. Counselling through certified counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists will help you implement healthier coping mechanisms and address the underlying issue. They also can help you address the emotions that lead to eating and find activities and solutions that work for you.
2. Food Journals
Often, those who eat emotionally do it in a manner where they are not conscious of it. There is no complete emotional eating cure, but a great start would be understanding when and how much you are eating. This can be done by keeping a food journal. In the journal, you enter the food you eat and the time you ate that food. You can also write the emotions you experienced while eating that food to help you identify if you are emotionally eating. Start by writing what you eat after you eat and gradually build it into a practice where you write it before you eat. The second step can help you stop emotional eating.
3. Don’t Avoid Food
One big mistake that a lot of people who eat emotionally make is the assumption that comfort eating can be cured by crash diets or denying yourself any cravings you may have. This usually strains your mind quite heavily and leads you to substitute one craving or addiction for another. With food, it also leads you to eat more than you normally do. A great approach to this is by giving in to your cravings but limiting your portion size. For example, if you crave chips, don’t eat a whole pack, take a small bowl, fill it and munch on it. This helps limit quantities and satisfy your cravings.
4. Ignore ‘How-to’ Books
Never go through self-help books to cure your emotional eating. There is little evidence that books like these work, and most of the writers only write about surface level solutions that do not delve into the deep psyche. This is where the root cause of all emotional eating is. Another important fact is that these books write about parts of a solution that worked for them, never the whole thing. It’s been proven that these books lead you to eat more and develop self-esteem issues rather than cure the actual problem.
A change in scenery can help you identify your emotions. By travelling, you expose yourself to more cultures, traditions and larger aspects of society. Solo-travel also gives you time and space to figure out your emotions and thoughts. Travelling with a partner helps you confide in a person and build bonds. Visiting different landscapes can alter brain chemicals. Travel can help you experience joy and combat the negative emotions that lead to stress eating.
6. Stock Up on Healthy Foods
Stress or comfort eating usually tends to push you to eat whatever is in proximity. Stock your kitchen up with nuts, fruit, veggies and fibre crackers. This way, you will be eating a healthy snack. When your body is physically healthy, it often handles mental stress better; this is why junk food leads to emotional eating. The nutrients in junk food promote negative brain chemicals, de-regulates adequate blood circulation and mess up your digestive tract. Healthy food does the opposite and helps avoid emotional eating.
Trauma and depression are the leading causes of emotional eating. Exercise releases endorphins and dopamine in your brain. This helps to remove mental strain which in turn, helps you manage the depression or keep it at bay. Exercise also acts as a cathartic release and an escape from traumatic events. You think better when you work out regularly. This can also help you manage and channel emotions into a healthy activity which helps you cope with trauma in a healthier way than using food.
8. Learn Something New
Learning new activities keeps dementia and Alzheimer’s at bay. It also activates your brain and keeps you in generally high spirits. It is also known that learning new things can help you manage your emotions and deal with all sorts of trauma.
Meditation helps you stay calm. It also gives you an emotional balance and helps you come to terms with trauma. Doing this regularly with exercise helps you stop emotional eating.
10. Talk to Your Loved Ones
Sometimes, the emotions you feel can manifest in destructive ways. This can be avoided by something as simple as communicating with your partner or loved ones. Psychologists recommend communicating with loved ones about your emotions, trauma and strains because it acts as a source of emotional acceptance. The support of your loved ones also helps improve your mood. Sometimes, all you need in your fight against emotional eating is an ally to help you fight it.
Heavy strains in your mental and emotional health often cause emotional eating. The best solution for this is prevention. Do something for yourself every week, rest well, exercise regularly and come to terms with all the good and bad emotions. Talk to a psychologist if you feel you are emotionally struggling.