Do you eat more when you’re stressed?
Do you keep eating after you’re full?
Do you eat to find comfort and to feel better?
Is food ever a reward for you?
Does food make you feel safe?
Do you ever feel like food controls you?
Do you eat when you’re bored?
If you answered yes to many of these, you’re probably an emotional eater.
Emotional eating is using food to fill emotional needs rather than to satisfy hunger. It becomes your primary coping mechanism when you’re angry, sad, bored or tired. Often, emotional hunger hits suddenly and is accompanied by a negative emotion. You eat mindlessly to soothe yourself, and that usually leads to feelings of guilt and shame.
Maybe you’ve never thought about eating in this way; most people don’t.
But what brings about this connection between food and emotion?
One big way our brains tie emotion to food is through advertising. Food companies work hard to connect the two. Because people rely on emotions to make brand decisions, most viral ads rely heavily on emotional content such a friendship, warmth, inspiration, and happiness. Our brains begin to make those connections, and we believe that if we eat certain foods, we will experience positive emotions.
Think about the Coca Cola company for a minute. Throughout the years, they’ve been telling us that their products will bring happiness with slogans such as “Have a Coke and a smile,” “Life Tastes Good,” and “Open Happiness.” Because few people question these “truths,” we buy their products and believe that we are happier, even though sodas are chock-full of sugar and chemicals, and they can lead to obesity and diabetes.
And have you ever thought about the term “Happy Meal”? Come to McDonald’s. Eat this meal. Be happy.
The result of this kind of marketing? We start to believe that if we go without a certain food or eating habit, we can’t be happy anymore. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, “I can’t give up sugar!”
So where does all of this emotional eating lead?
The feelings that trigger emotional eating don’t go away after you consume the food.
Eating for comfort is a temporary fix. While you mindlessly down the doughnuts, you think you feel better, but when the food is gone, the feeling goes with it. So what do you do next? Get more food. You find yourself becoming addicted to this way of numbing the pain, so you want it more and more.
Let’s say your sadness comes from feeling lonely. You just wish you had someone to spend time with you and love you. But you don’t, so you grab that tub of ice cream and mindlessly eat it while you binge-watch the latest popular show on Netflix. When that ice cream is gone and you’ve reached the last episode in the series, you’re still lonely. You haven’t fixed anything. You haven’t faced your problem.
Emotional eating causes you to gain weight and/or become unhealthy.
Your body is made to tell you loud and clear when it needs more energy. Physical hunger is how you know it’s time to refuel. Eating based on emotional hunger causes you to take in too many calories because you don’t stop eating when your body is full. And when you take in more than you burn off, you gain weight.
Another aspect of this is that, usually, the types of foods you choose when you eat for comfort aren’t exactly the best, healthiest choices. We have created a term in America, “comfort food,” and it seems to be acceptable to eat things like ice cream, pastries, and french fries when we want to feel better. There is evidence that suggests that junk food desensitizes the pleasure center of your brain, causing you to eat more and more unhealthy food, searching for the euphoric feeling that food can bring. Another study found that fatty foods affect the brain in much the same was as cocaine and heroin.
Some of the most addictive foods are pizza, ice cream, cake, bacon, sugared soda, cheeseburgers, french fries, popcorn, cheese, rolls, fried chicken, chocolate, and packaged cookies. These are exactly the kinds of foods we reach for when we eat emotionally, aren’t they?
Emotional eating leads to feelings of guilt and shame.
Very often, I hear things like “I am so disgusted with myself. I eat terribly, then I feel awful about it, so I eat some more.” This is a detrimental cycle, but it’s all too common.
Emotional eating can make you feel trapped and out of control, or rather under the control of your food. If you feel that you can’t stop eating in ways you know you shouldn’t, you may lose hope and willpower, causing you to give up altogether because you don’t think you can beat it anyway. This can lead to depression, which leads to more overeating… you get the picture.
But there is hope!
How can you stop this emotional eating monster?
Know your triggers
Common triggers are stress, boredom, loneliness, depression, and general avoidance of emotions. Another trigger is childhood habits; perhaps you were rewarded with food as a child, and you’ve carried that habit into adulthood, connecting happy feelings with food.
Find alternatives to food when your triggers hit
Find ways to retrain your brain and fulfill those needs in other ways. Here are some ideas:
Stress– deep breathing, getting outside, drinking water, journaling
Boredom– reading a book, working on a hobby (or starting a new one!), calling a friend
Loneliness– reaching out to a friend, making new friends, getting involved in a local community or church group
Depression– making yourself get up and so something productive, even if it’s small (If you think you might be clinically depressed, please consider seeing a counselor and getting the help you need.)
Avoidance of emotions– facing your fear of feeling too much. If you can face your emotions, even the bad ones, in a healthy way, you won’t need to use food to mask those feelings anymore.
Eat mindfully and intentionally
Plan your meals and snacks, and only have healthy options in your kitchen. If you know that emotional eating is a temptation for you, remove the unhealthy foods. This will give you a huge headstart!
Savor your food, take small bites, eat slowly. Have you ever put down your fork in the middle of a meal to really taste your food?
Limit your portion sizes, only eat when you’re (physically) hungry, keep a food journal, and know the nutritional value or harm of every food you put into your body. Eat with intention. Your body is a machine, and you should only fuel it with the things it is meant to process. I guarantee you that your body wasn’t made to thrive off doughnuts and Oreos. You might as well try to drive your car after filling the gas tank with koolaid. You won’t make it very far, will you?
Find pleasure in other areas
If you’re looking for comfort, find other ways to get it. Take a long bath to relax. Curl up on the sofa under a cozy blanket and read your favorite novel. Drink a steaming cup of herbal tea and mindfully breathe it in as you sip it.
Invite your friends over for a game night. Make some memories!
Have a plan already in place
You know your triggers are going to hit; be ready for them. Have an alternative way to face each one and work through it without having to ever open the pantry or the fridge. If you can satisfy those pleasure centers of your brain with things other than food, then pretty soon you won’t even crave it!
Your brain will always find a solution; you just have to give it more options than it thinks it has.
What are some other triggers for emotional eating and how can we replace the bad habits with good ones?