Eating serves a useful purpose: it supplies your body with the energy and nutrients it needs. Eating also has a secondary purpose: it offers pleasure.
Who doesn’t enjoy eating something that tastes good? Unfortunately, the pleasurable aspects of food make it easy to turn to when you’re feeling stressed or dissatisfied. Food becomes a source of comfort and serves as a coping mechanism.
What is emotional eating anyway?
Emotional eating refers to consuming food and beverages for reasons other than true hunger. Eating emotionally is usually a response to stress or serves as a way to avoid dealing with anxiety-provoking issues. Most people who are emotional eaters don’t eat the “good for you” stuff like fruits and vegetables. Instead, they turn to “comfort” foods, ones high in fats and sugar. As a result, emotional eating often leads to weight gain.
Why are some people emotional eaters?
In some cases, emotional eating is a learned response. When the going gets tough, you reach for a cookie or a brownie instead of confronting the problem. Doing this makes you feel good, at least temporarily. You feel anxious or stressed, so you again snack on comfort food to avoid having to directly deal with something that’s bothering.
Eating and snacking when you’re stressed can be a distractor you so you can delay having to deal with a problem or conflict. People have different ways of coping with stress. Some people go out and take a walk or shoot a game of basketball. Others turn to food to feel better. Unfortunately, eating in response to stress doesn’t solve the problem. It only creates a new one – weight gain.
There are physiological reasons why emotional eating is so rewarding. Foods high in carbohydrates boost levels of a brain chemical called serotonin. Serotonin is linked with feelings of well-being and comfort – just what you need when you’re feeling anxious.
Dealing with emotional eating
To get a grip on emotional eating, you first have to be aware you’re doing it. Start by keeping a food journal for three weeks. In your journal, write down when you ate, what you ate and how much. Most importantly, rate your level of hunger on a scale of one to five when you ate it. Jot down how you felt at the time too. Were you feeling calm and happy or stressed and frazzled? Do this religiously and you’ll begin to see whether you’re eating when you’re not hungry or stressed out. Once you recognize these patterns, learn to rate your hunger BEFORE eating something. If it’s not at least 3 out of 5 on the hunger scale, do something else instead.
Another approach to dealing with emotional eating is to adopt alternative stress-relief techniques. Deep breathing, visualization, self-hypnosis and meditation can all help you deal with stress, anxiety and uncertainty. Next time you’re tempted to bite into a chocolate chip cookie when you’re not hungry, take a short walk instead. Walking is a healthy way to clear your head and one that doesn’t involve food. When you repeat this behavior numerous times, it’ll become a habit. When the going gets tough, you’ll automatically take a walk or meditate rather than reach for a candy bar.
Make sure you’re getting enough sleep at night, at least seven hours of uninterrupted sleep. Skimping on sleep increases levels of a stress hormone called cortisol and cortisol drives cravings for sugary foods.
Seek help if necessary
If you can’t gain control over emotional eating by yourself, ask for help. A counselor can help you identify what’s triggering your emotional eating and teach you more constructive techniques for dealing with stress.
The bottom line
You can break the cycle of emotional eating and find healthier and more constructive ways to deal with stress. When you do, you’ll be healthier and feel better about yourself.