Emotional eating is the bane of most of my clients. In fact, I posit that you’d be hard-pressed to find a man or a woman who hasn’t felt the pull of emotional eating at one point or another in their life. What is this phenomenon that draws so many good-willed, healthy eaters to the dark side?
By definition, emotional eating is the act of using food to make you feel better – eating to satisfy emotional needs, rather than to satisfy physical hunger. It can also be considered to be a numbing and unconscious way of eating that can lead certain people to spiral out of control.
But how can you tell the difference between emotional hunger and real hunger?
What Exactly Is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is normally something that happens very suddenly; it’s something that we need now and, often, the urge to get that treat is the only thing on your mind until you get it. When we are hungry, the feelings and urges are slightly different. Yes, we need food, but there is a practical nature to our thought patterns. You may think about when, what, and how you will get your next meal in a much more measured way.
Often, when we eat emotionally, it’s with a sense of abandon – mindless as opposed to mindful. When you are actually hungry, you are more aware of the food you are eating.
Emotional eating is not driven from the stomach but actually from the mind. Your brain knows it can get a quick hit of dopamine from food, and that powerful pathway is stamped on the brain to be called on when needed. The more we do it, the stronger it gets. And we don’t stop when we are “stomach full”; we will keep going until we feel physically stuffed, and often uncomfortably so!
We call on treat food when we are eating emotionally – it’s what we feel we want. This is usually anything carb heavy with a large amount of complex sugars, which can include the likes of pizza, cookies, or ice cream, but it’s not restricted to those types of food. In many of the situations that lead you to emotional eating, your body is just looking to feel good, and it associates certain types of foods or eating situations with that.
After a bout of emotional eating, however, we often end up feeling bad, guilty, and shameful with a strong sense of regret. Those emotions aren’t associated with “normal” eating when we know that the food we’ve just ingested was necessary to feed our bodies.
The next time you think about eating, stop and ask yourself: Is this a physical or an emotional hunger? Reflect on why you are hungry as well; have you not eaten since breakfast, or have you just had an uncomfortable conversation? This will help you recognize your triggers.
Recognizing Your Triggers
Recognizing the triggers or things that have an effect on emotional eating is essential, and this type of preparation can be a great strategy to stop emotional eating in its tracks. Start a food journal or a “note” on your phone and write these down to keep track of them. Try to draw conclusions, parallels, or patterns between different times, emotions, and foods to really understand your comfort eating.
Triggers that play a role in emotional eating are PMS, feeling lonely or bored, good behavior, or feeling low. The first step is to try and identify these triggers. The next one is to find a strategy for how to deal with each one. For example, if you normally reach for a bar of chocolate when things get stressful at work, can you replace that with a visit to the nearest coffee shop to grab a takeaway coffee or tea? This will help you get out of the office, get some fresh air, and avoid that chocolate. If you know you can’t go into a certain cake shop without getting your favorite cake, then you could try going somewhere else instead or eating something before you go so that you are not hungry when you are in there.
Try and write a go-to list of five non-food treats or distractions to help you when the urge comes over you. These could be going for a walk, phoning a friend, making a hot herbal tea, putting on your favorite show, or even journaling. If all else fails, try looking at clothes online as a distraction – because nothing takes your mind off things like online shopping, right? – or taking some deep breaths to get back in touch with your physical being.
Tips & Tricks
Mindful eating is a great way to try to get back in touch with your body. It’s often a disconnect between body and mind that leads to out-of-control emotional eating. It’s that feeling of powerlessness that can be a repeated point of defeat. When all the thoughts and desires are actually in your head, the key to overcoming these strong, overwhelming feelings is to start to get back in touch with your body.
Take your time and make sure you are always seated for every eating experience, no matter how small. When you sit down to eat or first hold your food in your hands, take a few deep breaths. Before you eat, express gratitude and take a second to readjust yourself, making sure you are seated with a correct posture. Often, when we are comfort eating, we will scoff down food while we are walking, standing, or in such a hurry to eat that we are hunched over the table. Take small bites and really appreciate the food you are getting. Chew your food thoroughly, taking small breaks to put your fork down. Get in touch with your senses, like the sight, smell, texture, taste of what you’re eating.
Also, you might want to make sure that you are eating enough. Often, we reach for the reward or treat-based food when we are in a state of depravation. Eating good, nutrient-rich food will make us less likely to grab that treat when we are feeling stressed, under pressure, or upset. Also, make sure you are drinking enough water because dehydration can make us feel hungry when in fact we are just thirsty.
Another thing you need to be aware of is how cravings are hugely increased when you don’t get enough sleep. Have you ever wondered why you feel ravenous when you are tired?
This boils down to two specific hormones, which are at play during our sleep. They are leptin, an appetite-suppressing hormone, and ghrelin, an appetite-increasing hormone. An insufficient amount of sleep will cause the appetite-suppressing leptin to decrease and ghrelin to increase. This explains why you feel hungrier when you are tired. In layman terms, when your body is tired and not feeling great, it will push you to find foods that provide quick and easy energy – i.e. carbs. Make sure you are getting enough sleep.
Finally, treat all food as equal, thereby trying to eliminate the “treat” mentality.
Be Kind to Yourself
The practice of self-love is really the key to freeing yourself from emotional eating for good. Believe it or not, being an emotional eater can help you get more in touch with that side of yourself. The fact that you are so tuned in to your emotions means you can use this sensitivity in a positive way.
Often, emotional eaters or serial dieters really believe that their weight and their relationship with food are not within their control. To start believing that you can be in control is the first step. Swapping these ground-in negative thoughts for one powerful positive statement can have a significant effect on getting you on the path to self-love.
Approaching food from a place of love and respect for our bodies will start to change the way we look at ourselves. Only then can we begin to find peace.
A powerful exercise consists in finding an affirmation that you repeat five times every morning and five times every night while looking in the mirror. Here are a few you could try, or you could write your own:
I set myself free from all the guilt I carry around the food I chose in the past.
I choose to love, respect, and honor my body.
I no longer need or crave foods that don’t improve my health.
I am worth the energy, time, and effort I spend on caring for my body.
Let Go of Perfection
Everywhere we look, everywhere we go, we’re bombarded with images of perfection, from the models on the covers of magazines to super-toned, -ripped, and -skinny fitness influencers on social media. It’s hard to ignore and it’s no surprise that we would struggle with our own image as a result.
Practicing self-care can get us back in touch with our inner selves, starting with something as simple as buying nutritious fuel for your body, taking a five-minute breathing break, signing up for a yoga class, or reading a book. Whatever it is, make it about you and indulge in some real “me” time.
Challenge your inner voice. We give way too much significance to the voice in our head and challenging it can have significant positive ramifications. We think the voice in our head is right, but we are actually the ones writing the script. I often suggest to my clients to rewrite that script to one they want to hear. It can be as simple as choosing a different set of words – try it. Instead of listening to that voice tell you that you are not enough every day of the week, flip the script to something like, “I am enough, I am loved, and I am worthy, just the way I am.”
Learn to love your uniqueness and enjoy the authenticity that comes with it. Only then will you begin overcoming these pressures and start to live a more fulfilled life. Practicing gratitude is a really basic and effective way to start to practice self-love.
“Many people think of perfectionism as striving to be your best, but it is not about self-improvement; it’s about earning approval and acceptance.” – Brene Brown
Tayyaba Jordan is a Health Coach based between London and Dubai. To book an appointment with her, click here.