There’s a reason why, after a sad break-up in a movie or TV show, we’ll see the character with a spoon in her hand and a bucket of ice cream on her lap, sitting next to a box of tissues (Note: I use women as an example here – both genders can be emotional eaters). Food, especially junk food, offers a sense of comfort and familiarity. No matter how unpredictable our life is, we can always depend on the fact that the triple chocolate ice cream, fries, and cookie dough will taste delicious.
We already know about the negative effects that stress can have on the body (let alone the emotional impact), but research has also shown a strong connection between stress and eating. Eating is a coping mechanism. It is also, however, a short-lived one, with both short-term (guilt, shame; nausea, indigestion) and long-term consequences. As Queendom research shows, people who are emotional eaters are more likely:
- To be overweight
- To have been diagnosed with an eating disorder
- To have confidence issues
- To have difficulty dealing with stress
- To be short-tempered and have difficulty dealing with anger in a healthy way
At this point, I’m going to assume that some people (mostly men, perhaps) will say that they don’t eat when they’re sad or upset. Contrary to what many believe, however, emotional eating isn’t limited to negative emotions. Ever find yourself heading to the kitchen when you’re bored? Do you mindlessly eat while watching TV? Anytime you’re eating for reasons other than physical hunger, you’re eating for emotional reasons – and you probably don’t even realize that you’re doing it. Case in point: I rarely, if ever, eat when sad, anxious, or upset. I do, however, eat mindlessly. In fact, as I was contemplating how to start this paragraph, I had unconsciously reached for – and eaten – the chocolate that was on my desk. It was delicious by the way. Was I hungry? Not even a little.
So how do you recognize and manage emotional eating? Here are a few tips:
- Learn to identify when you are really hungry. One critical component to ending (or preventing) a cycle of emotional eating is re-learning to recognize your body’s signals for hunger and satiety. This innate response has been lost on most emotional eaters. Most people no longer have the ability to recognize the difference between the biological need for food and the emotional need. Some tips for recapturing a sense of your appetite include eating on a schedule, moderating caffeine intake (because caffeine inhibits our sensation of hunger), and eating foods that are nutritionally satisfying.
- Write down what you are feeling. The most effective way to uncover reasons why you are over-eating is to keep track of your emotions or feelings before, during, and after an emotional eating session. You will probably see a pattern emerge (“Ah yes, I am worried about that presentation tomorrow”). Once you become conscious of your patterns and habits, you’re more likely to be able to break the cycle before it starts.
- Stock up on healthy food. According to a study by London researchers, the only difference between emotional eaters and non-emotional eaters isn’t the quantity of food they eat – it’s the quality. Emotional eaters are more likely to eat fattening, high-calorie food. If you feel a hunger urge coming on, reach for a healthy alternative instead. You’ll cut the fat and the guilt.
- Be kind to yourself if you do trip up. Remember, it takes time to recover from the habit of emotional eating. If you do overeat, let it go instead of beating yourself up about it. Sometimes, people who “fall off the wagon”, so to speak, give up entirely in the face of one setback. Instead, just pick yourself up and vow to overeat less and less frequently.
Tips on how to better cope with stress
- Exercise. Not only does regular exercise promote good health and high self-esteem, but according to research, it also helps battle anxiety and depression. Exercise releases tension and feel-good hormones. Try working out for a half hour or more at least 3 times a week. Choosing activities where you’re outside with nature is also a naturally soothing experience.
- Stop the rumination trap. Over-thinking problems in your life and allowing them to take over your thoughts can make the problem seem even more overwhelming. If you find yourself obsessing over a problem, make an effort to stop those thoughts in their tracks – pick up an engrossing book, watch a comedy on television, or go for a bike ride. Even saying the word “STOP” out loud or in your head can be surprisingly effective.
- Meditate. This relaxing activity allows you to detach from the clutter that fills your mind. Keep in mind that if you’ve never meditated before, it will be a struggle in the beginning to keep your mind from wandering. That’s normal. However, the more times you meditate, the better you’ll become at keeping yourself centered. Try focusing just on your breathing. You can also focus on background music, or a specific word, like “Ohm/Om.”
- Join a community. Any activity that will bring you together with like-minded people will help you increase your support base. While it may take time for you to feel comfortable opening up to new people, simply being around others is uplifting on its own.
Got any tips on how to stop emotional eating? Share it below!
Join me for next week’s discussion on career motivation!