Emotional Eating: The hunger that can’t be fed

I’m a unique emotional eater. If I’m anxious or worried about something, my appetite is non-existent. Same goes for sadness or anger. My nemesis is idleness. If I’m bored, I’ll switch to the Food Network…and by that I mean my pantry. “Chip Battles,” starring me, with a special guest appearance by my love/hate partner, Chef Tater Tots. Because emotional eating isn’t limited to intensely negative emotions. Even joy can trigger a fast-food fest; just think about how often we celebrate a special occasion (promotion, retirement, anniversary) with food.

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A break-up can spark an all-out emotional eating binge, as can a stressful, crappy day at work. But not all emotional eating triggers are clear-cut. Based on data we collected for Queendom’s Emotional Eating Test, here are a few less obvious ones:

  • 91% of emotional eaters in our study have a tendency to focus on upsetting situations in their life, and are excessive worriers.
  • 75% tend to keep problems to themselves rather than seeking emotional support or professional guidance.
  • 93% are “body-shamers,” and constantly criticize their appearance. Nearly all of them have self-esteem issues.
  • 88% find themselves battling with a constant fear of rejection from friends, family and partners.
  • 85% feel like victims, and see themselves as having little control over their fate.
  • Like me, 89% tend to get bored easily.
  • 75% have an immediate need for gratification; they lack patience and hate waiting for things to happen.
  • 83% have difficulty controlling their anger, and tend to get upset over seemingly minor issues.
  • More than half (53%) admitted that growing up, their parents were very controlling.
  • 89% indicated that they have persistent feelings of emptiness.

It took me a long time to realize that I was an emotional eater, but more importantly, that the binge-eating was only ever a cover for the real problem: My inability to deal with whatever was bothering me before I reached for the fries, be it my frustration with a certain aspect of my life, my mother, or the burden of worries that I tend to carry around like a fashion accessory. I hate how I feel before I reach for the junk food, but I feel even worse after. Moreover, I’ve realized recently that I’m not just addicted to the comfort food, but also to the need for comfort. The bottom line for emotional eaters is that until we find what’s missing in our life, whether it’s love self-acceptance, forgiveness, courage or purpose, we will never be satiated.

In my constant battle with the fridge, the fries, and my bucket of crispy emotions, I’ve come across a few tips that have helped keep things under control most of the time:

  • Write down what you are feeling. The most effective way to get to the bottom of an ice-cream eating binge is journal writing. Try keeping track of your emotions or feelings before, during, and after an emotional eating session. You will probably see a pattern emerge. In time you will be able to identify your negative emotions in an objective way, accept them, and ultimately, to let them wash over you. Remind yourself often that your emotions are in a constant state of flux. Desires, emotional suffering, and fears will pass if you don’t allow them to take over your life.
  • Learn to identify when you are really hungry. One critical component to ending the 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. I like to rate my hunger on a scale from 0 to 10. If I’m at a 7 I’ll get something to eat. Avoid waiting too long though, or that famished feeling will compel you to eat too much, too quickly.
  • 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. Now, if you’re like me, having both junk food and healthy food in the house just won’t work: There is no way an apple is ever going to win a fight over a corn dog. The point is, if the tempting food isn’t there, the temptation will fade. In fact, just seeing the celery in my fridge would kill my desire to give in to emotional eating. And then I developed a taste for home-made kale chips (chop it up in chunky pieces, top with olive oil and sea salt…damn yummy). 
  • Don’t be afraid to get professional help. If you really feel that you can’t effectively deal with the emotions that lead to your emotional eating (particularly in relation to past trauma), seek out the help of a counselor or psychologist. They might be able to help you pinpoint your trigger and offer tips to help you overcome it.

“Gluttony is an emotional escape, a sign something is eating us.”

Peter De Vries

Insightfully yours,

Queen D

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