Easy Tips To Curb Emotional Eating
Did you finish a bag of chips out of boredom? Turning to food when our emotions run high is a common practice, but when does it get harmful? Here’s everything you need to know about emotional eating.
At any given time, we feel a wide range of complex, intense, and sometimes uncomfortable emotions, depending on what we are thinking of at the moment. Pretty much everything we do is in some way, is driven by our emotions, and so is our desire to eat.
Some of us seek comfort in food when our emotions run high. And there is nothing wrong with that. However, often the comfort we seek is soon washed away with the feeling of guilt after eating.
The act of eating is considered an inherently satisfying behaviour, confirms a 2015 study published in the Journal Of Food Quality and Preference. After all, we rely on food to survive. However, some say that eating to cope with stress isn’t actually healthy. According to Dr. Lakshmi Kilaru, Ph.D. Food science and nutrition, and Head Holistic Nutritionist for UR Life, eating out of emotions, rather than hunger, is called emotional eating.
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What Is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is a practice where you find comfort in food. It becomes a routine, where you’re rewarding yourself with food or treating yourself with food in order to overcome complex emotions. Thus, you’re not just eating to satisfy your physical hunger, rather, you’re actually eating to soothe your emotions.
The act of eating fuels a cycle of an unhealthy relationship with food, accompanied by guilt and unhealthy changes within the body. It is worth asking whether that cycle of eating and guilt is being used to ignore or mask other issues or emotions that one is hesitating to deal with. This reduces a person’s ability to be in touch with their inner self. Accordingly, Dr. Lakshmi suggests that emotional eating is not a medical problem, it is related to one’s thoughts.
Emotional eating can come with problems, it can affect you physically; overeating can reduce your energy level; you might feel bloated; or experience headaches or general discomfort. In some cases, emotional eating can take serious forms. Dependency on food, overeating, binge eating, can give rise to serious eating disorders. At such times, comfort eating can turn detrimental and cause the person to face physical complications.
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True hunger vs. Emotional hunger
Doesn’t activate specific cravings
Makes you crave for specific comfort foods (e.g. chocolate or pizza)
Makes you eat normal amount of food
Can make you eat more than you normally would
Doesn’t develop guilt afterward
Is likely to cause feelings of guilt afterward
What Can Trigger Emotional Eating?
First things first, food is easy to get. It’s easily available out there. Especially in times of discomfort, images of our favourite comfort foods clouds our mind. Remember when was the last time you reached for a bowl of ice cream after an argument with a friend?
According to Dr. Lakshmi, mostly stress, and boredom, can lead to emotional eating. She says that “eating gives us something to do, a task. When we are upset, we reach out to certain comfort foods to balance out our emotions”
Some other reasons for emotional eating include:
- Anxiety: feeling anxious is a common trigger leading to comfort eating. Remember a day before an exam or an important presentation, when you felt anxious about your performance and this made you reach out for a chocolate bar.
- Fatigue: it is easier and more likely for you to eat emotionally when you’re tired, especially after an unpleasant task. It makes you seek immediate gratification after being tired of doing something.
- Loneliness: being alone or feeling lonely is another very common instance that can trigger the craving for comfort foods.
- Stress: in this chaotic, fast paced world, your body produces a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol triggers cravings for fried, salty, and sweet comfort foods, which are known to give you a burst of pleasure and energy. Thus, the more you are surrounded with stressful situations, the easier you would find yourself reaching for comfort foods.
- Childhood habits: feelings of nostalgia, or missing particular moments from your past can make you crave for comfort foods.
- Social influence: it is easier to eat, or rather overeat, when you are surrounded by people. The reasons behind it can be maybe, maybe you are nervous because of being in a social situation; or you are tempted to eat just because everyone else is eating. At times, you may also find a friend who may negatively encourage unhealthy eating habits within you.
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How To Stop Emotional Eating?
Curbing emotional eating is easier said than done. It requires a conscious effort, and determination to be able to stop turning to food for comfort. According to Dr. Lakshmi, eating should be its own activity, instead of being mood driven. She says that emotions should be dealt with, with help from friends and family rather than associating them with food. Here are some ways that Dr Lakshmi recommends to break the cycle of seeking temporary wholeness through emotional eating.
Dr. Lakshmi shares some tricks to separate emotions from food:
1. Think about the healthier alternatives
If you’ve had a bad day, instead of approaching your fridge directly, consider talking to a friend, or writing it down in a journal. Rather than eating your feelings, deal with them. In order to deal with your feelings, sit with them. Try going for a walk, or reading a book. This can help you distract your mind and focus on the positives. It will give you time to cool down after a heated situation. More conscious ways include self-talk. Ask yourself why you’re feeling the way you are, and what is the most appropriate choice of dealing with it.
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2. Keep track of what you’re eating
When you maintain a food journal, you are better able to track what you’re eating, why you’re eating, and when you’re eating. Along with writing what you’re eating during the day, also record why you ate it, or how you were feeling while eating it. This will help you assess where you’re making the wrong or unnecessary food choices. Eventually, your relationship with food will improve as you’ll reduce your temptations of reaching for food when in stress, for instance.
3. Keep healthy snacks readily available
If you are aware that you may turn to carbonated drinks as you have a number of meetings lined up during the day, keep them far from your reach. Instead, have healthier juices on your hand. When you have healthier snacks on your hand, you won’t binge on high-calorie hyper-processed foods in times of stress.
4. Build Self-Awareness
Being self-aware means that you are aware of what, when, and why you’re eating. When you are aware of your food choices, you are better able to see what is beneficial for your health. It also allows you to regulate your emotions well, and make better decisions. Use self-awareness to cut negative self-talk and practice being kind toward yourself.
A 2014 study published in the Eating Behaviours journal provided considerable support for meditation in dealing with emotional eating. Deep breathing is one of the simplest forms of meditation. All you need to do is focus on your breath, breathing in and out of each of your nostrils. Meditation soothes your mind by calming the rush of thoughts causing you to eat impulsively.
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Extra Tips To Stop Emotional Eating
1. Ask yourself if you are really hungry, or do you just want to eat because you’re feeling like it?
2. Sit with your feelings and journal them. Keeping a record of your feelings can help you to assess when your feelings take a high turn and how you are dealing with them.
3. Check if you are neglecting your feelings by reaching out to food as a form of comfort.
4. Once you realise the association of your food patterns, start eating mindfully.
5. Take a break. Whenever you feel that you are tempted to eat, take a break to consider what is actually bothering you. During this time you can wonder if you are actually hungry, or are just using food as a comfort against a stressful situation.
6. Seek help from family and friends who can help you curb emotional eating.
7. Stand up and get your body moving. A 2009 study published by the Cambridge University Press showed that performing yoga enhanced the participant’s emotional insight. Going for a jog/walk, or performing a yoga quickie and getting you distracted from the emotional void.
8. Pay attention to the quantity of food you are consuming.
9. Minimise distractions. How often do you eat while in front of the TV or your phone? When we don't pay attention while eating, we can easily lose track of how much we’ve eaten. Focusing on each and every bite can help you discover that you might be ignoring true hunger cues.
10. Engage in positive self-talk. Emotional eating can result as a consequence of feelings of guilt, and shame. It is beneficial to talk positively with oneself.
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When Should I See A Doctor?
According to Dr. Lakshmi, seeing a counsellor rather than a doctor is a better approach, as what needs to be fixed are emotional triggers. She believes that emotional eating should not be thought of as a medical problem. It is an opportunity to get in touch with your feelings and emotions. Constant hard work will eventually lead to a better understanding of yourself. But beware that if left unaddressed, stress-eating or emotional eating can lead to more severe eating disorders like binge eating. Thus, whenever you feel that your eating cycle is way out of control, consider seeing your doctor. Your doctor can refer you to a counsellor to manage your emotions if needed.
This article has been verified by Dr. Shreya Chakravarty, Psychologist, Apollo Health City.