If you’re eating more than you’re hungry for, or more than you feel is appropriate, or you’re drawn to eat foods that you know aren’t in the best interests of your goals for health and wellness or weight loss, you’re using food to cope with stress. Guaranteed.
Emotional eating is turning to food for comfort, stress relief, or as a reward rather than to satisfy hunger. Most emotional eaters feel powerless over their food cravings. When the urge to eat hits, it’s all you can think about — you are eating to fill emotional needs, rather than to fill your stomach. Stress eating is particularly problematic when it is the primary way you calm and soothe yourself.
When eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism—when your first impulse is to open the refrigerator whenever you’re upset, angry, lonely, stressed, exhausted, or bored—you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the real feeling or problem is never addressed. Emotional eating provides a release from discomfort, providing a momentary sense of pleasure and satisfaction when you’re feeling something you don’t want to feel.
How Can I Tell if I am Emotionally Eating?
There are 4 tell-tale signs of comfort eating.
- You eat when you are not physically hungry. Consider how long ago it was since you ate. Was it 3 hours ago or a half hour? Is your body sending you any clear signals that you are hungry? Is your stomach grumbling? Are you low in energy?
- It is hard to find food that satisfies you. For this reason, you don’t stop eating when you are full. You may find yourself scavenging for food or eating things you don’t even like.
- Cravings are triggered by an emotion such as anger, anxiety, or boredom etc.
- Comfort eating has a mindless component to it. You may not enjoy or taste the food because you are eating it mechanically, as if in a trance. Imagine sitting in front of the TV mindlessly popping chips into your mouth.
Why is Food so Comforting?
There are many reasons food can be so seductive in moments of stress.
- Biology. When you are stressed out, your body is flooded with cortisol, a stress hormone, which makes you crave carbohydrates, sugar and fatty foods. Food is soothing due to the chemical changes it creates in your body. Chocolate is an excellent example. Chocolate boosts the “feel good” neurotransmitters and chemicals in your body that make you more alert and excited.
- Tune Out. Eating can be distracting. It can take your attention away from whatever is bothering you emotionally.
- Beliefs. You may also be conditioned to believe eating can ease pain. Many media ads push the therapeutic value of food. For example, a commercial may urge you to buy a particular candy because it will bring you “bliss” or “happiness.”
- Convenience. We enjoy things that are easy and convenient. Vending machines and fast food restaurants are always close at hand when you are fretting.
- Entertainment. It is difficult for many of us to deal with boredom and anxiety. Preparing food and eating it can be entertaining and fills gaps in time.
- Good Vibes. Emotional eating may be linked to your childhood. Perhaps home baked cookies or macaroni and cheese automatically trigger positive or comforting memories from the past.
Sometimes we’re so very concerned with what others think of us and feel about us that we’ll compromise ourselves time and time again just to avoid any possibility of judgement or rejection. We can’t possibly begin to feel safe in the world and the sense of peace and happiness and trust in ourselves that we need in order to cease using food to cope if we’re going to keep putting what others think of us ahead of how we feel and what we need.
Emotional abuse occurs when someone manipulates our feelings intentionally. As adults, we are ultimately responsible for what we choose to respond to and for how we choose to respond. The use of guilt, manipulation, and threats, as well as the withdrawal of love and affection, are all examples of emotional abuse. If our role models were unable to ask directly for what they needed while respecting our boundaries, should we say no to their request, it follows that we would mature into adults who feel unable to ask for our needs to be met.
Emotional neglect occurs when our most basic need for love and acceptance isn’t met. We all have a need for love and acceptance. It is natural, and it is our right as human beings to have that need met effectively and consistently. Sometimes when we do not receive consistent love and acceptance, we tend, to try to make sense out of the pain and suffering we feel by imagining that we are somehow to blame. Somehow, we are not good enough, not loveable enough, and so we don’t deserve love and affection. That is what we tell ourselves to make sense of the lack of healthy emotional connection in our lives. This is a common circumstance and it is a very harmful one. It sets the stage for the internalization of many critical messages.
A study in the Journal of Counselling Psychology, 2002, identified emotional abuse and/or emotional neglect as the experience in childhood most likely to lead to an eating disorder or sub-clinical disordered eating.
How to Stop Emotional Eating
The answer to overcoming the use of food to cope is not to ignore your feelings. The answer is not found in berating yourself for having feelings or for not being stronger and more able to cope with the traumatic events of your life.
Tell yourself that it’s OK to feel sad, mad, scared, tired — you name it. This includes those intense feelings of guilt or anger that tend to follow an emotional eating episode. Approach your feelings with kindness, and your body will begin to understand that it no longer has to overeat to protect you from your feelings. Plus, through listening to your emotions, you’ll discover what it is you truly want, and can create new strategies for deeper satisfaction.
You can start with a simple step. Make a list of what is stressing you, and make a plan to take control of the situation. If you can change the situation, go for it. If the problem is out of your control, you can manage the way you think about it. If you can notice your stress in the moment, you can choose how you respond, rather than reacting the way you have in the past.
Discover your triggers and strategize. If you know you eat when you’re lonely, plan to call a friend or write in your journal instead. Also, always carry food with you so that you never feel deprived. Emotional eating can be your body’s reaction to feeling deprived, so create new ways to nourish yourself. Stock your fridge with delicious, healthy foods, pack your calendar with exciting things to do, and be disciplined about setting aside time for yourself to relax.
Take the time to build trust in yourself, and in others, so that you can create the space for the compassion and love that you need. It is possible and so very rewarding for you to meet your own need for love and compassion. Doing so does not mean that you won’t get that need met outside of yourself – in fact it truly creates a far greater likelihood of getting the need for love and acceptance met in all areas of your life. It takes practice and finding creative, new ways to calm and successfully soothe yourself. The goal is to rewire your brain to identify non-eating behaviors as comforting.
If you take out stress eating, you have to put something in its place. Write down a concrete list of all the healthy, non-calorie related activities that give you a quick pick-me-up on a tough day. Give your body other ways to experience feeling good, aside from eating. Here a few simple examples.
- Sip black tea. A study in the journal of Psychopharmacology found that subjects who drank black tea experienced a 47% drop in their cortisol levels, the stress hormone that makes you crave food, compared to 27% among the subjects who drank a placebo.
- If a foot rub would hit the spot better than a snack, try self-message. It can be as simple as sitting down, taking off your shoe and placing your foot over a tennis ball. Rub your feet, one at a time, over the top of the ball until they feel relaxed and soothed. According to the study in the International Journal of Neuroscience , self-massage slows your heart rate and lowers your level of cortisol.
- Mindless eating soothes raw nerves by numbing out emotions. Munching gives you a moment to zone out from daily commotion and stress. Instead, actively choose a healthy way to clear your mind. Try a quick breathing exercise. Slowing down your breathing can trick your body into thinking you are going to sleep, which in turn relaxes your body. Close your eyes. Stare at the blackness of your eyelids. Slowly breathe in and out. Count each time you inhale and exhale. Continue until you get to 10.
- There are many ways to calm yourself without calories, such as journaling, meditation techniques, connecting with others, self-message, distraction, Emotional Freedom Technique, guided imagery and ways to pamper your senses. When you’re tempted to snack for emotional reasons, try moving instead. Try out these techniques when you aren’t craving food so you get them down pat before you really need them! You wouldn’t want to learn how to swim in rough water. Nor do you want to learn the art of soothing yourself without food on a very stressful day. With practice, you can end emotional eating.