If you ever reach for a chocolate bar when you’re feeling down, or tuck in to a big tub of ice cream when you’re upset then you’ve experienced emotional eating. Emotional eating is when we use food to make us feel better, rather than eating because you’re hungry. Doing this from time to time isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and using food to “celebrate” positive things in your life can be a really good thing – like a celebratory meal out with friends when you’ve passed your exams etc. In fact recent studies (Journal of Clinical Investigation) have shown that fatty foods can actually dampen our moods and reduce feelings of sadness and depression which is one of the reasons they are the types of foods we reach for when we feel those emotions. It can also make it much harder to beat this type of eating behaviour.
The problem comes when your main way of coping with emotional distress (stress, unhappiness, low moods etc) is eating. If your first impulse when you feel low is to open the fridge then your probably suffer from emotional eating, and as I’m sure you know, emotional eating doesn’t solve the emotional problem you’re facing. It may make you feel better for a few moments but it often makes you feel worse. You may feel guilty for overeating, or giving in to those cravings and then you get stuck in a vicious cycle of guilt, eating, more guilt etc. It also stops you learning healthier ways to deal with the emotions that led to you eating in the first place.
So – are you an emotional eater?
Do you eat when you feel stressed or worried? Do you eat to help you feel better? Do you eat even though you’re not hungry? Do you feel powerless when it comes to food? Do you always reward yourself with food?
If you answered yes to any of those questions then you’re an emotional eater. I think most of us are to a certain extent. I know that whether I’m hungry or not, my afternoon cup of tea with a slab of orange Willie’s chocolate is something I have to do – it lifts my spirits and is a little treat that keeps me going through the day. There’s nothing wrong with that – in moderation, the problem comes when you’re wading through 2 bags of giant chocolate buttons after a full dinner and dessert, just because you’re feeling rubbish… (and yes I do do that too!!). There is nothing worse than the feeling after you’ve given in to the craving – you feel like a failure right? You feel like you’ve undone any good you’d been doing in terms of weightloss etc, and you still don’t really feel any happier.
If you’re still not sure if you’re an emotional eater or not then try this online psychology test – here
So what can you do about it?
Recognise real hunger and emotional hunger. If you’re a regular emotional eater then it can be hard to tell the difference between real hunger and emotional hunger. So how do you recognise emotional hunger?
- Usually you will crave certain foods – for me it’s usually chocolate! In general it will be fatty or sugary foods that give you that instant satisfaction. Nothing else will do – we’ve all been there right? You’re craving chocolate so you try to eat something else, but just nothing will do and in the end you raid all the cupboards and go out and buy chocolate if you haven’t got any (or tuck in to the cooking chocolate – yes I have been known to do that too!).
- You get suddenly very hungry, very very quickly and the urge to eat is overwhelming.
- When you eat it’s mindless – you just shovel the food in without even really tasting it.
- Even when you’re full you won’t feel satisfied.
- It will feel like a craving, like a voice in your head telling you that you NEED to eat chocolate or ice cream or crisps etc, rather than those hunger pangs you get in your stomach when it’s a physical hunger.
- You will probably feel guilty afterwards.
Identify the triggers
Everyone will emotionally eat for different reasons. You need to identify your own triggers before you can start to prevent it happening. These triggers can be negative and positive so just have a think about which situations and feelings lead you to emotionally eat.
Stress can make you emotionally eat. This is both a mental and a physical craving though. When you are stressed you release the hormone cortisol. This causes the body to crave high fat, high sugar and high salt foods. So the more stressed you are – both physically and mentally, the more likely you are to emotionally eat.
Do you ever find that when you’re bored you reach for the food cupboard? I definitely do. Often we eat simply for something to do, to fill time, to procrastinate or in some cases to fill a feeling of emptiness or loneliness. Eating can distract you from feeling bored or lonely.
Social triggers are often extremely powerful – are there certain friends you only ever meet over a coffee/meal? It’s very easy to eat more than you need when you’re out for a meal with friends, simply because everyone else is eating or because you don’t want to be rude. You may find yourself eating to help combat nerves in social situations, or to fit in. Maybe your friends or family put pressure on you to eat? Offering you food even when you tell them you’re not hungry? Or getting upset when you don’t eat with them etc.
Humans are very good at forming habits. Often habits are formed because we make associations between certain things and memories or positive emotions. So if when you were a child you were rewarded for doing well at school with a takeaway pizza or ice cream you create a positive association with that food. For me I associate Saturday evenings with sitting down on the sofa, with my husband and cats, and a bag of chocolate while we watch a movie. This signals chill time to me, I associate it with feeling relaxed and happy. Now I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with that but I know that there are many times when I will sit down to watch TV and have that chocolate simply because of that habit, rather than because I really want the chocolate. It then becomes a habit I repeat every night, not just as a treat on a Saturday – and that’s when it becomes a problem.
Eating can also be a way to silence emotions you don’t want to face or deal with – anger, sadness, anxiety, loneliness etc While you are stuffing yourself with food you don’t have to face those other emotions.
So how many of those do you think apply to you? I think at times I’ve experienced all of them. Try to keep track of your pattern of emotional eating – keep track with a food and mood diary. If you can just try to jot down what you think triggered the eating. Usually in hindsight we can identify the cause. So try writing down what you ate (or what you wanted to eat), why you were upset, how you felt before and after. Do this for a few weeks and then see if you can spot any patterns. Maybe it’s certain people in your life that trigger the eating? Maybe it’s work-stress? Maybe it’s days you have time at home on your own to think? etc
Find other ways to deal with the triggers
You have to find ways to manage your emotions that don’t involve food or you will never be able to break the cycle. It’s easier said than done though right? But here are some alternatives that may help.
If you’re feeling lonely or depressed try calling or texting someone who always cheers you up, play your favourite music, cuddle your pet. If you’re tried then try taking a bath, have a nap, make yourself a hot cup of tea. If you’re feeling worried or anxious and feel full of nervous energy try to do something physical – go for a walk, dance around your kitchen to your favourite song (however silly you feel 😉 ), go to the gym or do some gardening. If you’re bored try watching some TV, reading a book, get outside for a walk or in the garden, or phone a friend. Another great tip is to try brushing your teeth – this can often kill the cravings pretty effectively.
Take away the temptation – don’t have stashes of the type of foods you know you crave in the house. If you have to go out to buy it you’re far less likely to give in to the craving. Equally don’t deprive yourself though, as soon as you label certain foods as 100% forbidden they become far more attractive, so allow yourself to have those foods now and then.
This is very easy to say when you’re not in the midst of a craving so try writing out a list of your triggers and alternative ways you can deal with them and stick it up somewhere obvious – so when the craving hits you can quickly look at the list. For example if boredom hits you can look at your list and know you can go watch the next episode of your favourite show, or when you’re feeling lonely you can hit speed-dial and call your best buddy etc.
What to do when cravings strike
When you get that craving it can be so sudden and overwhelming that you can barely wait to start eating. You may feel you have no power to stop it but you can. One simple step that can really help is to just wait 5 minutes before you give in. Tell yourself you can have whatever it is if you just wait 5 mins. If that’s too long then start with 1 minute. So you’re not stopping yourself, you’re just asking yourself to wait. While you wait try to figure out what’s triggering the craving – how are you feeling? You may still end up giving in but the more you do this the longer you will be able to wait, and the more often you will be able to resist the urge to eat. Also you will get a better understanding of your triggers.
Accept your emotions
Emotional eating is essentially avoiding dealing with your feelings by eating instead. Dealing with your emotions can be unpleasant, and it can be scary. You may worry that once you start you will just spiral further down that emotional rollercoaster and never get off. But when you face these emotions often they lose their power to control us. So it’s worth being mindful of your emotions and open to both negative and positive emotions. If you want to learn more about mindfulness and techniques to help you be more mindful then you can find out more at the Mental Health Foundation Be Mindful site here (including online resources, courses and links loads of great resources).
When you’re healthy, have had enough sleep, are fit and well fed you are much better equipped to deal with whatever life throws at you. If you’re exhausted, ill, or not giving your body the nutrition it needs then even the smallest thing can send you off the rails and cause you to emotionally eat.
So try to get regular exercise. As well as keeping you fit and healthy it will also reduce stress and release endorphins which are going to make you feel happier.
Schedule in chill time and give yourself permission to relax – for at least 30 mins every day. Connect with people – spend time with people who make you smile, who support you, who make you feel better about yourself.
Eat well – don’t skip meals and have regular healthy snacks throughout the day to keep your energy levels and moods up. Snack on foods that don’t feature in your cravings like nuts, dried fruits, rice cakes, fruit etc
Get enough sleep. Aside from affecting your mood being tired can actually affect you physically too and messes with the hormones that control your appetite. When you don’t get enough sleep your body releases more of the hormone ghrelin. This stimulates your appetite and makes you want to eat more than usual. At the same time the levels of the hormone leptin drop. Leptin affects how full you feel and when levels drop you don’t feel full and you keep eating. Lack of sleep can also make you feel more stressed which makes you eat even more! So lack of sleep = over eating.
If your emotional eating is out of control, or you’ve tried these self-help methods and it’s not working, then do consider speaking to a therapist or your GP for some professional help. You can find a local therapist from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy .