What is emotional eating?
We don’t always eat just to satisfy physical hunger. Many of us also turn to food for comfort, stress relief or to reward ourselves. Emotional eating is when you use food to make yourself feel better. Using food as a reward or to celebrate isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism this can have unhealthy consequences. For instance, when your first impulse is to open the refrigerator whenever you’re stressed, upset, angry, lonely, exhausted or bored you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the real feeling or problem is never truly addressed.
IDENTIFYING YOUR TRIGGERS
Which situations, places, or feelings make you reach for the comfort of food?
Stuffing your emotions
Eating can be a way to temporarily silence or “stuff down” uncomfortable emotions including anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, resentment and shame. While you’re numbing yourself with food, you can avoid the difficult emotions you’d rather not feel.
Boredom or feelings of emptiness
Do you ever eat simply to give yourself something to do, to relieve boredom, or as a way to fill a void in your life? You feel unfulfilled and empty, and food is a way to occupy your mouth and your time. In the moment, it fills you up and distracts you from underlying feelings of purposelessness and dissatisfaction with your life.
Think back to your childhood memories of food. Did your parents reward good behaviour with ice cream, take you out for pizza when you received a successful report card, or serve you sweets when you were feeling sad? These habits can often carry over into adulthood.
Ever notice how stress makes you hungry? It’s not just in your mind. When stress is chronic, as it so often is in our chaotic, fast-paced world, your body produces high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and fried foods—foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure. The more uncontrolled stress in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief.
Getting together with other people for a meal is a great way to relieve stress, but it can also lead to overeating. It’s easy to overindulge simply because the food is there or because everyone else is eating. You may also overeat in social situations out of nervousness. Perhaps your family or circle of friends encourage you to overeat, and it’s easier to go along with the group.
Find other ways of feeding your feelings
If you don’t know how to manage your emotions in a way that doesn’t involve food, you won’t be able to control your eating habits for very long. Diets so often fail because they offer logical nutritional advice which only works if you have conscious control over your eating habits. It doesn’t work when emotions hijack the process, demanding an immediate payoff with food.
In order to stop emotional eating, you have to find other ways to fulfill yourself emotionally. It’s not enough to understand the cycle of emotional eating or even to understand your triggers, although that’s a huge first step. You need alternatives to food that you can turn to for emotional fulfillment.