Many of us also turn to food for stress relief, comfort, or as a reward. If you’re an emotional eater, you may feel powerless over your food cravings.
When the urge to eat hits, it’s all you can think about. Afterwards, you feel even worse. Not only does the original emotional issue remain, but you also feel guilty for overeating.
We have to change emotional eating to mindful eating.
Did you know you can learn to pause between the trigger and your response, change the emotional habits that have sabotaged your diet in the past, and regain control over both food and your feelings? You can turn your diet into a lifestyle that will last forever, and have healthy consequences.
Emotions can drive our eating behavior.
If you’ve ever made room for a sweet treat after a meal even though you’re already full or dove into a bag of cookies when you’re feeling down, you’ve experienced emotional eating. Emotional eating or stress eating is using food to make yourself feel better. Eating junk to fill emotional needs, rather than to fill your stomach with nutritious food, is an attempt to fill a void.
Using food from time to time as a pick me up, a reward, or to celebrate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism – 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 addressed.
Emotional hunger can’t be filled with food.
Eating may feel good in the moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there. And, you often feel worse than you did before because of the unnecessary calories you consumed. You feel guilty for overindulging and not having more willpower. Your body is distressed from the huge stress of trying to handle the caloric load.
No matter how powerless you feel over food and your feelings, it is possible to make a positive change. You can find healthier ways to deal with your emotions, learn to eat mindfully instead of mindlessly, regain control of your weight, and finally, put a stop to emotional eating.
Ask yourself these questions to determine if you’re driven by emotions to indulge in excessive and unhealthy foods:
- Do you eat more when you’re feeling stressed?
- Do you eat when you’re not hungry or when you’re full?
- Do you eat to feel better (to calm and soothe yourself when you’re sad, mad, bored, anxious, etc.)?
- Do you reward yourself with food?
- Do you regularly eat until you’ve stuffed yourself?
- Does food make you feel safe? Do you feel like food is a friend?
- Do you feel powerless or out of control around food?
The Differences Between Emotional and Physical Hunger
Emotional hunger comes on fast and with a vengeance.
It hits you in an instant and feels overwhelming and urgent. Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes on more gradually. The urge to eat doesn’t feel as dire or demand instant satisfaction (unless you haven’t eaten for a very long time).
Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods.
When you’re physically hungry, almost anything sounds good, you just want something fast. Emotional hunger craves junk food or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush. You feel like you need cheesecake or pizza, and nothing else will do.
Emotional hunger often leads to mindless eating.
Before you know it, you’ve eaten a whole bag of chips or an entire pint of ice cream without really paying attention or fully enjoying it. When you’re eating in response to physical hunger, you’re typically more aware of what you’re doing.
Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied once you’re full.
You keep wanting more and more, often eating until you’re uncomfortably stuffed. Physical hunger, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be stuffed. You feel satisfied when your stomach is full.
Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach.
Rather than a growling belly or a pang in your stomach, you feel your hunger as a craving you can’t get out of your head. You’re focused on specific textures, tastes, and smells.
Emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, or shame.
When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you’re unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed because you’re simply giving your body what it needs. If you feel guilty after you eat, it’s likely because you know deep down that you’re not eating for nutritional reasons.
Identify Your Emotional Eating Triggers
What situations, places, or feelings make you reach for the comfort of food? Most emotional eating is linked to unpleasant feelings, but it can also be triggered by positive emotions, such as rewarding yourself for achieving a goal or celebrating a holiday or happy event. Here are some common causes of emotional eating.
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, it leads to high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet, fried and sugary foods – foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure. The more uncontrolled stress you have in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief.
Hiding Emotions with Food
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 emotions you’d rather not feel.
Eating Because You’re Bored
Do you ever eat simply because you are bored, looking for something to stimulate your brain, 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.
Childhood Memories and Habits
Think back to your childhood memories of food. Did your parents reward good behavior with ice cream, take you out for pizza when you got a good report card, or serve you sweets when you were feeling sad? These emotionally based childhood eating habits often carry over into adulthood.
Or, perhaps some of your eating is driven by nostalgia – for cherished memories of going for pizza with your brother, baking and eating cookies with your grandma, or gathering around the table with your extended family for a home-cooked pasta dinner.
Social Settings that Influence Emotional Eating
Getting together with other people for a meal is a great way to relieve stress, but often leads to overeating, or eating when you are not really hungry. 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 encourages you to overeat, and it’s easier to go along with the group. People associate life with food.
Find other ways to feed 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 always fail, you feel like you will “DIE” on them. Diets don’t work when emotions hijack the process, demanding an immediate dose of a sugary treat that sabotages all your efforts .
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.
Click here for more on overcoming food triggers.
How to Stop Emotional Eating
- If you’re depressed, sad or lonely, call someone who always makes you feel better, play a card game, or read a good book.
- If you’re anxious, go for a walk, get a massage, or listen to music.
- If you’re exhausted, treat yourself with a hot cup of tea, take a bath, listen to soft music, or go to bed early.
- If you’re bored, read a good book, watch a comedy show, explore the outdoors, or turn to an activity you enjoy (woodworking, playing the guitar, bowling, scrap booking, etc.).
Use mindful eating to press the pause button when cravings hit.
Mindful eating is a practice that develops awareness of eating habits and allows you to pause between your triggers and your actions. Most emotional eaters feel powerless over their food cravings. When the urge to eat hits, you feel an almost unbearable tension that demands to be fed, right now.
Because you’ve tried to resist in the past and failed, you believe that your willpower will fail you. The truth is that you have more power over your cravings than you think.
Take a 5 minute pause break before you give in to a craving.
Stop and put down the fork. Emotional eating tends to be automatic and virtually mindless. Before you realize what you’re doing, you’ve reached for a tub of ice cream and polished off half of it and are searching for more. If you can catch yourself and take a moment to pause and reflect when you’re hit with a craving, you give yourself the opportunity to make a different decision.
Can you put off eating for five minutes? Or just start with one minute. Don’t tell yourself you can’t give in to the craving; remember, the forbidden is extremely tempting. Just tell yourself to wait.
While you’re waiting, check in with yourself. How are you feeling? Do you need this food? What’s going on emotionally? Even if you end up eating, you’ll have a better understanding of why you did it. This can help you set yourself up for a different response next time.
Learn to accept your feelings, the good and bad ones.
While it may seem that the core problem is that you’re powerless over food, emotional eating actually stems from feeling powerless over your emotions. You don’t feel capable of dealing with your feelings head on, so you avoid them with food.
Allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable emotions can be overwhelming at first. You may fear that they will overtake you. The truth is that when we don’t obsess over or suppress our emotions, even the most painful and difficult feelings subside relatively quickly and lose their power to control our attention.
To do this you need to become mindful and learn how to stay connected to moment to moment experiences. This can enable you to re invent how you handle stress and repair emotional problems that often trigger emotional eating.
You might also enjoy: How to Overcome Emotional Eating Habits
8 Steps to Mindful Eating
- Begin with your shopping list. Consider the health value of every item you add to your list and stick to it to avoid impulse buying when you’re shopping. Fill most of your cart in the produce section and avoid the center aisles—which are heavy with processed foods. Detour the chips and candy at the check-out counter.
- Come to the table with an appetite. Develop an awareness of hunger and don’t get too Hungary between meals. If you skip meals, you may be so eager to get anything in your stomach that your first priority is filling the void instead of enjoying your food.
- Start with a small portion. Always use the smallest plates! We usually only need half of what our eyes tell us
- Appreciate your food. Pause for a minute or two before you begin eating to contemplate everything and everyone it took to bring the meal to your table. Prayer or the expression of gratitude brings your mind to the table instead of your emotions.
- Bring all your senses to the meal. When it comes to your food, be attentive to color, texture, aroma, and even the sounds different foods make as you prepare them. As you chew your food, try identifying all the ingredients, especially seasonings. You may be missing a great experience.
- Take small bites. It’s easier to taste food completely when your mouth isn’t full. Put down your utensil between bites. Pause for a few seconds before going on to the next one
- Chew thoroughly. Chew well until you can taste the essence of the food. (You may have to chew each mouthful 20 to 40 times, depending on the food.) You may be surprised at all the flavors that are released. Your stomach does not have any teeth.
- Eat slowly. It takes 20 minutes for your brain to catch up to your stomach. Digestion begins in the mouth. Chew your food well. This will improve digestion and decrease the stress on your system.
Conquering emotional eating equals new ways to relate to food. Apply these simple principles and be aware of all the choices you make around food and kick the emotional eating storm forever.
Remember, the most important medical decision you make every day is at the end of your forte. Don’t be a victim to your emotions.