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  • Writer's pictureSandhya Gokal

Emotional Eating

As I sit here writing this, I can feel my stomach clenched, my heart beating slightly faster than normal. My oesophagus feels tight and my mouth dry. The time I had allocated to work on this article and other coaching related activities has slowly dwindled, with the other demands of life - baby, husband, pharmacy - creeping slowly in to claim the time for their own. Because of this, my stress levels are high and I can feel my fingers itching to reach for the chocolate buttons I have stored in my fridge for baking. 

This my friends, is the beginnings of emotional eating.

What is emotional eating

Emotional eating is exactly what it sounds like - eating as a response to emotion. No surprises there! 

Food is so essential to life and survival, and it plays a big role in the major events scattered though out the year - Christmas, Easter and birthdays to name a few. It's natural that food becomes connected easily with emotions, both negative and positive ones. But when you eat because you can't cope with the emotions surging through your body, that can become a problem.

Emotions such as stress, boredom, anger, anxiety and sadness can have you reaching for food, even if your hunger hormones are telling you “You’re not hungry!” 

Emotional eating can start in childhood, and is a learned behaviour. Just like learning to play Connect Four, you become an emotional eater by repeating a pattern of action until it becomes habit, and once it is habit, your brain forms a neural highway for those chemicals to keep firing, until emotional eating becomes unconscious. 

If you're not sure exactly what kind of emotional eater you are, check out this quiz to help you figure it out

What causes Emotional Eating?

Your body craves balance. So when emotions are high, particularly negative emotions, every fibre of your being does whatever it can to bring you back to a balanced state. This process is called homeostasis - the act of bringing all systems in the body back to a neutral and optimally functioning state. 

When you are feeling down, your body releases serotonin and works to increase dopamine levels. Both these hormones produce euphoric feelings in the body. 

Food sustains us. It is necessary for survival! So to ensure that your body survives, your brain says, “Everytime you eat, I’m gonna activate the reward system - and release dopamine. Good work, you! You’ve ensured our continual existence.” 

So many things can cause us to eat emotionally. Work stress, relationship problems, being angry, feeling frustrated about your lack of progress in any area of life. I eat when I feel bored, or frustrated that my life isn’t going the way I thought it would. 

Why is emotional eating a problem?

You may be thinking, “Why does it matter if I eat because of my emotions? It seems so harmless.”

Well, yes, to start off with, it might be. For the most part, people who have balanced lives with gentle emotional waves can get away with not addressing emotional eating as a major issue. But for those of you who are highly sensitive, or feel things deeply, or experience high amounts of stress, it poses a deeper issue. 

As you keep doing it, it can start to impact your general health because you are intaking calories in excess of what you need. It will also impact your mental health, and you put yourself at greater risk of developing binge eating disorders. 

As well as this, if you currently have a relatively balanced lifestyle, and experience emotional eating from time to time, and then suddenly your negative emotions ramp up due to some change in life circumstance, that’s when emotional eating might quickly become an easy to use coping mechanism which can push you over into the danger zone outlined above. 

It is important to remember that emotional eating is a HABIT. And because it is a habit, it can be reversed. 

Am I eating because of emotions or because of physical hunger? 

Emotional eating differs from physical hunger is several ways. I've created a neat little table to summarise it for you. 

Do you recognise any of these happening to you? If so, you may be on the emotional eating train. 

Emotional hunger

Physical Hunger

Comes on quickly

Comes about gradually

Needs to be satisfied instantly to alleviate feeling

Can be put off until a more convenient time

Food cravings are often specific and tend towards food that give us dopamine hits - high sugar, high salt and high fat foods most of the time

Often not associated with a specific food craving

Hunger tied to desire to soothe, comfort, relax or numb

Hunger sometimes tied to physical sensations - fatigue, mood changes, lagging concentration, resentment and anxiety.

Independant of last eating time

Occurs 2-3 hours after last eating time (depending on nutritional state and what you ate)

Triggers feelings of powerlessness, guilt, shame and anger

Usually doesn't make negative feelings well up (this is different for people with disordered eating)

How to stop Emotional Eating

To overcome emotional eating, here are some great techniques to try

Distraction (Combats Boredom, Stress and Anxiety Eating)

The key to fighting the emotional eating habit is to find something else to do with your hands and mind. In these circumstances, movement can be a great solution. Walking, running, dancing, stretching, and workouts are all viable options. Another distraction is choosing an activity that takes up a lot of attention - playing with your kids, or calling a friend. 

In her book “Life in Five Senses” Gretchen Rubin mentions that stimulating one sense satisfactorily reduces the desire to stimulate another. Taking this into account, the activity you choose as a distraction should wholly engage at least one sense (hearing, seeing, tasting, touching, or smell) which will then reduce the desire to eat. 

Stimulate your mind (Combats Bordeom, Stress and Anxiety eating)

Another weapon is to stimulate your mind. This can be by working on a problem, playing a board game or video game or reading. The key to battling against emotional eating is to choose something that will peak your interest - this will be different for everyone. 

Get Support (for all types of emotional eating)

Sometimes, when those emotionally charged moments come crashing down on you, the best thing you can do is talk to someone.

A friend, a medical professional such as a psychologist, a coach who specialises in helping people regain healthy eating habits (that’s me!) or a support buddy such as those found in Food Addicts Anonymous are all great options.

Use the resources available to you in these situations, because they can really be the factor that changes your journey.

Conduct a Hunger Interview (For Boredom eating)

Is it normal to talk to yourself? ABSOLUTELY. In these kinds of situations, having an internal interview panel can be a phenomenal technique to try. And I’m going to give you the exact questions to ask yourself. 

Q. What do I want to eat and why do I want to eat it?

Q. What emotion am I soothing right now?

Q. Am I experiencing physical hunger signs?

Q. Is there anything else I can do instead of eating in this moment?

Journalling (Combats Stress, Anxiety, Sadness and Anger eating)

Writing down what emotion is causing you to eat can be an excellent solution to emotional eating. By acknowledging the emotion you are feeling, you automatically lessen it. You might have heard of the term “riding the wave.” Riding the wave simply means experiencing the emotion and trying to swim with the current, rather than fighting against it. Just knowing what you feel is an awesome first step.

Great questions to ask when you’re journaling in times of emotional eating are:

What is causing me to have this emotion?

What foods am I naturally reaching towards?

What do I need to make this emotion disappear?

What is this emotion telling me about myself?

Know your Hunger Signals

Okay, so you know what physical hunger is vs emotional hunger. But what can you DO about it?

Eat when you’re hungry. 

I get hangry. I get resentful, and angry and hurt that I'm being kept from eating. I’m talking, I will push people out of the way to get food if I’m too hungry, and I won’t think twice about it. (Kidding, I’ve never done it. But I’ve thought about it…) And this is common for a lot of people - emotional regulation decreases when you are physically hungry, making you more likely to be irritable, snappy and less tolerant.

In these situations, it's easy to override traditional fullness signals because you are trying to satisfy both physical hunger and emotional hunger.

To prevent this, know you’re physical hunger signs, know what your hunger fullness scale is, and address those signs when you the symptoms arise, so you can avoid the emotional rollercoaster that dampens your response to your hunger hormones.

Food procrastination (for all types of emotional eating)

Often when emotions come up, the types of food you are reaching for are loaded with the salt, sugar and fat combination that makes your brain go haywire, and send signals to eat More more more! 

Instead of following your heart in these situations, try this: before you allow yourself to indulge in your normal emotional eating pattern, eat something nutritious -like fruit, yoghurt, nuts, boiled eggs, air popped popcorn, or crudites (vegetable sticks). 

Although these might not satisfy the craving wholly, they are vital energy sources that will aid your ability to deal with emotional situations! Think of these as energy power ups. 

And then if you still want the processed food, go for it! Chances are your hunger hormones will kick in faster because of the pre-emotional-eating snack. 

If you are suffering From severe emotional eating or an eating disorder

Food issues can creep in slowly and insidiously take over your whole life. And unfortunately, sometimes that can mean it is not just a matter of changing your food habits and going about your day. 

If you, or someone you love is experiencing disordered eating, or your emotional eating is overwhelming you, check out the link below. 

That's all folks!

Emotional eating can be really difficult to overcome. If you are experiencing it, I hope some of the tips from above can help you. Remember, it's not a quick fix, it's a habit change, so use each experience as an opportunity to practice!

Have you experienced this? What have you tried that has been most successful for you? Let me know in the comments below!


Emotional eating in healthy individuals and patients with an eating disorder: evidence from psychometric, experimental and naturalistic studies -

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