We no longer eat solely to fuel our bodies.
The days of eating for survival are gone, and food has taken on a whole new meaning. We’re in the comfort food age.
Our emotions and eating habits are often as intertwined and twisted as that spare forgotten pair of headphones in the bottom of your bag. We turn to food for comfort in response to emotional triggers, with complete disregard to actual hunger.
Unfortunately, often we turn to a lot of food, and we’re certainly not comforting ourselves with carrots or celery sticks.
What is an Emotional Eater?
If you come home at the end of a stressful day and the first thing you do is open up the junk cupboard and start mindlessly munching on crisps, you’re an emotional eater.
If you’re fighting with your significant other, and, huddled on the couch in your pyjamas, a pile of used tissues beside you, you go through an entire tub of ice cream, you’re an emotional eater.
If you get a long-awaited promotion at work and, feeling elated, take yourself out for an indulgent dinner (topped off with a sinful dessert), you’re an emotional eater.
Most likely, you can’t help it. We emotionally eat out of habit, sometimes without even realising we’re doing it. We instinctively respond to stressors by reaching for the snack cupboard.
We’re aware that it’s not rational or ideal to be shovelling in junk just because our emotions are swinging, but it feels like we can’t stop.
Most of Us Are Guilty
Emotional eating is common. In fact, it’s very common, especially with women. And it’s not surprising – we’re primed for emotional eating from a very young age when our parents give us a lollipop for behaving well or an ice cream cone for getting a good grade in school.
The food and beverage industry hammer it in hard with their advertisements. They start targeting us as kids with commercials that equate junk food with happiness, adventure, and love – anything positive. From an early age, our emotions are tied to food.
As adults, we mimic the habit of rewarding ourselves with food, whether it’s in response to something positive or negative.
When turning to food for comfort we generally choose high-fat, high sugar junk food which give us brief hit of pleasure.
Instead of addressing emotions, which at times are unpleasant, we get the short-term relief and happiness that food brings. But that’s exactly the problem. It’s short term.
The Vicious Cycle
While the release of serotonin may make you feel better for a short period of time, that mild high will quickly fade.
If you turned to food for comfort, the feelings that led you to open the fridge door will still be there when you shut it. You most likely will actually feel even worse after you do.
Emotional eating has nothing to do with physiological hunger. When you’re munching on your fourth or fifth consecutive biscuit at the end of a rough day, it’s certainly not because your body needs energy.
And you may not stop at the fifth one either. Emotional eating leads to overeating and overeating leads to weight gain. You’ll feel guilty for consuming so many calories and for having no control over your actions or your willpower. Your shame will often drive you to eat even more.
Alternatively, you’ll put yourself on a short-term deprivation diet to make up for your mistake. Your deprivation diet will end in a binge. It’s a completely vicious cycle that leads to terrible eating habits, excess fat, and lots and lots of sadness.
Some of us are mild emotional eaters; once in a while, an emotionally traumatic event will drive us to some excess snacking.
Some of us are severe emotional eaters; mild stressors are enough to throw us into an emotional eating frenzy. The problem is that when you’re an emotional eater of any kind, it doesn’t take much to push you from mild to severe.
The biggest favour that you can do yourself in terms of body composition and peace of mind is to cut the ties between your emotions and your eating patterns.
Modern society and media have already ingrained unhealthy body image issues deep inside us, leaving many of us teetering on the brink of an eating disorder. Don’t help shift the scales in the wrong direction.
How to Stop Emotional Eating
1. Identify Your Triggers
There are lots of potential triggers for emotional eating.
Some of the most common triggers include feeling lonely, anxious, tired or even just bored!
Take some time to identify the different emotions that are causing you to reach for food.
If you’ve identified emotional eating as an issue you need to address, then you’ll most likely spot patterns that you can tackle head-on with the following tips.
2. Find Alternative Sources of Pleasure
Once you’ve identified the potential triggers of your emotional eating, you can come up with strategies to help avoid these situations in the future.
- If you’re feeling bored or lonely, try calling a friend or family member to catch-up. Sometimes just being in a social environment can help too, like heading to a coffee shop to work on your laptop rather than sitting at home.
- If you’re feeling exhausted, and it’s late at night, go to bed!
- If you’re feeling anxious or nervous, try going for a walk, run or lifting weights.
3. Only Eat When You’re Hungry
Food scarcity isn’t the problem it once was for our ancestors, and a lot of us have forgotten how to recognise and interpret the hunger signals that our bodies send us.
Yes, it’s much easier said than done. But before you open your fridge door, ask yourself why you’re reaching for food.
Is your stomach grumbling, or is there something else driving you? Stop for a moment and make yourself conscious of your motivation.
Are you craving a specific food or would you eat a plate of white fish and broccoli you’re that hungry?
4. Avoid Temptations
You’re more likely to make bad food choices if you have tempting and unhealthy foods in your kitchen cupboards.
Did you know that willpower is a finite resource, and that it depletes over the course of the day?
Keeping a jar of cookies around wastes valuable willpower that you could be using to work on major life goals. And don’t just put the cookies out of view, because your brain knows they are still within easy reach.
Instead, get rid of the cookies altogether – as in throw them in the trash!
Rather than deprive yourself of snacks altogether, try to save your favourite foods for special occasions and stick mostly to healthy snacks like fruit, vegetables and protein-rich options.
5. Hire a Coach or Trainer
A personal trainer can provide coaching on healthy eating habits and accountability – you’re much less likely to give in to cravings if you need to write it in your food diary!
While this (plus the tips outlined above) can certainly help, if you feel that emotional eating has become a serious problem, then we strongly advise speaking to a more formally qualified nutrition counsellor.