Coping with Emotional Eating

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Hunger doesn’t always come from the stomach; the mind can be an equally powerful trigger when it comes to the urge to eat.

Many of us “get hungry” when we feel a need to numb certain emotions or to ease feelings of discomfort, but this sort of hunger has nothing to do with providing our bodies with energy or satisfying cravings. It is a powerful psychological hunger that takes on a life of its own and exerts control over our behaviour, and it can lead to serious weight control problems.

Of course, there is no such thing as a “quick fix” for this sort of emotional eating, but with practice, patience and support, it can be controlled.

What is emotional eating?

When we use food in response to situations or feelings that make us feel uncomfortable or dissatisfied, it’s called emotional eating. Does this scenario sound familiar to you?

You’ve had an awful day at work. A co-worker holds you responsible for a mistake you know he made and your boss wants to speak to you about it tomorrow. You are so angry about it, but you can’t argue for fear of getting fired. When you get home, you open the refrigerator. You’re not really hungry, but you feel like eating something. You look around. There are some carrots. No, you don’t want those. Celery? No, that’s not it. Ice cream? YES! Maybe you’ll have just a little. Mmmm, it’s good. Perhaps you’ll have a little more … before you know it, you’ve finished the tub!

In situations like this one, something happens while we’re eating to make us feel relief. Although we’re not consciously aware of it, for a brief moment, all bad feelings are suspended, and for a few moments we feel soothed.

Of course, many of us occasionally engage in eating that has nothing to do with physical hunger, but is prompted by emotions or situations. For example, on your best friend’s birthday you might eat a piece of cake to be sociable even if you are not hungry. Or when you’re feeling bored, you might treat yourself to a couple of your favourite biscuits. This occasional use of food to celebrate or comfort is okay. However, if you frequently eat when stressed, bored, or upset, then your emotional eating is problematic.

Am I an emotional eater?

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Emotional eating can be viewed on a continuum. Rare occurrences of emotional eating are not a problem, but repeat episodes do need attention, and severe emotional eating usually requires the insight and aid of an eating disorders specialist. Viewing emotional eating on a continuum then, the question to ask is: Where do you fit in – is your emotional eating rare, occasional or constant? If you almost always use food in one or more of the following situations it is likely that your emotional eating is problematic.

  • I turn to food when I am frustrated
  • I eat after an argument
  • When I feel bad about myself, I eat
  • When I am bored, I eat too much
  • If I anticipate a lonely weekend, I stock up on junk food
  • I keep eating even after I am full
  • When I feel unappreciated, I eat lots of junk food
  • I eat when I am depressed
  • I eat when I don’t know what else to do
  • I eat junk food when I am feeling uncertain

Gaining control through fulfillment

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Emotional eating is ultimately about a lack of fulfillment. When you are unsatisfied with your life and don’t feel worthy, you eat to fill the absence and to distract yourself from your discontent. The best answer to emotional eating then is finding fulfillment and learning to be happy with yourself and your life. Easier said than done, of course, but here are some pointers in the right direction:

  • Turn to others – Instead of always trying to meet your needs yourself, learn to ask for help. Isolation and emotional eating go hand in hand, so keep in touch with supportive friends and family.
  • Fake it ‘til you make it  There’s surprising power in pretending. Get out of the “I have no control” mode and get into “I do have control of my life and food” mode. Even if you don’t believe it at first, your behaviour has a way of catching up with your self-talk.
  • Find purpose and meaning – Make sure your life is filled with things that mean more to you than food. Maintain good friendships, take an art or music appreciation course, volunteer for a charity organisation, campaign for a cause you believe in – anything that gives you a feeling of purpose and connects you to the rest of the world.
  • Be thankful – At the end of each day, list three things you’re thankful for. You won’t need food to feel better if you are fulfilled, have more fun, have a sense of purpose, and are aware of the small pleasures in your life.

Gaining control through understanding yourself

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Awareness begins when you “get in touch” with your feelings and how they relate to your eating habits. The best way to do this is to maintain a daily journal.

  • When you write in your journal, identify the situation and the feeling that makes you want to eat. For example: “When John yells at me, I feel ______.” If you can’t identify the feeling, state that, as in: “I don’t really know what I am feeling.”
  • List the foods you eat for each situation. Write down how you feel both before and after an eating episode.
  • Be aware of the physical damage of your emotional eating by writing how many calories and excess grams of fat you eat during an emotional eating episode alongside your description of the eating episode.
  • Remember to be kind to yourself. Your journal is an opportunity to become more aware of your feelings, thoughts and actions, not an opportunity to ‘beat yourself up’ or judge yourself harshly.
  • Be sure to finish every journal entry with a positive reminder of your worth. Help to change your self-talk by writing something like: I accept myself in my entirety, just the way I am today, even though [I overate; ate compulsively etc].

Remember that although the associations between food, comfort and security are largely unconscious, the actual decision to eat is always a conscious choice. There is always an all-important deciding moment when you make a decision to eat. Be aware of that moment.

Gaining control through action

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Action starts by deciding not to eat in response to a difficult emotion or situation. It is helpful to have a list of instantly effective methods of control for when your emotional “hunger” hits. You can build a repertoire of “band-aid” diversions from eating and write them in your journal. For example:

  • When I feel angry I will not eat. I will listen to some music.
  • When I feel lonely I will not eat. I will treat myself with a candle-lit bubble bath.
  • When I am worried about something, I will not eat. I will go for a walk.
  • When I am disappointed about something, I won’t eat chocolate cake. I will drink a cup of my favourite tea.

Other diversions might include calling a friend, going to a movie, gardening, or doing some housework.

Although it is important to control your eating, you don’t need to deprive yourself. Limit, but do not eliminate, some of the foods you crave. When you crave a piece of chocolate, first ask yourself if you really want it. If the answer is yes, then enjoy a few pieces. Eating balanced and good-tasting meals with enough fat, protein and carbohydrate will also help to fill you nutritionally and physiologically, and minimise cravings.

Exercise is also an excellent way to manage emotional eating. To keep weight off and calm the emotional storms that compel you to eat, try taking a daily 30-minute walk.

Calorie King
CalorieKing's mission is to provide the best information, tools and education to Australians to help them conquer their weight.

CalorieKing is the brainchild of Allan Borushek, registered dietitian, co-found here at food.com.au and author of "Allan Borushek's Pocket Calorie & Fat Counter", Australia's best-selling calorie counter for over 30 years.

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