Many people who experience stress become trapped in what is known as the emotional eating pattern. Emotional eating can manifest itself in many ways: for example, when you eat a bag of crisps out of boredom, or when you eat a chocolate bar after a hard day at work.
Emotional eating can be a temporary response to stress, but when it happens frequently or becomes the main pattern of eating and a person’s way of dealing with their emotions, it can negatively affect their life and health.
What you need to know about emotional eating
There are both physical and psychological causes of emotional overeating.
Emotional eating is often triggered by stress or other strong emotions.
There are several strategies that can help a person cope with the symptoms of emotional eating.
Triggers for emotional eating
Emotions, such as stress, are not the only causes of emotional overeating. It should be borne in mind that there are also such triggers as:
Boredom: boredom from idleness is a fairly common emotional trigger. Many people who live active lives turn to food when they have a downtime period to fill that vacuum.
Habits: Emotional eating can be linked to the memory of what happened in a person’s childhood. An example would be ice cream that parents bought for good grades, or baking cookies with their grandmother.
Fatigue: often we overeat or mindlessly eat when we are tired, especially when we are tired of doing an unpleasant task. Food can seem like a response to not wanting to do any more activity.
Social influence: everyone has that friend who tempts you to eat pizza in the middle of the night or go to a bar as a reward to yourself after a hard day. We often overeat, simply not wanting to say no to family or friends.
Emotional Overeating Strategies
The first step a person needs to take to get out of the emotional eating trap is to recognize the triggers and situations that trigger this behavior. Keeping a food diary can help.
Tracking your behavior is another way to learn about your eating habits. Try writing down what you did during the day, how it made you feel, and how hungry you felt during that time.
Think about how you can counter triggers. For example:
If you find yourself eating out of boredom, try reading a new book or dabbling in a new hobby.
If you’re eating out of stress, try yoga, meditation, or going for a walk to help you deal with your emotions.
If you’re eating because you’re sad, call a friend or go for a run in the park with your dog to deal with your negative feelings.
It may also be helpful to talk to a therapist or psychologist to discuss other ways to break the cycle of emotional eating.
A dietitian or doctor can also refer you to a knowledgeable expert or offer more information about forming positive eating habits and improving your relationship with food.
Emotional eating is a serious affliction that does not help a person with advice to “pull yourself together” or “just eat less.” The reasons for the emergence of an emotional eating pattern are complex and diverse: among them are upbringing, the influence of negative emotions, and physiological factors.
How to distinguish between physiological and emotional hunger?
Emotional hunger is very easy to confuse with physical hunger. But there are characteristics that set them apart, and recognizing these subtle differences is the first step towards stopping emotional eating.
Ask yourself a few questions:
Hunger comes quickly or gradually? Emotional hunger tends to come on very suddenly, while physiological hunger usually comes on gradually.
Do you have cravings for certain foods? Emotional hunger is usually associated with cravings for unhealthy foods or a particular food, while physical hunger is usually satiated with any food.
Do you eat mindlessly? Mindless eating is eating without paying attention to what you eat and how it feels. For example, when you watch TV and eat a whole container of ice cream at a time, this is an example of mindless eating and emotional overeating.
Hunger comes from the stomach or the head? Physiological hunger is indicated by rumbling in the stomach, while emotional hunger tends to start when a person thinks about food.
Do you feel guilty after eating? When we give in to the urge to eat due to stress, we usually experience feelings of regret, shame, or guilt, which is a clear feature of emotional eating. When you satisfy physiological hunger, you provide the body with the necessary nutrients and calories without associating it with negative feelings.
So, emotional eating is a fairly common phenomenon, different from physiological hunger. Some people succumb to it from time to time, while others may find that it affects their lives and may even threaten their health and mental well-being.
If you are experiencing negative emotions from your eating habits and cannot change them on your own, it is best to talk to a dietitian or therapist about this topic, who can help you find a solution and deal with this situation.