Taking the emotion out of eating
Have you ever found yourself munching half way through a packet of biscuits and not sure why you started eating them in the first place?
Emotional eating is a term we will have all heard at some point in our lives. Whether we are aware of it or not, many of us, myself included, will have experienced it at some point.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating can be characterized by the initiation of eating in the absence of physical hunger cues and/or sustained eating even when feeling physically full. It is usually accompanied by heightened emotions and tends to bring with it a sense of guilt and shame.
True physical hunger builds steadily over time whilst emotional hunger tends to blindside you and come on very suddenly, maybe whilst shopping or unwinding in the evening. When you are physically hungry any food will satisfy you whilst when you are emotionally hungry you tend to be craving specific foods, often those high in fat and sugar.
Why these foods in particular? Because these are the ones which will release endorphins and (temporarily) make us feel good, perfect if you have any negative or painful emotions you want to suppress.
Is emotional eating always a bad thing?
Absolutely not. Eating and enjoying food can be one of a broad range of life coping strategies and can be a helpful tool to reduce psychological stress. Eating is way of telling your body and mind that you are safe, that it is OK to rest up for a little while. Also, let’s not forget the feel-good factor of eating with friends and family and enjoying occasions like birthdays. These events create positive vibes, and it is fine to eat purely for the emotions every now and again.
When does it become a problem?
When you see it as one! We are constantly bombarded with messages about how we should live and what we should look like and many of us struggle to hold ourselves to these ideals. When you perceive that you have failed to hold yourself to these standards this often leads to feelings of low self-worth and shame.
In 2014 the charity Beat carried out a survey into emotional overeating. The survey was aimed at over 18s who binge eat and feel they have emotional eating issues:
- 85% of respondents said they have a negative body image of themselves
- 79% felt pressure from society to lose weight
Therefore, if we view emotional eating as a failure we are more likely to experience negative emotions and more likely to self-soothe with food, and so the cycle continues.
Why do some people eat less when they feel emotional?
We all know that person who doesn’t find food appealing, the one who eats purely to fuel themselves not for the pleasure of eating. Personally, I think they are a bit crazy, but hey, that’s just my take on it! What is it about this person that means that they are so much more detached from food? It is purely to do with their past experiences and could stem back as far as childhood?
Emotional eating is a habitual process.
Sense a threat > feel uncomfortable > eat food > feel better.
This chain doesn’t just develop overnight it takes years and years of reinforcement and for some people, it has never been reinforced, and sometimes, the opposite has happened.
Sense a threat > Feel uncomfortable > avoid food > feel better
It could also be that some people are much less emotional around food. This can be demonstrated in terms of hot and cold thinking. Hot thinking is when we use descriptive words which inflame our emotions:
“The gooey, slightly warm chocolate cake was moist and warm”
Compared with cold thinking which is much more logical:
“The brown cake felt squidgy”
Both describe the same cake, but the former is much more likely to result in emotional eating because it will light up the feel-good pathways in the brain which will then anticipate and demand satisfaction. This is also another reason comparing yourself to others, and how they deal with emotions, is unhelpful as nobody’s back story is the same.
How do we break the cycle?
A variety of methods can help break the habit of emotional eating, here are three good ones:
- Bring awareness to your thoughts, feelings and emotions. By practicing mindfulness and learning to sit comfortably with uncomfortable feelings you can reduce the need to mask these thoughts through eating.
- Identify what is causing your heightened emotions and take steps to change the stimulus. Emotional eating doesn’t just happen, and the trigger is often hours before the eating begins. Like an anchor in the ocean, there are links beneath the waves we cannot see; we must dive under the surface to explore where they lead.
- Build your awareness of emotional eating.
How can you tell when you are in the throws of an emotional eating binge? Ask yourself these questions:
- Would I eat anything right now, or am I after a very specific type of food?
- Am I cupboard surfing, unsure of what to eat but knowing that I just need something?
- Do I feel more comfortable eating what I am about to eat in private?
If you answer YES to any of these questions, chances are your drive to eat is emotional, rather than physical.
Some simple coping strategies
If possible, try and distract yourself until cravings have passed. Or recognise the situation for what it is and try not foster feelings of guilt and shame afterwards; rather, show yourself some understanding and consider a compassionate statement such as:
“Hey, I know it’s not ideal to be eating when I’m not physically hungry. I’ve had a pretty rough day and right now this is the best I can do to make myself feel better so it’s OK. This is something everybody experiences, so I shouldn’t beat myself up over it”.
Emotional eating isn’t something you should aim never to do again; instead, it is something you want to be able to use appropriately and feel you have control over it, not the other way around.
Ian Thomas, BSc RD, PN1, Registered Dietitian and proprietor of Healix bespoke nutrition, specialises in online weight loss coaching, instructs adults in gymnastics and offers online personal training. With a background in the NHS, Ian believes nutrition and fitness recommendations should be based on sound scientific evidence when available and uses mindfulness and behaviour science to help people achieve sustained improvements to their health.
Ian offers bespoke nutritional advice at HEALIX BESPOKE NUTRITION.
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