Yes, emotional eating is very much a real thing, which we are going to discuss in detail in this article.
What is Emotional Eating?
Have you ever found yourself rushing towards your fridge or pantry when you are feeling low, feeling the blues or are in an emotional turmoil? Many people do not understand and do not know that there is something known as emotional eating, which is increasingly becoming common as a way to cope with stress or emotional vulnerability.
Emotional eating is when someone eats or craves food and other eatables as a response to dealing or coping with stress and other emotional upheavals in life (1, 3). Everyone, especially in today’s time, has done emotional eating at some point in their life.
Food is important for survival and hence eating something which you love or like triggers the reward system in the brain resulting in making a person feel better.
However, if emotional eating occurs frequently and you are reaching for that tub of ice-cream or that packet of chips to deal with your emotions instead of adopting other healthy ways to cope, then it can be a problem.
Eating can be an easy and tasty way to deal with one’s emotions and other problems; however, it is not the real solution to your problems. Emotional eating can only help you temporarily, and other methods need to be adopted to deal with your emotions and problems for long term.
This vicious cycle of eating to feel better, then after some time it turns into feelings of guilt for eating unhealthy food and the feeling of bitterness towards oneself continue to make everything more difficult.
Why Food? And Why is it Difficult to Control Emotional Eating?
Food is at the heart of our life. We make special foods to celebrate festivals, birthdays and other special occasions. Everyone is eager to sample the food served on special occasions and otherwise. Making special food for someone who is facing challenges in their life is a way to show you care. Sharing of the food among colleagues and friends is a good way to bond with others.
Food occupies a major part of the life and it is not surprising that one reaches towards it when feeling an emotional void. Eating causes release of dopamine, which is a brain chemical that makes us feel happy and good (2). As with any habit, if a person always reaches for food when stressed, then with any small sign or emotional turmoil or stress the person reaches for food without even realizing it. Food is also available and it is not something which is illegal and seeing any images about food also increases the cravings for a particular food item without feeling hungry.
So, seeing that food is omnipresence in our life, it is only but natural to feel an emotional connection towards food.
However, one should also think about health and be aware and make conscious decision as to what, when and how much to eat. Frequent binge eating whenever feeling emotional can have lot of repercussions, especially towards health.
What are the Causes of Emotional Eating?
Some of the common external causes for emotional eating are: financial worries, work stress, relationship struggles, health issues, worry about studies and education, having a breakup or going through divorce amongst other things. Emotionally eating is also more found in individuals who do a lot of dieting (3).
Some of the internal causes of emotional eating are (4):
Emotion Dysregulation: Where the person is not able to manage or control their emotional eating. Their emotions are out of control, which makes them turn towards food.
Alexithymia or Emotional Blindness: Where the person cannot understand, describe or process their emotions and as a result turn towards food.
Not having introspective awareness where the patient does not realize or is aware of their feelings.
Reversed Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) stress axis where there is under-active cortisol response to any type of stress.
Emotional eating tends to be an automatic behavior and the person uses food as a tool for therapy or coping with their emotions, the more concrete this habit to emotionally eat becomes and the more it takes strong roots.
Can Emotional Eating be Classified as an Eating Disorder?
Emotional eating on its own cannot be classified as an eating disorder. However, it can be a sign of disordered eating which in time can turn into eating disorder.
What are the Signs of Disordered Eating?
Sings of disordered eating are:
- Labeling foods as “good” or “bad.”
- Being very limited with food choices of what to eat.
- Frequent food restriction and dieting.
- Feeling guilty and ashamed of yourself after binge eating or after eating a lot of junk food, which further increases emotional stress.
- Always turning towards food as a response to emotions instead of eating only when feeling hungry.
- Not having proper meal timings and eating whatever you want, whenever you want.
- Obsessive thinking about food and having obsessive thoughts about food, which is the only thing that you think about and these obsessive thoughts start to interfere with the person’s daily life.
A person doesn’t have to have a diagnosis of eating disorder to get help. One should have always a healthy relationship with food.
Emotional Eating Is Found In Which Individuals?
Everyone can be affected with emotional eating irrespective of age or gender or race. This can become a problem if eating is the only way of coping with stress and other ways are not being used.
What is the difference between Emotional Hunger and Physical Hunger?
Humans need food to survive and it becomes a natural reason to reach for it in times of crisis. It’s natural to want to eat food of certain textures or tastes. It can be tricky to differentiate between physical and emotional hunger. In some cases it can be both. If someone hasn’t eaten for many hours or hasn’t eaten sufficient amount of food in a day, then it increases the risk or tendency for emotional eating. There are some ways to understand the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger.
- Physical hunger gradually develops; whereas emotional hunger develops suddenly.
- In physical hunger you feel the sensation of fullness and know when to stop eating; whereas in emotional there is no feeling of fullness and the person keeps on shoving food inside.
- Physical hunger is associated with the last time one ate; whereas emotional hunger is triggered by the need to soothe or comfort oneself.
How to Find Out if you are an Emotional Eater?
Some of the common signs and indications of an emotional eater are:
- They get out of control whey they are present around certain foods, like their favorite foods.
- Have an overpowering urge to eat when faced by powerful emotions or problems.
- They get cravings or desire to eat even when they are not physically hungry.
- They feel like food is rewarding for them and gives them comfort and a sense of calm.
How to Control or Stop Emotional Eating?
Some of the ways to control or to change the habit of emotional eating are (5):
Maintain an Emotion Diary
To resolve any problems, it is important to first understand them and keeping an emotion diary helps in understanding your emotions better and how to change the emotions that cause you to reach out to food for comfort. Keep a record of the times when you eat, but are not actually feeling hungry and only crave certain foods. It is important to write down the things happening in your life at that moment, which led you to emotionally eat such as:
What happened at the time which caused upset feelings and made you reach towards food. The second thing is what were you thinking and what emotions were you feeling when the urge to eat developed. Also, write down what you did when you were emotionally upset and did you start eating immediately and or wait some time to ponder on it or did something to distract yourself?
Whatever you find after writing everything down, do not judge yourself and make an effort to understand your feelings as to what is triggering you to emotionally eat. It takes a lot of time, practice and patience, at the end of the day nothing and nobody is perfect.
Discover Other Ways to Cope With Your Feelings
Once you have written everything down and have understood what situations, emotions or thoughts are causing you to eat, then you can make the first step towards making changes for the better. If stress is causing you to binge eat, then try to distract yourself and think about other things which can help you to cope with the stress.
If you are eating when feeling bored, then keep yourself busy, take up a new hobby, exercise and find ways to manage your boredom to control the habit of emotional eating.
As mentioned before, it takes lot of patience and practice to change the mindset from reaching towards the food to indulge in other activities to prevent emotional eating. Results don’t occur overnight.
Practicing Mindfulness To Deal With Emotional Eating
There are many benefits of mindfulness for mental health and according to experts, it helps a lot in managing anxiety and depression (6). Mindfulness also helps in cutting down the habit of stress eating. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the moment you are in. If you find that stress, low mood or anxiety are triggers for your eating, mindfulness practices may help. Some of the examples of mindfulness practices are:
- Listening to a guided meditation.
- Sitting in a peaceful place and concentrating on your breath.
- Lying down peacefully and observing which parts of the body are tensed and you can concentrate on relaxing them.
- Focusing on your surroundings observing things around you in detail, what you are seeing, touching, hearing, tasting and smelling.
Mindful eating is a method of which depends on internal cues to understand when one should eat and makes you differentiate between hunger and emotional eating. Mindful eating is a great way to better your relationship with food and also helps with mental health. Mindful eating is a way to completely experience the act of eating and also encourages you to slow down while eating, chew slowly and appreciate the appearance, texture and the different flavors of the food.
Mindful eating comprises of pausing before eating to understand and explore what is required at the moment. Do you need food? If yes, then what type of food? And if you do not need food, then what do you need? It takes time and patience to become a mindful eater. You can take professional help to understand and incorporate mindful or intuitive eating.
It is Important To Move Your Body
Moving your body is a powerful method to manage anxiety and stress. Doing any type of physical activity helps in decreasing the levels of stress hormones in the body and also releases endorphins, which improve the mood. Having an exercise regime also helps in managing and controlling underlying emotional triggers that cause eating.
You don’t have to do a hard core exercise routine. Just some light walking or stretching exercises can do a lot of good. Moving round the house tidying things up also will help a lot with stress management. Yoga includes mindful movements that are also beneficial to the mind and body. Regularly doing yoga has shown to decrease the overall anxiety and stress levels (7).
Eat Sufficient Amount of Food to Stave Off Emotional Eating and Cravings
After understanding the difference between emotional and physical hunger; one thing is important that one should eat sufficiently to ward off emotional eating. Human brain is wired to eat enough for survival. If one has not eaten the required amount of food throughout the day, then the cravings tend to increase as the day goes on. Most of the people have found that eating different kinds of foods in their meals is very satisfying. If you are physically hungry frequently during the day, then try to consume more protein, which will help you keep full and curb your cravings. Out of the daily intake of the food, protein should comprise of about 30% of your diet (8).
If you have been dieting or following different kinds of diet for most of your life, then it can be hard to understand the hunger and fullness cues. It will take some time and practice to understand what physical hunger and fullness feels like. If you understand the cues for physical hunger, then it can also help in understanding when you are reaching out for food for emotional reasons.
Some signs of physical hunger are: decrease in energy levels, stomach grumbling, difficulty in concentrating, feeling lightheaded, mood changes and increased thoughts about food.
For better understanding of hunger and fullness, visualize your hunger on a scale of one to ten.
Level one means extreme hunger where you start to feel physically weak and can eat just about anything to get your energy levels back. Level 10 means extreme fullness that you experience after having a big holiday meal.
Make sure to assess yourself every few hours to understand what your hunger level is. Doing this helps in understanding the natural patterns of hunger and fullness. With time, one can easily understand the initial signs of hunger, which can help in identifying when you should eat.
Eating Regular Meals on Regular Time Everyday
Cognitive behavior therapy for emotional eating commonly consists of behavioral strategies, like eating regular meals at a fixed time. Scheduling the meals helps in reducing the physical hunger and the feeling of fullness also helps in controlling emotional hunger. This is also known as the cold-hot empathy gap (9). The cold state is where you are not hungry and are “cold” or neutral towards food and this makes you underestimate the extent of hunger in the future. In the hot state, there is overestimation of hunger, which leads to emotional eating. Planning daily meals helps in keeping you in a neutral or colder state.
Another study showed that meal planning was associated with variety of foods, quality of diet and decreased obesity (10). It is important to make a weekly meal plan, which consists of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack and you have to decide the time at which you will take each meal. Doing this will create a sense of discipline when it comes to food and keeps hunger pangs and other cravings at bay.
Get Rid Of Distractions
If you are eating while watching TV or working, then the brain misses out on the experience and the joy of the entire eating process. Here is where mindful eating comes in to play where you have to focus on eating your meal by giving it your complete attention instead of eating in a hurried and distracted manner. This also increases the enjoyment of the food, as concentrating solely on eating food makes you appreciate the different flavors and textures of the food creating more satisfaction and thereby reducing the urge to eat more after the meal. A person tends to eat faster and more in a distracted state (11). The stomach takes time to let the brain know when you are full. In case of eating rapidly, you may end up eating more than what the body needs before the brain can signal you to stop.
Do Not Hesitate To Seek Help
Don’t stay by yourself when feeling down or sad. These tough feelings are difficult to navigate on your own. Seek help and support from a family member or friends which can benefit your mood and change your attitude towards seeking comfort from food. You can also join formal support groups to help with this.
A self-reported pilot study discovered that accountability and social support helped the participants in sticking better to eating-related behavior change (12). An organization named Overeaters Anonymous helps in addressing the overeating pattern, such as compulsive overeating, emotional eating and eating disorders. One can join such groups to seek better help.
Consult a dietitian with experience in supporting people suffering from disordered or emotional eating. They can help in identifying the eating triggers and how to deal with them.
Consulting a mental health professional will help you in finding other methods to cope with tough feelings and emotions, such that you do not always reach out to food for comfort eating. Cognitive behavior therapy is one such method which can benefit in managing emotions and the urges to eat.
Be Kind to Yourself and Work On Positive Self-Talk
Having self-compassion and positive self-talk is important, as these are the tools that can help you manage emotional eating by uplifting your mood, self esteem so that you don’t reach out to food whenever you are upset. Be aware of the thoughts passing through your brain. When you are more aware of the negative thoughts clamoring for attention within your brain, then start slowly to change them into positive thoughts. Seek professional help in how to do this.
Everyone deserves a peaceful and healthy life. Changing unhealthy habits, such as emotional eating is hard work, which needs to be done to feel better. Emotional eating can also be a part of disordered eating, which can lead to development of an eating disorder in the future. It is always advised to seek help and support if you are not able to deal with this on your own. Talking to a mental health professional about your feelings and consulting a dietitian with experience in this arena helps addressing mental as well physical aspects of emotional eating and before you know it, you will be on your way to a more balanced and disciplined way of eating and way of life.