How many times have you eaten not because you were physically hungry, but because you were stressed, tired, bored, anxious, angry, or (insert appropriate emotion here)? You might be an emotional eater. But there are ways to overcome emotional eating.
Many of us have been taught that food can “soothe a mood,” that shoveling scoops of Ben & Jerry’s straight out of the pint can help dull the ache of a breakup. Comfort food — those warm, salty, melty bites of mac and cheese, for instance — preys upon our inability to say “no thanks” when we seek a reward or feel stressed.
When we use food to appease our moods, it sets us up for a vicious cycle of possible weight gain, followed by self-recrimination, followed by more emotional eating. But, I want to assure you that you can and you will stop this cycle if you learn a few simple tools.
Are You An Emotional Eater?
How do you know if you’re eating for emotional reasons? Try this self-test. For the following, answer each of the following five questions with a simple “yes” or “no.”
- Do you eat between meals even when you’re not physically hungry?
- If you eat between meals, are you eating on auto-pilot — i.e., mindlessly and without complete awareness and attention to what you’re actually doing?
- When something upsetting happens, do you reach for the nearest bag of cookies to make yourself feel better?
- Do you fantasize about foods that are your special “treats” such as chocolate cake or kettle chips?
- When you eat these treats, do you hide out and eat them by yourself because you’re embarrassed to eat them in front of others?
If you answered “yes” to more than two of the above, you may be an emotional eater. When you want to eat when you’re not physically hungry, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and ask yourself:
- What am I feeling and why?
- What do I really need besides food right now? (Hint: It’s often rest or a break from what you’re doing)
The healthy alternatives offered below may help you begin to escape the cycle.
Three of the Emotional States That Lead to Emotional Eating
Sadness, anxiety, and anger are the three emotional states I see most often among my patients that can lead to bouts of emotional eating. Some people eat to celebrate (hello, birthday cake), to quell boredom (think mindless snacking while watching TV), to reward themselves (“I just ran 7 miles, so I can eat a fully-loaded cheeseburger and fries”), but when it comes to patterns of emotional eating, I see them stem most from sadness, anxiety, or anger.
Let’s face it: When heartbreak or loneliness hits, eating that tub of ice cream seems like a good idea. A bit of sweetness to drown out the sorrow… Before you know it, you’re caught in a self-perpetuating negative cycle that can be very difficult to escape. You eat because you’re sad, then you feel even more blue because you’ve eaten so much. This can lead to a “what-the-heck” attitude, increasing the likelihood of overeating when the next bout of the blues strikes.
Healthy alternatives to sad emotional eating:
1. Express yourself: Your melancholy mood was probably caused by an upsetting incident. Get it off your chest by talking about it with someone you trust. If nobody is available to talk, try writing down your feelings.
2. Move: Battle the blues by moving your body and getting your heart pumping. Even doing 30 minutes of moderate exercise can boost the “feel-good” chemicals in your brain.
3. Give yourself permission to let it out: Light some candles, take a hot bath, listen to sad music, cry until you run out of tears. Allowing yourself to feel sad will help you process. Or, put on headphones, turn up the music, and dance, or punch pillows… pick a constructive way to emote that’s not eating.
Many of us eat to relieve our stress or anxiety. Research points out that emotional distress increases the intake of specific foods — in particular, those that are high in fat, sugar, or both. An excessive intake of these types of highly palatable foods shares similarities with the effects on brain and behavior that are seen with some drugs of abuse, according to research published in the journal Nutrition.
Healthy alternatives to anxiety/stress emotional eating:
1. Stick to a regular, healthy sleep routine. If you’re not sleeping well because you’re stressed, the lack of sleep can result in poor food choices. Research shows that people who got insufficient sleep for several consecutive nights increased food intake to keep them going. When they returned to getting adequate rest, they stopped eating as much — particularly carbs and fats.
2. Do something relaxing and calming. We all have different ways of relaxing. The next time you feel stressed and anxious and instinctively turn to food, resist the urge to run to the cupboard or fridge, and instead practice a relaxing activity. Consider trying meditation, yoga, or even just pause for a moment to take some deep breaths.
Unfortunately when we stuff our anger down with food this doesn’t get rid of our anger. It simply buries it. If we don’t deal with the emotion, it will keep popping up.
Healthy alternatives to angry emotional eating
One way to get out of the angry eating trap is to delay eating — even 10 minutes will do — and to sit down, take a deep breath, and tune into what you’re really feeling. Ask yourself the following questions and patiently work your way through the answers.
- What happened today that may have made me angry?
- Why did that event stir up angry feelings?
- What do I need to do in order to let go of this anger and feel peaceful?