Emotional Eating: “propensity to eat in response to positive and negative emotions”
What is emotional eating?
Defined as above emotional eating happens when we overeat in response to our emotions. This can include feelings of stress, boredom or sadness to name a few and causes us to eat, even when we are not feeling physically hungry.
It is important to understand the difference between emotional eating and binge eating as they are often confused. The main difference is that emotional eating doesn’t tend to be as habitual as binging, plus those that binge will eat a far greater volume of food within a shorter time frame.
Why do people find themselves emotional eating?
There are multiple triggers that can cause emotional eating and sometimes there may be numerous things at play at any one time. Some of the most common causes include stress, boredom, childhood habits, social influences, specific environments and emotional events that can cause someone to resort to food for comfort. It is also very important to add that emotional eating affects all ages and genders!
Some of the classic signs for emotional eaters include struggling with maintaining body weight, finding themselves consuming a higher level of feel-good foods (those high in fat and sugar) and sudden feelings of hunger which rise in connection to an experience or feeling.
Of course, it is important to understand that when I say hunger in this instance it is in the case of ‘emotional hunger’. It is imperative to distinguish the difference between this and ‘physical hunger’.
Emotional hunger starts suddenly and generally will result in the consumption of foods we ‘crave’ or our go to comfort foods. It is also paired with emotions and can result in feelings of negativity after consumption has occurred. Further still those suffering with emotional hunger will find themselves mindless eating which will lead to generally eating past the point of satiety.
Physical hunger in comparison builds gradually and we are able to control this hunger, waiting longer if we necessary to eat. In addition, our body also gives us physical cues when we are hungry for example belly rumbling or feeling a bit tired and weak, so we know when we should be eating. This hunger than dissipates once we have eaten and we have no guilt or shame attached to the process. We are also generally able to make much better food choices as it is more planned rather than instinctual response.
What effects can emotional eating have?
The effects of emotional eating are both physical and mental. From a physical perspective you may find you are consuming more than usual and thus may put on weight or struggle to maintain your current weight. Mentally however the effects of emotional eating can be far more detrimental. What tends to happen is a cycle effect of emotions. An eating episode is started by an emotional event or feeling that happens to us. We then look to food as a way of soothing ourselves and make us feel good. It can also act as a temporary distraction from the initial cause. However shortly after these feelings subside and then we find ourselves experiencing feelings of guilt or shame, which in turn leads to negative self-talk and leads us straight back to the start of the cycle again. As you can see over time this cyclical cause and effect can wreak havoc on our headspace, causing emotional eating to become a coping mechanism.
How can I change this behaviour?
Recognising that you may be emotional eating is a great step in the right direction. There are many practical tools you can implement to support change. You may find not all of the ideas work, but it is best to try different methods to see what resonates with you.
Some tools to try:
- Feed yourself well – Make sure you are looking after yourself including your general health and diet and also ensure you are eating enough.
- Try to reduce your alcohol consumption – Alcohol affects our body in many ways but can increase feelings of anxiety and false hunger for some people which can lead to unnecessary eating
- Physical Activity – Goes without saying that exercise give us that feel good feeling! It can be a fantastic mood and energy booster and also help to shift some of those nagging emotions we may be feeling.
- Emotional awareness – Become fully aware of yourself, what makes you feel good? What makes you feel bad? when are you usually bored? What has been a trigger for you in the past? Etc etc. The more questions you ask of yourself the more you will be able to understand your reactions in the future. (This will help you in all areas of life!)
- Food Journaling – Linked to the above it is always worth writing down your thoughts and feelings and link it to your food consumption. Try writing down how you feel before a meal and how you feel after. You will quickly see a pattern emerging … and of course knowledge is power!
- Mindfulness – something we should all be doing anyway! But mindful practices can be a massive help when it comes to an emotional episode. Always stop, breathe and think. Check in with yourself regularly throughout the day, how are you feeling? Find the coping mechanisms that works best for you, this could be going for a walk, taking a bath, a cup of tea and 5 minutes of mindfulness or perhaps reaching out and speaking to someone.
- Sleep & Relaxation – Always make sure you are getting enough sleep and finding some time in your day to simply relax. It really does us the world of good.
I really hope this blog is useful to those who may be struggling with this topic at the moment. As always if you need further help the best thing you can do is to speak up and reach out!
Be kind to yourself!
Lots of Love