Emotional eating is when food is used to soothe with difficult emotions. It is one of the most common ways that people use to feel better when undergoing a stressor or when faced with uncomfortable emotions.
Eating as a way of coping with problems is common and yet it is easy to forget that the eating of comfort foods doesn’t ever solve the real underlying issues. You will still be left with negative emotions and will add to that the guilt you feel because you over-ate.
There are some coping strategies you can use to feel better that doesn’t include the eating of unhealthy foods. Here are some things you can do to stop emotional eating:
• Because emotional eating is usually about eating certain kinds of “comfort foods,” choose to shop and select foods at the supermarket when you are not under stress and will be less likely to have emotional foods to bring home from the market. When these foods are unavailable to you or hard to get, you are less likely to eat impulsively and may turn to something besides food in order to feel better.
• Identify those things that trigger emotional eating. Your awareness of these triggers alone can help you avoid triggers and can allow you to recognize when you feel “hungry” because of your emotions. Have a repertoire of other things you can do to change your behavior and our feelings that don’t involve food, a therapist can really be helpful in learning healthy coping skills.
• Keep a diary or journal around your emotions and eating. That way you can better identify which things trigger unhealthy eating and which foods you are choosing to eat when you are under stress. In emotional eating, awareness is half the battle. Write down your moods as they arise and think of non-food choices you can make rather than eating. Sometimes the food craving comes first. Write down the food craving you have and take the time to understand what the trigger for the craving was in much as detail as possible. For example, if you had a bad day at work, and instead of having a healthy dinner, you choose to eat potato chips and ice cream, this tells you that stress triggers you to eat junk food.
Deal with the trigger directly instead of stuffing it into your mouth. Look for specific patterns of eating and emotions so they can be circumvented in the future.
• Think about non-food ways to handle your stressors. Too many people who are trying to lose weight fail to take into account the emotional eating part of their lives. Just because you know that a tub of ice cream has many calories in it doesn’t mean you won’t reach for it when you feel triggered by stressors. Think of other rewards you can give yourself when you are happy as well as when you need comforting. It might be something you buy for yourself that is not food or a phone call you make to a good friend instead of eating. Even a short walk can help put your stressors into perspective without having to resort to food.
• Take a break between the times you feel the urge to eat some kind of comfort food and the actual eating process. You may find the urge to eat passes if you just wait a little while. Emotional eating often involves a fast desire to eat and intense cravings. If you give yourself a chance to put your emotions into perspective, you may not even feel like eating the comfort food or you will eat less. You will have more time to make a different choice around the trigger or stressor.
• Accept your feelings for what they are, whether they are good or bad feelings. Know that you are emotionally eating because you have no control over your feelings rather than having no control over your eating. Identify and accept how you feel, allowing it to settle in as comfortably as the feeling can and allow the feeling to stand for itself rather than trying to run away from it. If you are sad, recognize it, own it, and let it out in a healthy and more forthright way than simply eating to hide the emotion. Even if you can’t help it and you eat anyway, at least you’ll understand why it is happening and will try to avoid the same pattern in the future.
• Practice healthier lifestyle habits. This means taking care that you get enough to sleep at night and that you exercise at least a little bit when you are under stress. Don’t overestimate the value of resting or taking a short nap when you are stressed out.
Eating and stress do not have to go together. There are ways you can cope with stress and negative emotions that do not involve food. Once you know what these coping strategies are, you will naturally eat less and will feel a stronger disconnect between emotions and eating.