Food for thought…
- What foods and drinks do you consume regularly, if any, that you probably shouldn’t?
- What emotions lead you to unhealthy food choices... boredom, fatigue, sadness, anger, guilt, stress, happiness?
- What time of day do you typically eat or drink unhealthy foods?
- Do you eat to reward yourself?
- Does your mood affect your diet?
- Does WHAT you're eating embarrass you so you don't eat when you're in front of others?
Combating emotional eating
Recognizing when you eat in response to emotions is one of the most critical aspects to obtaining a healthy diet, and is often left unaddressed. Emotions have superhero strength! Literally, they're like the Hulk times ten. Some diet plans may give you the profound advice of choosing veggies over french fries (thanks Sherlock!), but don't provide a means of combating WHY your body makes you feel like you need these less healthy, feel-good foods. If your emotions play a role in your eating habits, they can hijack your voice of reason by demanding instant gratification (aka FOOD), and it's safe to say your logic just doesn't stand a chance.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is when you eat in the moment to satisfy a feeling rather than eating because you are hungry.
Let’s play out a few scenarios…
- Scenario 1: You’re feeling sad or alone and grab a pint of ice cream to distract yourself. Before you know it, you’ve polished off half the tub and you’re left feeling unsatisfied and upset with yourself.
- Scenario 2: You have a work deadline and decide to order a pizza because you’re stressed and tired. As you sit and work on your computer, you go on autopilot and eat three-quarters of the pizza without remembering anything after the initial bite.
- Scenario 3: You’re at a Super Bowl party and your favorite football team is about to play their rivals. You’re not hungry, but in the excitement of the day you grab a plate full of food from the table and sit down with everyone to watch the game.
Can you relate to any of these circumstances? Most of us would answer yes. Why? Because at some point, we’ve all eaten emotionally. While all three examples are considered emotional eating, only the first two use eating as a coping mechanism.
The myth: Eating emotionally is wrong.
Eating emotionally on occasion isn’t something to feel bad about. How fun would life be if you never allowed yourself to celebrate with a piece of your favorite chocolate cake or indulge in a handful of crispy chips on a rainy Saturday afternoon while watching the tube? Not allowing yourself to indulge once in a while is unrealistic.
But, when you’re lonely, sad, stressed or bored and your primary coping mechanism is to head straight to the kitchen, there’s a bigger problem to be addressed.
So, how do you know if your emotional eating needs to be addressed?
- How often do I emotionally eat? Is it once every few weeks or daily?
- How much am I eating? Are you eating a small handful of chips or an entire bag?
If you answered with either of the latter choices and you tend to emotionally eat, keep reading!
The science of emotional eating
Experts say that 75% of overeating is due to emotions. We learn from an early age that food makes us feel good. We won’t bore you with the dirty details, but here's a quick rundown on how that feel-good food breaks down into fat:
- You eat sweets, starches or carbs.
- Your serotonin levels (happy feelings in your brain) are increased.
- Your brain momentarily does the joyful jig.
- The euphoric feeling is fleeting and you want more.
- You can see how emotional eating and binge eating often go hand in hand. The feel-good sensation quickly comes and goes and you’re left wanting MORE!
Emotional eating becomes a problem when:
- You eat even though your body doesn’t need more.
- Your insulin levels spike.
- Your body says, “Whoa, too much insulin!”
- Excess insulin is metabolized into fat.
- Your feel-good food just went from friendly to fat.
Eating emotionally isn’t about hunger or the specific food we’re craving.
Emotional eating is generally about what food allows us to escape. For a minute, while we’re eating, we’re able to dodge a feeling or difficult emotion by replacing those feelings with a burst of energy or pleasure.
Why it’s difficult to make healthy lifestyle changes to your diet when you’re an emotional eater.
Eating healthy is logical advice, but logic only goes so far if you don’t have conscious control over your eating habits. Why? Because your emotions hijack your voice of reason and demand instant gratification to the point where you may not even realize you're snacking excessively throughout the day.
Let’s play out another scenario. You’re sitting at your desk at work. You’re stressed and need a break. You decide to take a stroll by the staff lounge and spot a plate of cookies sitting on the table. The battle between emotion and logic begins.
- Emotion: “Those cookies look scrumptious. I think I should eat one.”
- Logic: “I just had a delicious, healthy lunch an hour ago and I’m full. I shouldn’t stuff myself. Plus, I had a cookie yesterday.”
- Emotion: “But I’m working really hard to get my deadline completed. I deserve a cookie!”
- Logic: “Walk away. I repeat, turn around and walk away.”
- Emotion: “It’s just one cookie. I’ll work it off later. Like I said, I deserve it.”
In this scenario, stress is the emotion that hijacked your thoughts, threw logic out the window and told you to eat not only one cookie but to indulge in two more. For a fleeting moment you may have dodged a feeling, but soon thereafter, the underlying problem behind the emotion is back.
Without understanding the triggers behind your eating habits, emotion almost always wins the battle. Once you begin to recognize and manage those feelings, you have conscious control to make better choices that don’t involve food, and you’re able to create a healthy lifestyle long term.
Now that we understand the why behind emotional eating, let's dig into how to combat it with these three steps:
Step 1: Recognize the six cues of emotional hunger versus physical hunger.
- Comes on suddenly
- Is overwhelming and urgent (You can’t get it out of your head. It feels like you NEED it and nothing else will do.)
- Craves a specific food (primarily carbs or sugary foods)
- Isn’t satisfied once you’ve eaten and are full
- Stems from soothing an emotion, not physical hunger
- Creates a feeling of shame, guilt or regret afterwards
- Comes on gradually
- Doesn’t demand instant satisfaction
- Craves any type of food (almost anything sounds good to eat, including healthy foods, such as vegetables)
- Is satisfied once you’ve eaten
- Is brought on because your body needs energy and nourishment
- Leaves you feeling content after you eat
Step 2: Understand your patterns and identify the triggers.
Sometimes it takes digging deep to find the root of your food struggles. Once you recognize your triggers, you can work toward moving past them.
Some of the most common underlying triggers to emotional eating:
- You’re depressed, lonely or feel a sense of shame
- You’re upset or angry
- You’re anxious or stressed
- You’re tired
- You’re bored and feel like you don’t have a purpose
- It’s a childhood habit that’s been carried into adulthood (such as being rewarded for good behavior)
Step 3: Identify whatever the emotion is behind your eating and address it.
Becoming aware of your patterns is the first step toward improvement. Addressing those patterns is how you make lifestyle changes. Rather than telling yourself “I’m so anxious,” you must get to the root of the problem and uncover why you’re so anxious. Fill in those difficult to identify blanks. “I’m so anxious because ___.” Then ask yourself, “What can I do to help combat this emotion other than eating, and why am I hesitant to address this emotion head on?”
- Are you worried about a deadline coming up?
- Are you feeling hopeless because of your recent weight gain?
- Are you frustrated with a family member?
After gaining understanding, you can work on combating the emotions behind your triggers. This takes time! The journey of self-discovery and understanding your emotions is like an onion. When you peel away one layer, another emotion could be layered underneath it.
In a nutshell
Ask yourself these questions before you take a bite:
- Am I physically hungry? If the answer is NO, it's likely that your desire to eat is a response to emotion, NOT hunger.
- What is driving me to want to eat right now? How am I feeling?
- What can I do to prevent myself from emotionally eating?
- How will I feel about myself later if I do eat out of emotion?
Logging your habits is the best way to become aware of your underlying triggers and emotions that lead to emotional eating.
Now that you understand how emotional eating can overthrow your logic, ask yourself if this is something that you struggle with. If the answer is yes, check out the logs below to conquer your emotional eating habits and set yourself up for healthy success:
Commonly asked questions
Why should I log? Keeping an accurate food diary that includes the specifics of what, when, where and why you eat will help you gain control over and identify the underlying issues behind your food struggles.
When should I log? Print and use your Daily Emotional Eating Log anytime you have the urge to eat outside of your regular meals.
How do I evaluate my patterns? At the end of the week, you'll print and use the Weekly Emotional Eating Review to help you gain understanding of your emotional eating patterns and behaviors.
How long should I use the Daily Emotional Eating Log and Weekly Emotional Eating Review? We recommend you log your emotional eating until you feel like you have a handle on things. After that, it's completely up to you. You can continue to use the log for accountability or use it on occasion if you feel you're stepping back into old habits.
Once you recognize your triggers, you may be able to work through them on your own, or you may find you need the support and guidance of someone who is educated in the matter. We're here to tell you first hand, sometimes seeking help from someone more skilled doesn’t just help you take a step toward success, it catapults you toward it! Once you address the emotions behind your eating, not only will your waistline thank you, your mind will too. You may find it feels like a weight has been lifted off your chest that you weren’t aware was holding you down.
- Print out the Daily Emotional Eating Log and Weekly Emotional Eating Review. Track your patterns over the next 2 weeks and evaluate.
- Remind yourself that it’s okay to eat out of emotion occasionally, but not in excess or on a consistent basis.
- Be mindful of when and why you’re eating.
- Hold yourself accountable and address what’s causing you to want to eat.
- If you find that you're an emotional eater and are unable to make changes on your own, consider seeking professional help.