How To Turn Emotional Eating Into Healthy Habits
When I was younger I would frequently partake in late night feasts of biscuits, crisps and fizzy drinks. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, looking back on my behaviour I now see this was a form of emotional eating. Perhaps this is a behaviour you recognise in yourself, or it may be something you see in those you care about.
Emotional eating can lead to unplanned weight gain, increasing our risk of poor health from conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. If we feel ashamed or embarrassed by the way our bodies look due to this weight gain, emotional eating can form a destructive spiral of behaviour causing further eating episodes in an attempt to self-sooth.
You may be wondering why you do this and how best to manage it. Rest assured there are many evidence-based strategies available to help people manage emotional eating. In this article we’ll go through some of these together. To make the process a bit clearer, I’ll give you some common examples I often hear in my clinic.
Consistently using these strategies is not going to be easy, especially when first starting out. However, after reading through these steps you will have the knowledge and confidence to make changes to your eating habits, taking one step forward to improving your health.
So what is emotional eating?
Emotional eating typically revolves around using food as a means to cope with difficult emotions such as sadness, anger or frustration. As the term suggests, physical hunger plays very little part in this reason for eating.
So how do we tell the difference between emotional eating and physical hunger?
For most people emotional hunger will develop suddenly and not be connected to a meal time. It may be triggered by an emotionally charged event, stay with you even if you feel full, and potentially lead to feelings of guilt or shame.
In contrast to these, physical hunger builds gradually and has physical sign such as tummy rumbling. It is based on meal timing, will be satisfied by eating, and goes away once satisfied.
By learning to tell the difference between these two types of hunger we can implement the appropriate response.
One of the first steps to managing emotional eating is to recognise which emotions you tend to use it in response to.
Let’s go through these together. Here are three examples we’ll use throughout this exercise.
Stressed - I’m having a hard time in work.
Angry - I just had an argument with my partner.
Sad - I have no one to talk to.
Next let's try and identify when, where and with whom this happens?
Stressed - After lunch, in work with my boss
Angry - After work in the house with my partner.
Sad - In the evening, at home, when I’m on my own.
And finally, let’s add in what happens when we experience these feelings.
Stressed - Went to the vending machine and bought a fizzy drink and chocolate to have in the bathroom.
Angry - Went to the fridge and ate a pot ice cream in the bedroom.
Sad - Sat on the couch watching lord of the rings, I finished a whole pack of biscuits.
So how do we break this cycle of behaviour?
Some people may not be aware that they are using food to manage emotions until after they have eaten. Rest assured it is possible to experience difficult emotions and not eat in response. Next we will look at what we can do to manage emotional eating.
The more we reflect on and consider our feelings the better we will be able to see how they impact on our life. However, once we have this knowledge we do need to take action.
There will never be one perfect strategy for managing emotional eating. This is why it is helpful develop a range of solutions, so we can pick the one that feels most appropriate in the moment.
When developing these solutions, it may be helpful to understand the difference between defence mechanisms and coping strategies. Defence mechanisms tend to be unconscious decisions we make in response to stressful situations, they can be helpful or a hindrance to our long-term happiness. For example, denial is a very common defence mechanism in response to an accusation. In contrast, a coping mechanism is based on logic, and helps us deal with a stressful event in the moment without detracting from our quality of life.
An important step in developing more coping strategies is to clearly identify how emotional eating makes you feel across multiple points in time.
Ask yourself, does it make you feel better in the moment? You may say yes I do actually feel better, or, yes, but only because it distracts me from the difficult emotion.
If so, how long does this last? For many, the relief this brings is very short, maybe a few minutes at best.
How do you feel after overeating? There may now be new emotions that you are dealing with, these could include guilt, shame, frustration or disappointment.
Finally, does it help with your health or weight goals? This is likely to be a no for most people.
At this point we are just looking to acknowledge the behaviour for what it is. An unhelpful defence mechanism in response to difficult emotions that often leads to further negative emotions.
Let’s make a plan for success
What are some potential alternative coping strategies we can use to deal with these difficult emotions?
Stressed - Manage stress by communicating my concerns, asking for help, writing down my feelings as a way to express them and using breathing or meditation exercises both inside and outside of work.
Angry - Reflect on what may be leading to the argument, if you and your partner are both tired from work might there be a better time to discuss things. If you feel this can’t be avoided, perhaps going for a short walk instead of eating would be a good coping strategy.
Sad - Are there any groups or community activities you can join. Perhaps if you struggle with portion management, consider if you are eating enough for your evening meal. If not, this may mean and are feeling peckish in the night. Also consider if it would be better to avoid having these types of food in the house.
Overcoming emotional eating is not always easy and it can take multiple attempts to find coping strategies that work for you. By monitoring what has and hasn’t worked for you, you will be able to generate a list of go-to behaviours you can rely on to deal with difficult emotions. You could do this by keeping a journal and recording times you have felt these emotions, noting what you did in response to it and how well it worked. Overtime you will develop a range of strategies for dealing with difficult emotions. It is OK if these do not always work. But we do need to start somewhere.
As a general rule I would encourage you to express your emotions, not eat them. If you want to cry, cry. If you want to shout, shout and if you want to laugh, then you know what to do! Holding onto or trying to suppress our emotions can lead to them becoming stronger and getting expressed in ways we may not expect.