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We don’t always consume food simply because our bodies require nutrients. Many people also seek out food for emotional reasons, such as comfort, stress relief, and rewards. When we do so, we often choose junk food, desserts, and other high-calorie treats. You may crave an ice cream sundae when you’re feeling blue, order a slice of pie when you’re bored, or stop by McDonalds after a hard day at work.
Emotional eaters often use foods to cope with negative emotions. They may eat because they’re bored, lonely, angry, sad, frustrated, anxious, or depressed. But these feelings aren’t fixed by stuffing your face; instead, they get worse. When you eat emotionally, you can end up feeling bad about yourself after you’ve eaten. You might think you’ll “fix” an emotion by numbing out with something sweet or salty, but you won’t. And if you do find yourself feeling better, chances are you’ll just crave more unhealthy foods later.
What Is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is the act of consuming food for any reason other than hunger or thirst. This includes eating for pleasure, comfort, relaxation, distraction, or reward. Emotional eating is when you eat because you feel bad about yourself, your life, your relationship, your job, your weight, etc. Emotional eating can be a very destructive habit that leads to overeating and obesity.
If you think you have an emotional eating disorder engages in emotional eating, you eats not only because your body needs nourishment, but also because you wants to:
- Distract from painful thoughts or memories,
- Escape from unpleasant situations,
- Relieve boredom or loneliness,
- Make themselves feel good about themselves,
- Avoid dealing with difficult issues,
- Give themselves a treat,
- Fill a void left by another person,
- Gain control over their lives,
- Numb out.
Causes of Emotional Eating
Emotional eating isn’t just about overeating because you’re stressed or sad. Some people eat because they are bored, lonely, angry, or anxious. These emotions don’t necessarily lead to overeating, but they do cause us to seek relief in unhealthy ways.
If you’ve ever been tempted to eat something sweet, salty, fatty, or sugary when you’re feeling blue, chances are there’s another reason behind those cravings. Maybe you’re trying to cope with boredom, loneliness, anger, or anxiety. Or maybe you’re simply seeking comfort.
Physical Hunger vs. Emotional Hunger
Emotional eaters may not always realize they’re doing it, but for others, emotional overeating can cause them to put on weight or even go through cycles of bingeing.
One problem with emotional overeating is that once the pleasure of the food has passed, the feelings that caused you to eat it stay. So you might feel even worse about having eaten the amount or type of foods you ate. That’s why knowing the difference between physical and emotional needs is important.
When you’re hungry, look at what kind of hunger is behind your craving:
Hunger caused by physical factors:
- It comes on gradually and can be delayed.
- You can satisfy yourself with any number of foods.
- Means you’re likely not to eat until you feel hungry again.
- It doesn’t feel guilty.
Hunger for emotional connection:
- It feels sudden and urgent.
- It may cause specific cravings (for example, for pizza or ice-cold drinks).
- Can help you eat more than you usually would.
- Can cause guilt after eating it.
How to Know If You’re An Emotional Eater?
Emotional eating is a common problem among people who struggle with weight loss. Emotional eating occurs when we overeat because we’re stressed, angry, sad, lonely, bored, anxious, excited, etc. We might binge on junk food, ice cream, cookies, cake, candy, chips, crackers, pasta, pizza, burgers, fries, burritos, tacos, nachos, popcorn, donuts, pies, cakes, brownies, muffins, chocolates, candies, ice cream, etc.
We often eat emotionally because it feels good to us. When we do this, we may feel:
- Out of control around certain foods.
- An urge to eat when we feel powerful emotions.
- An urge or craving to eat even when we aren’t physically hungry.
- Like food calms or rewards us.
- A sense of comfort or relaxation.
If you are experiencing these, you may also suffer from an emotional eating problem. Read more learn details.
Themes Regarding Concerns About Emotional Eating
According to a research survey conducted by Mallory, Simone and Barbel shared on the National Library of Medicine, the following types of mood disorders have been discovered. (Click here if you want to visit the original site.)
There were six overarching themes regarding participants’ concerns about their emotional eating:
1. Concerns about weight,
2. Concerns about health,
3. Emotional eating as an ineffective coping mechanism,
4. Emotional eating as difficult to abate,
5. Avoiding immediate negative physical and psychological effects of emotional eating,
6. Negative social evaluation.
T1: Concerns about weight
The majority of participants endorsed concerns about eventual weight gain. While some participants viewed emotional eating as a barrier to attaining their ideal body weight, others believed that over time, emotional eating would cause them to become overweight. Some participants put forward the idea that their worry about weight gain would protect them from actually gaining weight. Similarly, some participants noted that they were diligent about compensatory behaviors such as exercise because they were concerned about weight gain.
Although many participants were more concerned about long term weight gain, some participants endorsed that their emotional eating could trigger them to worry about immediate weight gain.
Additionally, a few participants described a relationship between avoiding emotional eating and body image concerns. The negative body image that they believed would come with weight gain was cited as motivation to avoid emotional eating.
T2: Concerns about health
Participants reported concerns about their health, regardless of weight. Multiple individuals noted that they were actively trying to reduce their emotional eating because of anticipated health concerns. Some described worry about experiencing similar health concerns to their parents, such as developing chronic diseases like diabetes. Participants mostly predicted long-term concerns about their health but were not noticeably concerned about the implications of emotional eating on their health in the short-term. Multiple participants also noted that they were concerned about health problems associated with weight cycling that could occur as a result of emotional eating. Regardless of weight gain, however, individuals noted concern about the potential effects of their emotional eating on their overall health.
T3: Emotional eating as an ineffective coping mechanism
Some participants viewed emotional eating as an unhealthy way to cope with their problems. These participants believed that emotional eating carried mental repercussions such as negative body image and ineffective coping. A few participants put forth the idea that emotional eating covered up a deeper issue that needed to be dealt with. Some of the participants who endorsed emotional eating as an unhealthy way to cope with stress reported that they were actively working on using alternatives to coping mechanisms.
Multiple participants cited concern that their emotional eating would lead to other, more problematic behaviors. They believed that engaging in emotional eating reduced their willpower and could make it easier to use other substances for comfort and emotion regulation. In other words, they cited concerns about “addiction transfer” from food to other addictive substances.
T4: Emotional eating as difficult to abate
Participants were varied in their motivation to cease emotional eating. Many participants believed that their emotional eating would be virtually impossible to get rid of. While some described that they were actively trying to reduce emotional eating, others were more ambivalent about changing their emotional eating. Multiple participants tended to normalize their emotional eating, justifying that because they were normal weight, they needed not be concerned about it. Some had previously tried to eliminate their emotional eating and because of failed past attempts they were now content with the reality that their emotional eating could not be eliminated.
Many participants described concerns pertaining to emotional eating and control. Control was described on a continuum from feeling in control of their emotional eating at times, to worrying about “losing control” over emotional eating. For many of the participants who described concerns with control, emotional eating was considered an addiction. Also, some participants felt ashamed of their emotional eating and regarded it as an indicator of low self-control.
T5: Avoiding immediate negative physical and psychological effects of emotional eating
Most participants described that both the physical and psychological effects that occurred as a result of emotional eating were unpleasant. Some participants noted that they disliked the bloated and lethargic feelings that resulted from overeating. Participants also endorsed that avoiding aversive physical consequences related to emotional eating motivated them to avoid engaging in this behavior. Some participants said that they avoided emotional eating because they knew that their bodies felt better when they consumed healthier foods.
Participants also cited the desire to avoid aversive psychological consequences of emotional eating, such as feelings of guilt and shame. Many participants described that guilt helped them to self-regulate. For example, for some participants guilt arose from fear of gaining weight, thus motivating them to avoid emotional eating. Overall, participants described that negative psychological feelings such as guilt helped motivate them to not engage in emotional eating.
Conversely, other participants endorsed that they did not experience negative feelings such as guilt after emotionally eating. They reported feeling that emotional eating was normal, had no noticeable effects on their body, and that the act of eating palatable food was overall pleasant.
T6: Negative social evaluation
Several participants saw their eating habits as abnormal compared to that of their peers and cited this as a motivation to change their behavior. Hearing other people’s negative comments about their eating, especially those of family members helped some participants reduce their emotional eating. Others described that seeing their roommates and friends eating healthier foods motivated them to do the same and thus not engage in emotional eating behaviors.
Others endorsed the concern that their behavior would be off-putting to others if they were aware of it.
How to Stop Emotional Eating?
It can be hard to change a habit like emotional eating, but it is possible. Below are some ways to help you cope:
Start an Emotion Diary
Understanding your emotions is key to understanding why you eat. Knowing how you feel when you overeat helps you change bad eating patterns.
Keep track of the times when you eat without feeling physically hungry. Note down:
- What happened?
- How you felt?
- Any feelings you had when you felt an appetite for food.
You may also wish to include a space where you can note down what you did. Did your meal go well? Was it delicious? Did you finish everything? Were you hungry after eating?
Don’t just assume that you know why you’re eating in certain situations. Be genuinely curious about what happens when you eat in reaction to emotions.
You don’t need to become an expert at this right away. Just get started. Don’t worry if it isn’t perfect yet.
Check if You’re Really Hungry
If you’ve eaten recently then you’re probably not feeling too hungry. However, if you’re having feelings of hunger, it might be because you’re emotionally upset. You can distract yourself from these feelings by doing something else – maybe go for a walk, talk to someone or watch TV. Alternatively, you could eat a snack instead of another piece of cake.
Focus on Your Goals
Don’t get too caught up in counting calories, weighing every bite, and obsessing about how much you weigh. You’ll miss out on what really matters—the life you’ve chosen. And remember, your body doesn’t care whether you eat one hundred fifty calories or two thousand five hundred. So stop stressing and just enjoy the ride!
Find Your Balance
Living a balanced lifestyle involves being happy with yourself and your surroundings. You should make sure that you meet your physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs. A healthy lifestyle includes having good nutrition, getting enough rest, exercising regularly, and enjoying hobbies. When it comes to meals and dining out, an unhealthy lifestyle often leads to overeating, lack of sleep, and not taking care of oneself physically. In order to maintain a healthy lifestyle, you must take steps to ensure that you are doing what you can to keep yourself happy and comfortable.
You may not need any outside support, but having a network of family and friends can be just as helpful as seeking out professional advice. People who care about your health can cheer you on, share ideas for healthier meals, recognize the emotional underpinnnings of your eating disorders, and perhaps even become part of your recovery team. Surround yourself with supportive people who want to lend an ear, encourage you, and motivate you.
Look to Yourself
Successful people know how to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. They also know how to recognize failure before it happens. They’re able to get back on track after falling off the wagon. And they know what to do when things go wrong. That’s why they succeed.
Mindfulness has many positive effects on one’s physical and mental well-being. It’s been proven to help people lose weight by reducing their stress levels.
Mindfulness is the act of focusing on the present moment without judgment. If you find that certain emotions trigger your eating habits, mindfulness practices may be helpful.
Mindfulness practices include things like meditation, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises or:
- Sitting quietly and concentrating on your breathing,
- Doing a body scan allows you to discover any tensions in your body and intentionally relax them,
- Listen to a guiding meditation,
- Focus on the objects around you and list some of them that you can taste, feel, see, hear, and touch.
Mindful eating is an approach to eating that focuses on internal signals to guide decision making about foods. It encourages people to pay attention to their bodies’ hunger and satiety signals and makes them aware of when they’re full. It has been found to be helpful for weight loss and maintenance.
Eating is an enjoyable activity that involves slowing down, paying attention to the food’s appearance, smell, flavor, texture, and sound.
Mindful chewing is about pausing before swallowing to fully examine what needs to be chewed next. Is it food? What kind of food? If not, then what can I chew on?
You have to be patient and take your time to learn to eat mindfully. If you’re interested in learning more about it, consider contacting a dietitians who has expertise with mindful or intuitive eating practices.
Exercise Your Body
Exercise can help you deal with stress and improve your mood and exercise has been shown to relieve stress, which may be one reason why it reduces cravings for unhealthy foods. Endorphins released during an exercise session can lift your mood and provide a sense of well-being. A regular exercise regimen can also improve overall health by reducing stress and boosting energy levels.
You don’t need to go full out for every workout session. If you aren’t already physically active, start by walking or gently moving through stretches for just 5 minutes at a time. Notice how this makes your body feel.
It appears that people who regularly participate in mindful activities like yoga tend to experience lower levels of stress.
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Practice Positive Self-talk
Positive thinking and compassion for yourself when dealing with emotional eaters is an important tool to help you manage emotional eaters.
Try to get better at noticing when you’re telling yourself stories about why something won’t happen. You might benefit from writing them down.
Remember that you don’t have to believe everything your mind says. Ask yourself why you think something is true.
Once you’re more aware of all the self-sabotaging beliefs that show up, you’ll be able to start working on changing them. Write down any ways you might speak to yourself differently. Think about how you’d speak to a close friend and use that language when talking to yourself.
Here are examples:
Instead of focusing on what you can’t do, think about how you can improve your skills. You may not be great at your job, but you can get better. Don’t let yourself off the hook because you made one mistake. Think about ways you can avoid future errors. Focus on what you can control rather than what you can’ t. Learn from your failures so they won’t happen again.
Tips to Try
These suggestions may be helpful if you’re having trouble controlling your emotions when they arise:
Try to understand why you’re eating and replace it with something else.
Too often, we hurry through the day without really taking stock of our needs. Before reaching for food, pause and ask yourself if you’re truly hungry or if it’s something else. For example:If you find yourself bored: Call or text a close buddy or family member.If your stress level is high: Try a yoga session or take a brisk stroll outdoors.Or try listening to music and letting off steam by doing some dance moves in your bedroom until you’ve had enough.If you’re tired and can’t fall asleep: Turn off electronic devices an hour before bed and read a book instead.You’ll wake up feeling refreshed!
Write down the feelings or thoughts that trigger your eating. A good way to do this is with a mood and snack journal. Write down what foods you’re craving, how much, and what you were thinking about before you took them. Was it boredom or hunger that made you reach for something sweet? Through journaling, your brain will begin to associate certain feelings with certain foods. You can then use this knowledge to help you choose healthier options. For example, if you find yourself reaching for cookies whenever you’re stressed out, try to avoid those situations. Or maybe you crave chocolate every time you get an idea for a new business venture. By writing down these associations, you can learn to control your cravings.
Finally, eat mindfully. Be aware of what you’re eating and recognize when you’re full.
What’s Your Replacement for Emotional Eating?
I have a confession. I’m an emotional eater. It’s something that has been with my since childhood and it’s something that I still grapple with today. When I used to be younger, my parents would say that I should only feel hungry when I actually needed to feed myself. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that “feeling” hunger doesn’t mean that I really need to feed myself. In fact, feeling hungry can often lead to overeating. So instead of listening to my body, I’d rather listen to my emotions. And when I do, I find that I’ll often reach for food just because I’m feeling sad, angry, or frustrated.
Until recently, I hadn’t realized that I’d developed an unhealthy relationship with foods. In fact, I was finding myself overeating even though it was obvious that I shouldn’t be eating so much. And I also couldn’t figure out how to control emotional eating when it happened.
In the past few decades, I have tried many methods to deal with my emotional problems. Some of them were helpful, but others weren’t. One of the best ways that I found to help me stop emotional overeating was to write down all the good qualities about myself. Then, I would write down all the bad qualities about myself. After doing this exercise I realized that there are really only two kinds of people who struggle with emotional overeating. Those who overeat because they are unhappy and the ones who overeat because they don’ t feel happy.
The first kind of people who consume food do so out of fear of not wanting to be unhappy. They consume food to avoid feeling bad. People who are hungry often overeat. Some people overeat because they’re afraid that if they don’t, they’ll get fat. Others overeat because they believe that they should be able to enjoy eating what they desire. Overeating can also help people forget about other things. Finally, some people overeat because they just plain love to stuff their faces!
The second type of person suffers from emotional eating because you doesn’t want to feel unhappy. You thinks that if you eats, then he/she won’t feel bad. People like this usually eat because they are afraid of what they will do if they don’t. Don’t be afraid, just fighting girl!