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HOW TO RECOGNIZE AND STOP EMOTIONAL EATING
We don’t always eat simply to satisfy hunger. We also turn to food for comfort, stress relief, or as a reward. Unfortunately, emotional eating doesn’t fix emotional problems. It usually makes you feel worse. Afterward, not only does the original emotional issue remain, but you also feel guilty for overeating. Learning to recognize your emotional eating triggers is the first step to breaking free from food cravings and compulsive overeating, and changing the habits that have sabotaged your diets in the past.
Understanding Emotional Eating
If you’ve ever make room for dessert even though you’re already full or dove into a pint of ice cream when you’re feeling down, you’ve experienced emotional eating. Emotional eating is using food to make yourself feel better—eating to fill emotional needs, rather than to fill your stomach.
Using food from time to time as a pick me up, a reward, or to celebrate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism—when your first impulse is to open the refrigerator whenever you’re upset, angry, lonely, stressed, exhausted, or bored—you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the real feeling or problem is never addressed.
Emotional hunger can’t be filled with food. Eating may feel good in the moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there. And you often feel worse than you did before because of the unnecessary calories you consumed. You beat yourself for messing up and not having more willpower. Compounding the problem, you stop learning healthier ways to deal with your emotions, you have a harder and harder time controlling your weight, and you feel increasingly powerless over both food and your feelings.
Are You an Emotional Eater?
The Difference Between Emotional Hunger and Physical Hunger
Before you can break free from the cycle of emotional eating, you first need to learn how to distinguish between emotional and physical hunger. This can be trickier than it sounds, especially if you regularly use food to deal with your feelings.
Emotional hunger can be powerful. As a result, it’s easy to mistake it for physical hunger. But there are clues you can look for that can help you tell physical and emotional hunger apart.
Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. It hits you in an instant and feels overwhelming and urgent. Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes on more gradually. The urge to eat doesn’t feel as dire or demand instant satisfaction (unless you haven’t eaten for a very long time).
Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods. When you’re physically hungry, almost anything sounds good—including healthy stuff like vegetables. But emotional hunger craves fatty foods or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush. You feel like you need cheesecake or pizza, and nothing else will do.
Emotional hunger often leads to mindless eating. Before you know it, you’ve eaten a whole bag of chips or an entire pint of ice cream without really paying attention or fully enjoying it. When you’re eating in response to physical hunger, you’re typically more aware of what you’re doing.
Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied once you’re full. You keep wanting more and more, often eating until you’re uncomfortably stuffed. Physical hunger, on the other hand, doesn't need to be stuffed. You feel satisfied when your stomach is full.
Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach. Rather than a growling belly or a pang in your stomach, you feel your hunger as a craving you can’t get out of your head. You’re focused on specific textures, tastes, and smells.
Emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, or shame. When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you’re unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed because you’re simply giving your body what it needs. If you feel guilty after you eat, it's likely because you know deep down that you’re not eating for nutritional reasons.
Emotional hunger vs. Physical hunger
Emotional hunger comes on suddenly.
Physical hunger comes on gradually.
Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly.
Physical hunger can wait.
Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods.
Physical hunger is open to options–lots of things sound good.
Emotional hunger isn't satisfied with a full stomach.
Physical hunger stops when you're full.
Emotional eating triggers feelings of guilt, powerlessness, and shame.
Eating to satisfy physical hunger doesn't make you feel bad about yourself.
Stop Emotional Eating Tip 1: Identify your triggers
People eat for many different reasons. The first step in putting a stop to emotional eating is identifying your personal triggers. What situations, places, or feelings make you reach for the comfort of food?
Keep in mind that while most emotional eating is linked to unpleasant feelings, it can also be triggered by positive emotions, such as rewarding yourself for achieving a goal or celebrating a holiday or happy event.
Common Causes of Emotional Eating
Keep an Emotional Eating Diary
You probably recognized yourself in at least a few of the previous descriptions. But even so, you’ll want to get even more specific. One of the best ways to identify the patterns behind your emotional eating is to keep track with a food and mood diary.
Every time you overeat or feel compelled to reach for your version of comfort food Kryptonite, take a moment to figure out what triggered the urge. If you backtrack, you’ll usually find an upsetting event that kicked of the emotional eating cycle. Write it all down in your food and mood diary: what you ate (or wanted to eat), what happened to upset you, how you felt before you ate, what you felt as you were eating, and how you felt afterward.
Over time, you’ll see a pattern emerge. Maybe you always end up gorging yourself after spending time with a critical friend. Or perhaps you stress eat whenever you’re on a deadline or when you attend family functions. Once you identify your emotional eating triggers, the next step is identifying healthier ways to feed your feelings.
Stop Emotional Eating Tip 2: Find other ways to feed your feelings
Quick stress relief can help you fight food cravings
If you don’t know how to manage your emotions in a way that doesn’t involve food, you won’t be able to control your eating habits for very long. Diets so often fail because they offer logical nutritional advice, as if the only thing keeping you from eating right is knowledge. But that kind of advice only works if you have conscious control over your eating habits. It doesn’t work when emotions hijack the process, demanding an immediate payoff with food.
In order to stop emotional eating, you have to find other ways to fulfill yourself emotionally. It’s not enough to understand the cycle of emotional eating or even to understand your triggers, although that’s a huge first step. You need alternatives to food that you can turn to for emotional fulfillment.
Alternatives to Emotional Eating
Stop Emotional Eating Tip 3: Pause when cravings hit
Most emotional eaters feel powerless over their food cravings. When the urge to eat hits, it’s all you can think about. You feel an almost unbearable tension that demands to be fed, right now! Because you’ve tried to resist in the past and failed, you believe that your willpower just isn’t up to snuff. But the truth is that you have more power over your cravings than you think.
As mentioned earlier, emotional eating tends to be automatic and virtually mindless. Before you even realize what you’re doing, you’ve reached for a tub of ice cream and polished off half of it. But if you can take a moment to pause and reflect when you’re hit with a craving, you give yourself the opportunity to make a different decision.
All you have to do is put off eating for five minutes, or if five minutes seems unmanageable, start with one minute. Don’t tell yourself you can’t give in to the craving; remember, the forbidden is extremely tempting. Just tell yourself to wait. While you’re waiting, check in with yourself. How are you feeling? What’s going on emotionally? Even if you end up eating, you’ll have a better understanding of why you did it. This can help you set yourself up for a different response next time.
While it may seem that the core problem is that you’re powerless over food, emotional eating actually stems from feeling powerless over your emotions. You don’t feel capable of dealing with your feelings head on, so you avoid them with food.
Allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable emotions can be scary. You may fear that, like Pandora’s box, once you open the door you won’t be able to shut it. But the truth is that when we don’t obsess over or suppress our emotions, even the most painful and difficult feelings subside relatively quickly and lose their power to control our attention. To do this you need to become mindful – and there is a lot of real evidence to support the fact that mindfulness is effective – I think we should reference ride the wild horse mindfulness meditation and the toolkit because it not only helps people learn how to be mindful but helps them remain mindful at times of stress and emotional overwhelm.
What’s more, your life will be richer when you open yourself up emotionally. Our feelings are a window into our interior world. They help us understand and discover our deepest desires and fears, our current frustrations, and the things that will make us happy.
Stop Emotional Eating Tip 4: Support yourself with healthy lifestyle habits
When you’re physically strong, relaxed, and well rested, you’re better able to handle the curveballs that life inevitably throws your way. But when you’re already exhausted and overwhelmed, any little hiccup has the potential to send you off the rails and straight toward the refrigerator. Exercise, sleep, and other healthy lifestyle habits will help you get through difficult times without emotional eating.
If you've tried self-help options but you still can't get control of your emotional eating, consider therapy with a professional mental health provider. Therapy can help you understand the motivations behind your emotional eating and help you learn new coping skills. Therapy can also help you discover whether you may have an eating disorder, which is sometimes connected to emotional eating.
Most doctors are at a loss when it comes to dealing with emotional concerns. Far too often things are "solved" by recommending medications that have harmful side-effects. Sometimes the medication causes you to gain weight which leads to feeling worse about yourself and feeds the cycle of emotional eating. You may be asked to go to counselling and see if you can resolve the basis for the emotional eating.
Medicines Two Choices for You
Working with a Holistic Chiropractor who understands all the facets of life, eating and the emotional connection to food makes a lot of sense. Having a professional with insightful experience to be on your team will allow you to develop a new relationship with food and eliminate the emotional eating cycles. Addressing the imbalances within your system to restore proper digestion and re-establish emotional balance with food is necessary if you choose to put this health concern behind you.
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Advanced Alternative Medicine Center
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Dr. Richard A. Huntoon