Emotional Eating

Heather Reese Health Guide
  • What Is Emotional Eating?

    I think everyone has eaten for emotional reasons: a breakup, health problems, a fight, a death in the family, a stressful day at work, the kids are driving you crazy or you’ve experienced a change in your routine. Many of us turn to food to soothe negative emotions like anger, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, sadness and stress. Often when we eat for these reasons we overeat, which can lead to weight gain.

    Emotional eating is when a person consumes large amounts of foods, usually high calorie, high fat junk foods, in response to feelings rather than hunger. Experts estimate that 75 percent of overeating is caused by emotions. For many people the pleasure of eating offsets negative feelings.
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    If you are one of the millions of people who eat for emotional reasons, you can take steps to change these behaviors and gain control of your eating.

    Consequences of Emotional Eating

    While food is a distraction from your negative emotions, the distraction is short lived. While you focus on the food as you are eating, as soon as you are done you refocus onto what you were upset about. And in fact, these emotions can be compounded by guilt about overeating. This behavior can lead to long-term consequences like obesity and it’s related health problems, guilt and shame. Furthermore, using food to cope with emotional problems prevents you from learning other coping mechanisms that can better serve you in the long term.

    Controlling Emotional Eating

    Though it may feel like your emotional eating is bigger than yourself, there are steps that you can take to overcome this unhealthy behavior.

    • Learn to recognize physical hunger. It’s important to be able to recognize if you are eating because you are truly hungry or because you are feeling upset or stressed. Take a quick inventory of your body, is your stomach grumbling? Consider when you last ate. If it’s only been an hour or so since you last ate and you’re not feeling any physical symptoms of hunger you probably aren’t hungry. Try refocusing your attention onto something else or drinking a large glass of water and letting the urge to eat pass.

    • Don’t skip meals. You may be more likely to give into emotional eating if you aren’t getting enough calories to meet your body’s nutritional needs. If you skip meals, you are more likely to feel very hungry and overeating is easier to do.

    • Don’t keep your refrigerator stocked with unhealthy foods. If you have high calorie, high fat junk foods around than it is easier to take comfort in these foods. Avoid grocery shopping when you are feeling emotional, as you may be more likely to stock up on comfort foods at this time.

    • Talk yourself through it. If you are feeling the urge to eat for emotional reasons, take a second to ask yourself a few questions. Will eating this make these feelings go away? How will I feel after I eat this?

    Identifying Triggers

    It is important to identify the things that trigger your emotional eating episodes. Keeping a food journal allows you to recognize when you are overeating. Track what you are eating, how much you are eating, when you are eating, and how you feel when you are eating. After a few days, you will be able to begin to identify what triggers are causing you to eat for emotional reasons.

  • Overcoming Emotional Eating
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    Once you’ve identified some things that trigger your emotional eating, you can begin to employ other techniques to deal with your negative emotions. Braking the habit of using food to soothe you is not easy. It is important to identify other coping mechanisms before you have the urge to eat for emotional reasons.

    Instead of eating, try reading, knitting, indulging in a bubble bath, or going for a walk around the block. Employ relaxation techniques like meditation, deep breathing, or listening to music. You can also take on emotional eating with a friend. Consider identifying someone you can call when you feel the urge to eat for emotional reasons.

    Braking the habit of emotional eating is not easy, so reward yourself when you are able to overcome the urge. At the same time, forgive yourself if you give in to emotional eating. Try to learn from that episode and plan how you will handle the next urge to use food to sooth yourself.
Published On: September 20, 2006

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