Emotional eating is the consumption of large quantities of food — usually “comfort” or junk foods — in response to feelings instead of hunger. Experts estimate that 75% of overeating is caused by emotions.
Many of us learn that food can bring comfort, at least in the short-term. As a result, we often turn to food to heal emotional problems. Eating becomes a habit preventing us from learning skills that can effectively resolve our emotional distress.
By identifying what triggers our emotional eating, we can substitute more proper techniques to manage our emotional problems and take food and weight gain out of the equation.
How to find eating triggers:
Situations and emotions that trigger us to eat more than we should fall into five main categories.
- Social. Eating when around other people. For example, excessive eating can result from being encouraged by others to eat; eating to fit in; arguing; or feelings of inadequacy around other people.
- Emotional. Eating in response to boredom, stress, fatigue, tension, depression, anger, anxiety, or loneliness as a way to “fill the void”.
- Situational. Eating because the opportunity is there. For example, at a restaurant, seeing an advertisement for a particular food, passing by a bakery. Eating may also be associated with certain activities such as watching TV, going to the cinema or a sporting event, etc.
- Thoughts. Eating as a result of negative self-worth or making excuses for eating. For example, scolding oneself for looks or a lack of will power.
- Physiological.Eating in response to physical cues. For example, increased hunger due to skipping meals or eating to cure headaches or other pain.
To find what triggers excessive eating, keep a food diary that records what and when you eat as well as what thoughts, or emotions you find as you eat. You should begin to find patterns of excessive eating fairly quickly.
Break bad eating habits:
Identifying emotional eating triggers and bad eating habits is the first step; however, this alone is not enough to alter eating behaviour. Usually, by the time you have identified a pattern, eating in response to emotions or certain situations has become a habit. Now you have to break that habit.
Developing alternatives to eating is the second step. When you start to reach for food in response to an eating trigger, try one of the following activities instead:
- Read a good book or magazine, or listen to music
- Go for a walk or jog.
- Have a bubble bath.
- Do deep breathing exercises.
- Play cards or a board game.
- Talk to a friend.
- Do housework
- Wash the car.
- Write an e-mail.
- Or do any other pleasurable or necessary activity until the urge to eat passes.
Other emotional eating strategies
Sometimes simply distracting yourself from eating and developing alternative habits is not enough to manage the emotional distress that leads to excessive eating. To cope more effectively with emotional stress, try:
- Relaxation exercises
- Individual or group counselling
These techniques address the underlying emotional problems which are causing you to binge and teach you to cope in more effective and healthier ways. For more information on these techniques, contact your GP.
As you learn to merge more proper coping strategies and to curb excessive eating, remember to reward yourself for a job well done. We tend to repeat behaviour that has been reinforced, so reward yourself when you meet your weight loss goals. Buy that new top, take that holiday, or get that message you wanted. By rewarding yourself for a job well done you increase the likelihood that you will keep up your new healthy habits.