The definition of emotional eating is eating, often excessively, as a response to stress, boredom, unhappiness, or other emotional condition, rather than as a response to physical hunger.
Using a mindset of curiosity is a healthy way to look at the cycle of emotional eating. According to the American Psychological Association, “Twenty-seven percent of adults say they eat to manage stress and 34 percent of those who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress say this behavior is a habit.”
Triggers that can set off an emotional eating episode include stress, trying to bury emotions, boredom, and feelings of loneliness or emptiness. Turning to food for comfort and protection often leads to addiction, just like alcohol and drugs. I call it a silent addiction because food fills one of our basic human needs for survival. Emotional eating can also lead to binge eating, weight gain, and depression. Binge eating affects 2.8% of Americans, three times the number of people diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia combined. Women are more susceptible to binge eating than men. This is not surprising since women are conditioned from an early age to focus on caring for others before themselves and to stuff down their feelings and emotions, particularly if they want to succeed professionally.
A trigger leads to a sudden craving for foods perceived to provide comfort and safety, often foods like cookies, brownies, chips, or pizza. It’s important to understand that there is a recognizable difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger which can help us tune into our triggers. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly while physical hunger comes on gradually. A person entering an emotional eating episode will feel that their hunger needs to be fulfilled instantly and they usually crave a specific comfort food.
You may be familiar with pacing the kitchen between the refrigerator and the pantry looking for that food item that will bring you satisfaction or eating several different foods in a short amount of time without feeling satisfied or less hungry. After you pass through that immediate fix of the comfort part of the cycle, it leads to the negative parts of the cycle that keep people stuck. Awareness of these characteristics of emotional eating will help you be more mindful of what you are choosing to eat and why. Mindfulness is a critical component in reducing emotional eating episodes which can lead to weight gain, as well as sabotage progress in creating a healthy body.
Remorse occurs when people start feeling bad about what they ate or how much they ate. They start beating themselves up for not exercising more self-control. As a result of the constant attention around clean eating, detoxing, and restricting “unhealthy” foods, we have begun to categorize foods as “good” or “bad” and then judge ourselves as “good” or “bad” based on what we eat.
- Have you ever hidden a candy bar wrapper because you didn’t want anyone to know you allowed yourself the indulgence?
- Have you ever shamed yourself for a food choice at a party or event because you thought everyone must be thinking “you’re so fat and shouldn’t be eating that?”
I know I have. Food remorse is far more effective in hindering our progress than helping it. Should we avoid highly processed foods? Definitely. Are there foods that are more nourishing and foods that are more indulgent? Of course. Is it a good idea to balance
these foods? Naturally! Going to either extreme is not an ideal or healthy
choice. Eating food should be an enjoyable experience since we need to consume
it multiple times a day, every day, for our entire lives.
In addition to what we eat, when we eat and how we eat impact our ability to process and metabolize foods. Whether enjoying a nourishing meal or an indulgent treat, it is helpful to pay attention to signals from our bodies of physical hunger and of feeling satisfied rather than full. Food is not “good” or “bad”, food is food. We are not being “good” or “bad”, we are human beings who need food to stay alive.
After an emotional eating episode, we typically punish ourselves with guilt, shame, and a belief that we have a lack of willpower over food. If Ihad a nickel for every time, I heard a woman, including myself, berate herself for not having willpower over food, I would be rich. Food is not a foe that we need to conquer or beat into submission. Food is fuel and nourishment for our bodies, which helps us stay energized and alive. It is much more helpful to use curiosity rather than judgement to see why we are drawn
to eat certain foods and how those foods feel in our bodies.
- Does a certain food make you feel alive and energized?
- Does a particular food make you feel lethargic and sleepy?
- How are you feeling emotionally while you are eating?
Curiosity and grace are much more useful and sustainable motivators than punishment and self-abuse for achieving healthy body goals and maintaining
a consistent weight. The added stress we create with food deprivation and
punishment creates undesired results and impedes our metabolism and digestion.
Sadly, the punishment we put ourselves through at the end of an emotional eating cycle can be a trigger for the next emotional eating episode. The potential long-term effects of not addressing emotional triggers and continuing the eating cycle are obesity, high cholesterol and blood pressure, heart disease, sleep apnea, and diabetes. Obesity is a preventable lifestyle disease and can be reversed with the right knowledge, mindset, and support.
A key component for success in reaching our goals is bringing awareness to something we need to change which enables us to take empowered action in achieving that change. Understanding emotional eating and how to overcome using food to self soothe will help you achieve the healthy body you deserve. Alternatives to emotional eating include understanding and accepting your emotions and feelings, even the bad ones, paying attention to your triggers, checking in with yourself by taking time to decide if you really need food, and practicing mindful eating by savoring your food, including indulgent choices.
Some of the actions I take when I'm triggered are:
- I decide if I'm physically hungry or not.
- I take a walk or do something around the house.
- I take the time to prepare myself a healthy meal or snack.
- I acknowledge that I'm triggered, and I say, “I understand I'm being triggered, but I want something indulgent right now.”
- I acknowledge indulgence and give myself permission to enjoy it. Then I move on.
I don't beat myself up anymore or judge myself for wanting something indulgent in that moment.
There are always going to be triggers in our lives as we grow, as we age, as we learn and uncover new layers to ourselves. It's OK to feel whatever we're feeling.
To Your Health,