How to Cope with Emotional Eating
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How many times have you eaten not because you were physically hungry, but because you were freaking out, tired, bored, worried, angry, or (insert appropriate emotion here)? You might be an emotional eater.
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What is Emotional Eating?
“Emotional eating is when eating is used as a method of coping with emotions, whether it is stress, sadness, anxiety, or feeling overwhelmed,” says Taryn A. Myers, Ph.D.,associate professor of psychology at Virginia Wesleyan University. “If you find yourself eating when you’re not hungry, or every time you experience something stressful or troubling, you are likely engaging in emotional eating.”
Many of us are taught that food, especially sugar, can soothe a mood. “We end up using sugar as an emotional crutch,” says Michele Promaulayko, creator of Sugar Free 3. “We turn to it to fill the void after a romantic split or for self-soothing following a brutal work week. And we rely on it for a cheap, fast energy boost.”
But making a crutch out of “comfort food” won’t provide comfort for long. When we use food to appease our moods, it sets up a vicious cycle of unhealthy eating, followed by self-recrimination, followed by more unhealthy eating
How To Stop Emotionally Eating
It’s mainly about finding new ways to deal with what life throws at you — and that doesn’t include locking yourself out of the kitchen.
“Although emotional eating is often seen as a negative thing, it’s actually a very normal reaction,” says Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Washington, D.C. “Food is emotional and brings memories with it, both happy and sad. Maybe a chili recipe brings you back to the smell of mom’s homemade chili. Or cookies remind you of your grandmother’s scratch-made, secret recipe.”
Many of us eat emotionally on occasion. “But when eating becomes our only outlet to handle emotions, it can become problematic,” says Schlichter. “Rather than trying to ‘stop’ emotional eating, I always recommend to my clients that they search for other coping mechanisms to deal with feelings.”
We asked several experts who counsel emotional eaters for tips they know are effective.
Emotional VS. Physical Hunger
Know your enemy. “Ask yourself, are you feeding your body, or are you feeding your emotions?” says Alpert. “Make a distinction between the two. Eating to satiate hunger and provide nutrients is vastly different than eating to satiate boredom, stress, and anxiety.”
Trump your emotional eating habits with these three steps:
- Ask yourself- do I want to eat because I am hungry (my stomach is rumbling, and my energy is low) or because I am bored? Be honest with yourself. “It’s about deciding: Do I really want this? What is my body — not my mind — telling me?” Promaulayko says.
- Rate your hunger level- on a scale from 1-10, how hungry are you? One you are starved, five is satiated, and ten is full. Gauge your hunger index on this scale and proceed from there. If you are hungry, you are probably craving foods that are high in protein (and would eat just about anything). If you want sweets, you probably are looking for an emotional fix.
- Have a small snack- try having a snack to curb your emotional eating habits. The aroma of citrus is calming, and citrus fruits are come in the right proportions so that you don’t overdo it with the food.
In emotional eating, the urge to eat usually comes on suddenly with cravings for very specific food items, says Jamie Long, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist at The Psychology Group in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Conversely, “Physical hunger typically comes on gradually over the course of a few hours, and cravings are typically for a variety of foods,” he says. “Physical hunger is felt in the gut, while emotional eating comes more from the mind, meaning you’re imagining how tasty the craved food item will be rather than noticing a growling stomach.”
Find Other Ways To Cope With Stress
“This is the single most important way to ditch emotional eating,” says Jonathan Alpert, LPC, a New York City-based psychotherapist and author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days. “Identify, understand, and manage your stress. Stress is normal. You can either let it get the best of you, or you can control it in healthy ways such as through exercise, talking to supportive friends, enjoying a hobby, proper sleep, and proper eating.”
Stall — With New Activities
“Choose a redirect action that can postpone eating,” advises Erin Risius, LPC, director of behavioral health at Hilton Head Health in South Carolina. “If you’re lonely, call a friend or check out social groups on Meetup. If you’re bored or antsy while watching TV at night, find another activity like knitting, stretching, or a jigsaw puzzle. Research shows that if we can delay eating from emotional hunger for 10 to 15 minutes, the urge lessens and becomes more manageable by directing to another activity or action.”
Find New Ways to Respond to Emotions
If you eat because you’re lonesome, sad, or grieving, do things that will boost your mood and help you process your feelings. “Maybe that’s a walk or exercise class, a date with a friend, an early bedtime or a hot cup of tea,” says Schlichter. “It could include journaling, praying, listening to music, playing with a pet, seeing a therapist. There are several ways to release emotions and understand what they mean, outside of just turning to food.”
Studies show meditation can reduce anxiety and depression, two big triggers for emotional eating. Read more about the benefits of meditation and three types to try.
Cook Meals at Home
Break the takeout cycle by preparing meals yourself. It’ll make you more aware of how much — and precisely what ingredients — you’re consuming. “The ease of eating out can be dangerous. Take the time to cook a meal, and even invite a friend to help you do it,” says Mark Sherwood, ND, a naturopathic doctor with the Functional Medical Institute in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “Cooking can be rewarding: The smells and effort of the process can be quite satisfying, and the result is likely to be more healthy.” Like meditation, socializing can reduce depression and anxiety; quelling urges to eat emotionally.
Remove Foods You Tend To Emotionally Eat
Try these healthier alternatives to emotional eating — after you do a Marie Kondo on your kitchen cabinets. “Don’t keep comfort foods — like chips, ice cream, and cookies — at home,” says Alpert.” If they’re not around, you’re less likely to eat them. Keep healthy alternatives nearby, such as fruit slices and vegetable sticks. Freeze grapes to provide a frozen treat, or eat Greek yogurt to simulate the texture of ice cream.”
Change What You’re Eating
Make sure you’re eating all day properly. A balanced diet will keep you satisfied and can help boost your mood. “By eating healthy, you’ll curb cravings between meals,” says Alpert. “Make sure each meal is rich in protein and well-balanced. Healthy snacks between meals will also help to maintain a healthy level of metabolism and energy levels. If need be, consult a dietitian or nutritionist for advice.”
Be Honest With Yourself
If you want to cheat, own it. “See if you can trade out your justification stories for honesty,” suggests Natalie Burtenshaw, LCSW, LCDC, a therapist in San Antonio, Texas. “For example, ‘I don’t want to feel my feelings right now, so I am going to eat instead. I know it’s unhealthy for me, and I’m going to do it anyway.’ This sort of rigorous honesty will create frustration, and frustration is fuel for change. No one ever changes until it’s too painful to stay the same.”
Confront Relationship Issues
“Sometimes people eat because they’re emotionally hungry for their partner’s attention,” says Elisabeth Goldberg, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York City. “They comfort themselves with food because it can’t say ‘no’ or ‘not now, I’m busy.’ Food always has time for you, it’s always there when you need it, and it can keep you distracted from feelings of neglect and sadness.”
It’s far from easy to confront a distant partner, but Goldberg suggests a diplomatic script: “Communicate with your partner about how you’re feeling, without accusing them of doing anything wrong.
“For example, you could say, ‘I feel lonely when you go on your computer when you get home from work, and it makes me want to eat to keep busy. Perhaps if we spent some time together before you went on the computer, I wouldn’t feel compelled to stress-eat. It’s not your fault. I am responsible for my behavior. But I also need more from you. Can you give me more of your time, please?'”
Work On Positive Self-Talk
“Self-talk can be your worst enemy or best friend,” says Alpert. “Thinking, ‘I’m such an emotional mess and pig’ will keep you stuck in unhealthy patterns, while thoughts such as, ‘I am going to take charge of my health and manage stress better’ will lead to better behaviors and a healthier lifestyle.” Being in control of your life, and of your food, will do wonders for your emotional health. When life is out of control, one thing that we can control is our food. Remind yourself that by controlling your diet, you can actually make yourself feel better by the mere fact that you are ‘in control’.
If you keep trying to curtail your emotional eating without success, it’s time to get professional help to develop new strategies. “Seek help from a therapist if you can’t think of any way to cope other than eating, or if your attempts to try other ways of coping are not working,” says Myers. “A therapist, particularly one trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy, can help you recognize the maladaptive thoughts that are underlying your emotional eating and help you address those thoughts as well as change the behaviors,” Myers recommends reading Christopher Fairburn’s book Overcoming Binge Eating on your own or with a clinician.
A first step that could help: Realize that continuing to binge on junk will only dig you deeper into a rut you deserve to escape. “Natural foods have the ability to give you healthy energy that you can use to create your best life,” says Burtenshaw. “Unhealthy foods can only temporarily remove your mental discomfort, and it comes at the cost of losing your power more and more over time — losing your ability to make healthy choices.”