It’s 9:30 at night and you are for some reason, in the pantry studying the options, deciding what your poison will be. Cookies? Chips? Maybe the freezer is your thing… there are several varieties of ice cream begging for attention.
You aren’t really hungry. Your stomach is quiet and you don’t have the physical signs of actually needing to eat food.
But there’s this driving urge in you….
And here you are… stalking the goods… out of what? Boredom? Loneliness? Anger? Hurt? Happy the day is over? Frustration? Hard day at work? Worry? Maybe you don’t even know.
Whatever the reason, it’s emotionally driven. You may be aware of it, or you may feel powerless against it. It may come on like a compelling urge and you act purely instinctively on it without pausing to think of what you are doing.
Many times, it may be completely mindless. Eating as you feed your mind food for your emotional needs.
Emotional eating is only a problem when it becomes a persons central response to regulating their mood. It is a coping strategy.
What is emotional eating, exactly?
Stress eating. using food to make yourself feel better, eating to satisfy emotional needs rather than physical hunger.
Occasional eating for reasons other than hunger isn’t bad. Some degrees of emotional eating is normal. Food is typically the focus on holidays, celebrations, life events, funerals, weddings, etc.
However, if it is your “go to” , your primary coping mechanism, then there’s a problem.
You are in an unhealthy cycle where the real problem isn’t being addressed.
~ Emotional hunger can’t be filled with food.
~ Feels good in the moment but then you are left with guilt of eating whatever is bugging you.
Identifying… are you an emotional eater?
Do you eat more when stressed?
Do you eat when you aren’t hungry or are full?
Do you eat to feel better? ( calm or soothe yourself)
Do you reward with food?
Do you regularly eat till you are stuffed?
Does food make you feel safe or like it’s a friend?
Do you feel powerless or out of control with it ?
Emotional eating craves specific comfort/ junk food or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush.
Mindless eating is not satisfied when full. Emotional hunger is not in the stomach. This also leads to negative feelings ( guilt, shame, regret) eating what you feel you shouldn’t have.
Food self soothes. Emotional eating is an attempt to manage moods with food.
it’s helpful to assess yourself and understand what can set you off. Situations, places, feelings, etc can cause you to reach for food.
Triggers wont always be negative but can be triggered by positive emotions too ( a reward for a goal, birthdays)
I mean really, who is ever actually hungry for birthday cake or some Christmas cookies? We eat it because it’s enjoyable and we are celebrating.
Common causes of emotional eating
Stress, stuffing emotions, boredom, loneliness, feelings of emptiness, social influences or even ingrained childhood habits can lead to overeating. It’s important to find other ways to feed your feelings, alternate behaviors that have nothing to do with food.
If you don’t know how to manage your emotions in a way that doesn’t revolve around food you won’t be able to control your eating habits for long. Diets often fail because they offer logical nutrition advice – IF- you have conscious control over your eating habits.
They don’t/won’t work when emotions take over demanding a swift payoff of comfort foods. To stop emotionally eating you must learn new ways to fulfill yourself emotionally.
Understanding the cycle and triggers is a huge first step. You need to learn alternates to turn to and not food.
How to help yourself
Pause. Think. Reflect = different decision.
Can you wait?
While you wait…check in with how your feeling… what’s your emotional status?
Are you truly hungry? as in experiencing natural signals of hunger? Or is it your mind/emotions talking?
You’ve attempted resistance in the past with the belief that your willpower isn’t enough.
The truth is you have more power over your cravings than you believe.
By checking in with yourself, pausing, examining what it is you’re feeling you are more likely to make a different choice than just eating whatever you have in mind.
Learn to accept good and bad feelings. The root of emotional eating is feeling powerless over your emotions. You can’t deal with them so you avoid feelings with food.
Become a more mindful eater.
Mindful eating is a practice that develops your awareness of eating habits and your food.
Think about the foods you buy. Do you buy healthy foods? Do you buy trigger foods that will contribute to times of emotional eating? Think of what foods will nourish you.
Come to the table hungry. Not ravenous, but with your body giving you it’s natural signals it needs to eat.
Start with small amounts. I’m always amazed, really, at the small amount of food it takes to feed myself and deal with my hunger.
Learn to really appreciate your food. I make jokes to hubby about how amazing food tastes when I’m seriously hungry ( like after long workouts and I’m finally ready for food) not only does it taste awesome, it feels good going in ’cause I am really hungry. I have an appreciation for food with true hunger.
How it tastes and the satisfaction are so different than eating when you aren’t really hungry.
Bring all your senses with you to the table. Learn to smell, savor, and visually appreciate what you are eating.
Take small bites, chew well, and learn to eat slowly. Doing so will let you really taste and enjoy your meal while allowing your stomach to register that it has had enough food.
Becoming a mindful eater also means staying connected with your feelings and how it impacts your choices in your day with food. It’s practice but with practice you can become more mindful of reasons why you eat when you aren’t hungry or feel like you’re emotions are driving you.
Some reflective thoughts….
I’ve shared several times in blogs my own awareness of coming out of a family of emotional eaters. I’ve talked about learning about myself and being mindful of it in my own life. Understanding that definitely helped me on my weight loss journey.
Sometimes I make very mindful choices that I want something, knowing full well, I don’t need it. Hubby wandered into the kitchen one night to find me perched on the counter top with a bag of chips, munching away.
I told him “I am fully cognizant I’m emotionally eating these right now” and the fact was, there had been some thing or another that had made me feel angst and I just wanted those stupid chips.
The thing about knowing and understanding it’s what I was doing? I ate some, reined myself in, and put them away.
I was mindful of my actions.
You might need time to get there. Maybe you’re at a point where somehow the bag disappears on you. Or maybe more cookies than you intended. Or a whole lotta ice cream vanishes. Or whatever your brand of poison is.
It might require work and effort on your part. It might be times of failure and times of success. The more you mentally engage with it, the closer you will get to not feeding your emotions.
This is such a big topic, you might find more on it in the future here. I think many struggle with it and it prevents the success they long for with weight loss. Gaining insight and understanding can help lead to success.
Do you have thoughts on this?
Have you struggled with emotional eating? Did you find ways to change it? Do you struggle now? What has made you aware of it?
3 thoughts on “Understanding Emotional Eating”
Great summary of such a complex topic – The infographic at the end was helpful – It really is just above the neck vs. below the neck hunger!
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Great post–lots of good info here. Our relationship with food is interesting–and complex, just like you have said in this and other posts. I’ve been through all sorts of much more extreme stages in my relationship with food and feel very happy and peaceful in the place I am now. Funny enough, that includes letting myself emotionally eat every once in a while. I would say once a month or every other month I have a moment where I’m just like–“I’m going to eat my feelings right now and that just is what it is.” I think the difference though between what I do now and what i did years ago is that eating my feelings doesn’t usually mean gorging way past when I am full. That emotional eating with regret that you talked about–that’s what’s really the worst–I’m glad that I am not doing that anymore!
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Yes, yes, yes! You understand and that’s where I’m at too. Making those choices and “letting” yourself sometimes allows you to be in control of it… mainly because you are now mindful of the behavior and how it makes you feel. Thanks for sharing!
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