Ever wondered why you turn to food when you’re stressed, upset or feeling lonely? Have you found yourself feeling guilty or ashamed after eating to help satisfy an emotional need? Then perhaps you have experienced emotional eating – the topic I aim to discuss in this blog post.
So what is it?
In short, emotional eating is when food is used as a coping mechanism for your emotions.
An important thing to understand is that emotional eating is not down to a lack of self-control. It’s also something that most people experience at some level, as many of us will turn to food at some point, as a reaction to emotions such as guilt, worry, stress or even feelings on the opposite end of the spectrum, such as excitement or happiness. Using food for comfort or reward is normal and it can often be completely unconscious so, you may not be aware of the reasons why you are turning to food. I think it’s important to recognise that there is normality in this however, it’s also important to realise when emotional overeating is taking over as a primary reaction and realising when you are becoming dependant on food alone, to help you cope and manage your thoughts and feelings.
Before I go any further I just wanted to touch on the difference between emotional eating and binge eating. To clarify, this blog post is about emotional eating to which I have experience of and not a binge eating disorder. There is a difference, although the triggers and symptoms are often similar.
The word ‘binge’ is thrown about a bit and can often be used to refer to an episode of ‘unhealthy’ eating in a ‘larger than average’ quantity. A binge eating disorder is a mental health condition in which a person is unable to stop themselves from eating large quantities of food, often in a mindless state and in a short space of time, so the pace of consumption will usually be fast and frantic, rather than slow and steady. The eating feels out of control and often the sufferer may work to compensate a binge after it has happened, by dieting, restricting or purging their food – in the latter case the person is suffering from bulimia.
Emotional eating describes a type of eating behaviour. The urge tends to come on suddenly, feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly and usually leads to craving specific foods that are higher in sugar and fat. Like binge eating, there are usually feelings of shame or guilt involved.
As an example, I will offer a personal experience which demonstrates emotional eating behaviour. About a year ago my dad was in hospital and then rehab due to a chronic neurological disease. I visited him 3-4 times a week for 6 months, and during this time, often used food to manage my distress and to act as a warm hug when I needed it most.
Walking to or from the hospital, I would often feel a really strong urge to eat – usually a type of food that signified ‘comfort’ for me. The feeling was somewhere in the pit of my stomach. It seeped it’s way up to my head like a chemical being released into my body; i’d experience butterflies, an adrenalin rush and my heart would feel like it was beating faster. I wasn’t usually hungry but I was drawn to food and after consumption would often find feelings of guilt creep in. Luckily for me, at this point in my life and after a good few years training myself out of a different type of eating disorder, i’d become pretty self aware and could acknowledge what was happening. In all honesty, I didn’t do anything about it at the time, other than extending myself kindness and reassurance – I was going through a tough time, of course I might turn to something as a coping mechanism. It was okay and it’s since passed.
As mentioned previously, emotional eating can happen to all of us however, if you feel concerned, it’s super important to have a think about how much of your life it’s affecting and consult a medical professional for advice and support.
Food for thought
Before I move on to ways in which you might be able to manage emotional eating, I just wanted to touch on a couple of things which relate and might offer food for thought (excuse the pun).
Firstly, please don’t think you’re the only person that has an influence on your eating patterns and behaviour. Food companies actually work towards connecting food to emotion when creating their advertisements, which can provoke and play a part in how you feel about certain foods. Careful and considered advertising and marketing strategies create a promise that the food you consume can directly formulate a positive emotion i.e comfort, belonging, happiness or excitement. Try noticing this and just be aware when you are being influenced rather than informed.
Another thing to consider is how our body reacts to things like stress or worry in terms of the chemicals that are released into the body and how this relates to our relationship with food. When our body is under stress, we release cortisol into the the body and part of the chemical change and response, often involves increased appetite to supply the body with the fuel it needs to fight or flee. People who have been subjected to chronic, rather than momentary stress, are at risk of having higher levels of cortisol in their bodies, which in turn can contribute to long term emotional-eating patterns and behaviours.
Another chemical worth mentioning is dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. Dopamine also helps regulate our emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move towards them. All eating increases dopamine but it’s extremely responsive to sugary and fatty foods so, it is clear that there are things going on within the brain that can draw us towards certain foods, over others when we’re experiencing particular emotions.
I’m not going into detail with these things but really, I just wanted to touch on some areas that we may not all be aware of and to which have an impact on our relationship with food. There are so many things that might cause us to emotionally eat and things going on within us all that we are not even conscious of.
How can you manage emotional eating?
Before I outline my suggestions, please be mindful that my advice should never be used to replace advice given by a trained medical professional or psychiatrist. These are only suggestions based on my personal experience and understanding of emotional/comfort eating. I’ve separated these suggestions into 3 areas – The Food, Raising Your Awareness and Changing your Beliefs.
– Firstly, it’s so important to listen to your hunger queues rather than ignoring them. Note the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger. If you’re not sure, sit with it for 20 minutes and ask yourself again – am I hungry or am I using food as a support? Can I do something else to help make me feel better?
– In terms or your eating pattern, perhaps consider eating smaller, more frequent meals, or meals with nutritious snacks in between. This can help to keep your brain feeling ‘rewarded’ and as a result, less likely to want those dopamine-boosting foods which are higher in sugar or higher in fat. As mentioned previously, these are the types of food we often turn to in an emotional eating episode. That said, if you’re feeling down and want to have some cake or ice cream, go for it, enjoy it and just be mindful that you don’t always resort back to this every time (More on this below!).
– When experiencing emotional eating behaviour, I think it’s even more important not to follow any form of restrictive diet. If you do, you’re merely adding fuel to the fire. Gravitating towards food as a source of comfort often comes as a direct result of restriction so, learn to make pleasure a priority and eat intuitively wherever possible. I’ve written more about the diet mentality here so be sure to check it out.
Raising Your Awareness
– I think everyday it’s important to be mindful of how and what you’re eating and this is even more beneficial if you’re experiencing eating patterns linked to your emotions. Consider firstly how you’re consuming food. Are you eating slowly and considerately? Are you enjoying your food? Are you opting for foods that make you feel good rather than sluggish and uncomfortable? How food affects you as an individual will be completely unique so, listen to your body and make adjustments where necessary.
– Try writing down or make a mental note of your triggers and the feelings you are experiencing when you do turn to food. Is it usually down to stress? Loneliness? Anxiety? Who might you be able to talk to about this? Food can’t help to solve your problems, but other people can 😊. What might you be able to do instead that will help make you feel better? Take a bath, go for a walk or read for example? There are so many options and so many ways to look after yourself so, try putting into practice new ways of looking after yourself and your emotional needs.
– When an emotional eating episode happens, give yourself time, reflect back and rather than being overly critical about the situation, be kind to yourself and focus on moving forward, rather than dwelling on the moment. We all manage our emotions in different ways, you’re not alone and you can get through this.
Changing Your Beliefs
If you’re stuck in a rut with food and negative eating habits, something must change in order for you to move forward. Having the courage to begin that process is the start and believing in yourself is integral to the journey.
– Try avoiding negative internal and verbal talk about your body and learn to appreciate it’s miracles and it’s flaws.
‘Negativity, shame and hatred rarely inspire people to make long-lasting great changes, especially when it comes to our bodies or our sense of self.
Many people tell me they will stop hating their body after they reach their goal weight. I say you have to stop hating your body before you can stop the emotional eating cycle.’
Jennifer Kromberg, PsyD / Psychologist – Psychology Today
Quit identifying yourself as an ‘emotional eater’ too – by defining yourself as this, you are accepting that it is a part of you. Instead, reframe this and understand that although you might have ups and downs with food, it does not define you and you are working towards finding a better balance.
All eating disorders and behaviours are complex and i’m aware in this post, I can only skim the surface and offer generalised suggestions, based on the most common scenario. I hope that at the very least I can highlight to those that have experience of emotional eating, that they’re not alone and that there is a way forward.
For further information or advice and support, please check out the UKs leading eating disorder charity BEAT.