Tips To Overcome Emotional Eating
We spend a lot of time and energy thinking about what we eat, but it’s just as important to think about why and how we eat.
Have you ever noticed that you eat even when you are not hungry, for example when you are stressed, bored or dealing with a difficult situation? While this is not a problem if it happens only once in a while, it could be an issue if it happens frequently or habitually. This is known as emotional eating or comfort eating.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional or comfort eating is the tendency to eat in response to emotions. It’s when food is used to soothe or suppress a negative emotion, such as loneliness, anger, irritation, boredom, or stress. Conversely, comfort eating can also be in response to positive emotions like when excitement or happiness increase the drive to eat, especially highly palatable and sweet foods. In other words, eating as a reaction to an emotion, rather than in reaction to genuine hunger, is known as emotional eating.
Foods craved for comfort
The most common foods craved for comfort eating are usually processed foods like crisps, chocolates, sweets, and biscuits. Why? Because these processed foods target the pleasure receptors in our brains and make us feel good. Over time, emotional eating becomes a habit as you “train your brain” to think of certain foods as a reward or as a remedy for a negative emotion.
Tips to overcome emotional eating
The good news is that you can retrain your brain! With a few simple tricks, you can change the way you respond to negative emotions and create new habits that support your weight loss and healthy lifestyle goals. Follow these steps to help overcome emotional eating patterns:
The first step is to learn to recognise the difference between hunger and emotional hunger. Genuine hunger comes about gradually, and you feel it in your stomach. Emotional hunger feels instant, and it happens in your mind. Emotional hunger will most likely make you crave a specific texture or taste, be it a crunchy chocolate biscuit or your favourite flavour of ice cream. Emotional hunger is also less likely to go away once you’ve indulged in the “treat” you were craving. With genuine hunger, you will want “proper food” and will feel satiated once you’ve had your fill. The other difference? You are more likely to feel guilty when you eat in response to emotional hunger. Bring awareness to when and why you eat, and pretty soon you’ll recognise the difference and be able to respond without emotional eating.
PAUSE AND IDENTIFY THE EMOTION
Once you are aware that you are craving something because of an emotion, learn to pause for a few minutes rather than reach for the snack straight away. During this time, identify the emotion that’s causing you to want to eat. Is it boredom? Stress? Excitement? Name the emotion that is leading you towards comfort eating.
Once you’ve had a few minutes to identify the emotional hunger, find a way to redirect these feelings away from food. If you’re feeling lonely, reach out to someone you care about or spend time with your pet. If it’s stress you’re feeling, use a stress reduction technique like breathing or meditation. If you’re bored, find something fun to do – this could be anything from gardening to going for a walk, doing a crossword puzzle, or reading a book. And if you are eating in response to a positive emotion, find a way to express your happiness - like phoning a friend or journalling about it.
The bottom line is, just as you can get into the habit of emotional eating, so too can you break it! As you’re learning about your emotional responses, it can be really helpful to write these down and keep a journal of times when you eat in response to emotions. This can help you to identify patterns and then write a plan for yourself for what you want to change next time you experience that same emotion. Rewiring your brain takes time. Keep practising and eventually this will feel easier.
The Counterweight weight loss programme is geared to help people overcome emotional eating and form healthy habits for life. Our dietitian team has helped many people lose stubborn weight - and keep it off! Find out how to get started here.