Nutrition Series: Emotional Eating
May 10, 2021
Overeating can have many causes, and many of them stem from our emotions. That’s why telling an overweight person “just eat less” is usually a useless and sometimes hurtful reaction. It’s more than just eating less. Eating is an emotional experience. All our emotional events, such as birthdays, weddings, and celebrations involve food. It’s even customary to serve food after funerals.
Emotional eating usually occurs when we are stressed, when we are experiencing feelings of loss, sadness, fear, loneliness, anger or worry. Some people eat when they are bored. It often comes with a loss of control, movement away from our usual schedule or routine. Sometimes people eat because they feel it’s something they can control. Sometimes it comes in the form of mindless eating after a stressful day. Sometimes it’s a comfort reaction, wanting to feel good. Our body craves the serotonin that comfort food and high sugar, high fat, or salty foods bring us.
Many of us have been through periods of emotional eating, and in a sense, it’s quite normal. We’ve all had a bad day or gotten some bad news and felt drawn to a snack or dinner we might not have otherwise eaten. If done sporadically, it’s a relatively normal reaction. But sometimes it becomes a coping mechanism and is done to the point of almost an addiction. If you feel you’re at that point, I encourage you to reach out to a mental health expert or a therapist that specializes in our relationship with food.
If you’re someone that turns to eating as a way to help emotions, here are some steps you can take at home to try to get back on track. I’m going to skip over the obvious ones: get regular exercise, drink enough water, and get enough sleep.
Find the root cause
Easier said than done, but try to find the cause of your emotional eating. Is it an independent event or a hassle of daily life, such as a fight with a friend or a bad day at work? Or maybe it’s a bigger and more chronic issue, such as a health problem or depression.
If it’s an independent event, try to solve the problem and put it behind you or, better yet, avoid the situation entirely if possible. If it’s less quickly solved, consider if you need help finding other ways to work through your feelings, like talking through something with a friend or professional. Sometimes it’s time to look for a new friend or a better suited job.
Figure out if you’re really hungry
When you feel a craving for snacks, as yourself if you’re really hungry. Would you eat something else and be just as satisfied? What about a bag of veggies, or the food you dislike most? If you would eat those, you’re probably hungry. Try to find a healthier choice, and tell yourself you can have a small snack after you eat a meal. If you don’t want to eat anything but that salty bag of chips, chances are you’re not really hungry, just craving snacks. At that point, try to remove yourself from the situation (ie the kitchen or break room). Try to learn the different cues in your own body between hunger eating and emotional eating.
Swap out some unhealthy snacks
Sometimes it’s not even about what we’re eating, just the mindless act of putting food in our mouths. If you like to absently eat in front of the TV at night after a stressful day, try to substitute veggies and dip, roasted chickpeas, or even plain popcorn for your usual salty snack. If you crave sweet, try fruit or blend some frozen berries into a sorbet.
Sometimes we fall into routines. After a bad or busy day, we go home and snack on the couch. Or go to happy hour and eat something we normally wouldn’t. Try to change up your routines.
For example, instead of heading straight to the couch after work, go for a quick walk or even a drive after dinner with your family or make a non food related plan, such as a walk or an exercise class, with a friend to decompress.
Instead of watching tv at the end of your day, do something that involves your hands, such as a puzzle, reading a book, writing, art, or another hobby. Sometimes even sitting somewhere else in your house can make a difference: read a book in bed instead of watching tv in the living room. For some people, it helps to brush their teeth after dinner so that they are less tempted to snack.
Pre portion your snacks
Chances are, if you bring out the Costco size bag of chips, you’ll make a serious dent in the Costco size bag of chips. When you bring that bag home, break it up into serving size baggies, and when you need a snack, grab one baggie. Some snacks are sold as pre packaged portions, or you can buy a big bag and create the portions yourself (although that takes a little more self control). Only you know if this might work for you. For some, it will help with the mindless overeating. For some, it won’t.
Ask for help from your support network
Any goal is easier to hit with a support network. Think about who that might be to you. If you work in an office, maybe it’s a coworker. Maybe it’s who you share your home with (spouse, children, parents, roommates) or a close friend.
Maybe a coworker wants to join you for a walk around the building after lunch to discourage extra snacking. Maybe your spouse will commit to trying healthier snack swaps with you after work. Try to find support wherever you can.
Hopefully, you’re now thinking of a few people in your life you can count on in this way. If not, start looking for new ones! Meet Ups, Facebook Groups, and similar can help connect you to people nearby that might be going through similar things. Although in person meet ups might be more limited these days, even an online group can make a difference. Join a Facebook group that appeals to you for online accountability, even if you can’t (or don’t want to) meet up in person yet.
Sometimes, though, these well meaning people aren't enough. Sometimes the cause of our emotional eating is bigger than we can handle with some good friends, and in that case it’s time to turn to more professional help. Many types of therapy can help with our relationship with food, whether that's the main cause of the problem or a side effect. To start, look at nationaleatingdisorders.org and consider contacting them through their helpline.
Hopefully these tips have helped you figure out where you can start to take control of emotional eating. Some of them may work for you and some not, but I do want to stress that if you believe your issue stems from something greater than what we’ve discussed today, please speak with a therapist or someone that can give you better help.
If you believe that you would benefit from some accountability and structure with your eating, please reach out get scheduled for a complimentary consultation for our Balanced Habits Nutrition Program. Our coaches can be considered part of your “support network” and many people benefit from some accountability towards a coach or peer. You’d meet once per week with your assigned coach to discuss your food journal, your progress, and any issues that may come up along the way.
For joining me today, you will receive 25% off your program, so please contact me to find out more!