Understanding emotional eating

I would first like to state that I am not a nutritionist or doctor. This research and words have been written from personal experience and research. Please take this post as advice and not medically. If you feel you may be struggling with any mental health triggers or eating triggers from this post, please seek advice and help from a professional.

Stress can get the best of us sometimes. When we're faced with stressful situations or negative emotions, a lot of us turn to vices to cheer us up, which aren't particularly good for us. One of the most common examples is emotional eating, which can look like reaching out for comforting foods when things get tough.

Unfortunately, emotional eating is an unhelpful coping mechanism in the long-term, and can result in unwanted weight gain, especially at times when your physical activity is also limited.

I have done my own research around emotional eating, how to identify your personal triggers, and what strategies you can use to curb the cravings.

Causes of emotional eating

The reasons behind emotional eating vary from person to person and can differ depending on the situation you're in. Some of the common reasons why people turn to food for comfort include:

1.    Using food as a reward for doing something you’d rather skip, like exercising, cleaning, or studying.

2.    Compensating for negative emotions. This is an ingrained mechanism, as the brain releases “pleasure chemicals” each time you have a delicious meal, promoting comfort and satisfaction. This was once a very important motivator for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to go out and find food, so it’s completely understandable why we reach for ice cream when feeling sad.

3.    When you're feeling bored, which like the previous point, prompts your brain to look for “feel good” experiences in place of dullness. This is most people’s biggest problem during lockdown that I have found. People have gone one of two ways – eaten too much or too little. Most of the time too much as its much more of an easier access.

Any of the above factors can prompt an emotional eating response, but how exactly it manifests can vary.

Emotional eating triggers

Identifying the underlying cause(s) of emotional eating is an important first step. However, to put a stop to it, you also need to think about your own individual triggers that make you reach out for an impulsive snack.

The best way to identify your triggers is to keep a diary reflecting on;

·         When, what and how much you ate

·         Did you felt hungry before eating?

·         What emotions did you experience before and after eating?

If you can track your eating behaviours for a few days, you'll start to notice clear patterns.

For example, you may find that you tend to reach for something sweet after a tough day, or automatically gravitate towards the cupboard for snacks when you're bored. Becoming aware of these patterns is a massive step forward on its own.

Strategies for curbing emotional eating

Once you've identified your individual triggers, you can plan a counterattack to help change your behaviour.

The idea here is to replace emotional eating with other strategies that are sustainable for your long-term health and wellbeing, and make you feel better.

Here's some strategies to help curb emotional eating.

Do some exercise

Exercising is one of the best strategies on the list. If you’re feeling a bit peckish, not hungry, and haven’t done your daily workout yet, this is a great time to get moving.

There's no need for a full-blown workout to replace the craving, something as simple as a 5-minute stretch, a brisk walk around the block, or a minute of jumping jacks can do the trick Try a few approaches and see what works best for you in these times.

Change your surroundings

Whether it’s rearranging your workstation or moving to a different area of the house, changing up your surroundings can help prevent boredom and consequently ease that urge for an extra snack.

Talk to someone

Another healthy distraction to provide some positive emotions is having a chat with someone. During difficult times, it’s more important than ever to check on your friends and loved ones. If you’re home alone, send a quick message or connect for a video call. You'll feel much better and make someone else feel loved too.

Occupy your brain

If the jar of chocolate hazelnut spread is calling your name and it’s getting hard to resist, distract your brain with a mental workout with a puzzle or open a book. Completing a cognitive task will both distract you and leave you feeling satisfied.

Emotional vs physical hunger

Please remember that the above strategies aren't for excessive dieting, and they only apply if you’re genuinely struggling with emotional eating.

Plain and simple, if you’re truly hungry, you need to eat. However, if you’re not used to responding to your natural hunger cues, it may be difficult to tell hunger and emotional eating urges apart. 

Emotional hunger may feel like:
- A sudden onset of hunger
- You have specific cravings
- The feeling doesn't go away after eating
- You feel guilty about/after eating 

Physical hunger may feel like:
- Hunger develops gradually
- You're satisfied by any food
- Your hunger goes away after eating
- You feel better after eating

A question to ask yourself is this: “What would I like to eat right now?”

With emotional eating, your brain is much more likely to respond with specific cravings, whereas if you’re truly hungry, you will pretty much just want anything that you’d usually eat.

When to seek help

  •   Sometimes what starts as emotional eating can escalate into more serious disordered eating patterns. If you are experiencing any of the following, then it may be time to seek professional help 
  •          Loss of control around food (when you feel like you’re physically unable to stop eating - this is a different feeling from just wanting more)
  •      Feeling overwhelmed or anxious around food
  • Consuming large amounts of food to the point of feeling very full and physically unwell

It might take a combination of approaches to stop “stress eating”, but you most certainly don’t have to do this on your own.

I hope the information and strategies provided in this blog help you identify and address your emotional eating patterns. 


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