What is Emotional Eating?
Imagine this: your boss has been annoying you at work, your partner isn’t listening to you vent about it, your friends are busy and the next thing you know you’ve just eaten a family-sized bar of chocolate. As you’re about to dig into the third slice of cheesecake despite feeling full- you think to yourself, “Oops! I’ve done it again”. You’ve “ruined” your healthy eating attempts. A wave of nausea follows the wave of guilt, frustration ebbing at your self worth. You vow that as of Monday it will all be different, forever, and again. You’ve just experienced an episode of emotional eating. It can feel insurmountable, counter-intuitive, and contradictory at best that in order to overcome emotional eating it can help to ditch dieting and increase your freedom around food [1,2].
Emotional eating is when you eat foods in response to emotional cues, using food as an emotional crux instead of other coping techniques . Although temporary relief is felt, it is incredibly fleeting, and often you end up feeling much worse. The original emotion is still there and now exacerbated by the guilt felt from feeling out-of-control around food and so, a cycle is born. [1,4]
Foods frequently eaten
Foods that people frequently turn to when emotional eating are often high fat and high sugar comfort foods: pastries, cakes, chocolate, crisps, ice cream and those which are on the restricted list . Although there is nothing wrong with these foods being in your diet, it’s the use of these foods as an emotional crux instead of healthier coping techniques that for many people pose a problem [1,2].
Reasons for emotional eating
Food reduces stress by stimulating the reward pathways in our brain. Our reward pathways are a series of chemical signals within our brain that make us feel good and therefore encourage us to do it again. Eating is a rewarding experience because it is essential for survival, if we were not drawn to food, humans would not have survived. Other essential things also trigger our reward pathways such as: laughing, socialising, cuddling, stroking our pets, exercise, and sex. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with emotional eating. However, if food is our main coping mechanism it may inhibit us from addressing the underlying triggers.
When our eating is driven by our emotions, instead of dealing with or coping with those difficult or uncomfortable emotions in healthy ways, the core problem remains unresolved. Emotional eating is a neat distraction from the discomfort of those emotions and it kind of works in the super short term. Food will rarely “fill the void” because the hunger isn’t for food; it’s for something else: comfort, distraction, self-soothing, loneliness or stress. The more we do it, the more we become derailed from really self-soothing and coping effectively with emotions.
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Dieting and food restrictions
Emotional eating is often fueled by dieting and restrictive eating patterns because they create a hyper-focus on what foods we are “allowed”, in what quantities and when. In doing so, we are emotionally yearning for the foods cast behind arbitrary bars of restriction . When you can’t have something, you really want it even more.
Dieting articles and regimes will often sell the idea that dieting will solve our weight woes, our body image concerns, as well as some of our emotional needs. According to the world of dieting, any unhappy feeling can be dealt with by changing your body weight and shape and that is just not true . Instead, dieting has been shown to worsen emotional eating and body image.
Self-care/meeting basic needs
When researchers investigated core differences between people who engage with emotional eating regularly and those who do not, they found that people who have their basic needs met are less likely to emotionally eat. Our basic needs include physical, emotional, and mental needs, such as; having a supportive social network, feeling a sense of purpose and fulfillment from our work and hobbies, getting enough sleep and rest, and food to physically fuel our days.
4 non-diet tips to help overcome emotional eating
Here’s some non-diet tips you can get started with today to break the emotional-eating cycle:
1. Allow food pleasure, unconditionally
As humans, we are driven by satisfaction. If you are avoiding foods you really feel like, you will not find true satisfaction and will have an increased drive toward food, especially the food you are trying to avoid. Stop this restriction-emotional eating cycle by honouring your body’s hunger and allowing pleasurable foods.
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2. Nourish your body
Don’t underestimate self care. Physical and emotional self care will ensure you are better prepared to cope with difficult emotions and provide the basic satisfaction your body needs. From movement to rest and work to leisure, is there anything you often neglect that will make you feel better for the day?
3. Experiment with other coping strategies
Write a list of coping techniques you may find helpful and keep it handy for a time you are driven to food. Is there something else on the list that may be helpful? It’s okay if not, taking a moment to consider some other activities can help redirect the coping pathways in your brain.
4. Be kind to yourself
Beating yourself up will add fuel to the emotional eating cycle. Practice self compassion by practicing some respectful self talk. Taking a compassionate mindset will open up space to explore what is really going on to fuel out-of-control eating.
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1) Armitage CJ. Randomized Test of a Brief Psychological Intervention to Reduce and Prevent Emotional Eating in a Community Sample. Journal of Public Health 2015;37(3):438-444.
(2) Braden A, Flatt SW, Boutelle KN, Strong D, Sherwood NE, Rock CL. Emotional Eating is Associated with Weight Loss Success Among Adults Enrolled in a Weight Loss Programme. Journal of Behavioural Medicine 2016;39:727-732.
(3) Cook-Cottone CP, Guyker WM. The Development and Validation of The Mindful Self-Care Scale (MSCS): an Assessment of Practices that Support Positive Embodiment. Mindfulness 2018;9(9):161-175.
(4) Ford T, Lee H, Jeon M. The Emotional Eating and Negative Food Relationship Experiences of Obese and Overweight Adults. Social Work in Healthcare 2017;56(6):488-504.
(5) Timmerman GM, Acton GJ. The Relationship Between Basic Need Satisfaction and Emotional Eating. Issues in Mental Health Nursing 2001;22(7):691-701.