Recognize and Control Emotional Eating

Recognize and Control Emotional Eating

by Dr. Morgan Camp M.D. admin


You have had a stressful day at work, you are having relationship issues, you are bored sitting at home, and you turn to the fridge or cabinets. Whether it is conscious or unconscious, emotional eating is a common coping mechanism for a variety of emotions. When you eat you feel good for a minute, however the underlying emotions are still there even when the food is gone. Many turn to fatty and sugary foods and find that emotional eating sabotages their weight loss efforts. Then they end up feeling worse than before, beating themselves up for consuming unnecessary calories and not having enough willpower. When left unchecked emotional eating can lead to unhealthy relationships with food and unhealthy self image and self confidence.

It is important to distinguish between emotional eating and physical eating. Physical hunger tends to come on gradually and does not feel immediate, unless you haven’t eaten in awhile. On the other hand emotional cravings can happen quickly and can feel overwhelming and urgent, gotta have that ice cream now! Emotional cravings are usually for something specific, some food that you find comforting, whereas if your body is actually hungry you are usually open to eating a wider variety of foods. When you eat your hunger goes away, however emotional hunger is not satisfied with a full stomach. This is why emotional eating often triggers feelings of shame and guilt afterward, but physical hunger does not.

Ask yourself:

  • Do you reward yourself with food?
  • Do you eat until you are stuffed and uncomfortable?
  • Does food make you feel safe?
  • Do you eat more when you are stressed or anxious?
  • Do you eat when you are not hungry?
  • Do you feel a lack of control around food?

Here are some helpful tips for recognizing and combating emotional eating. Try a few or all of them and see what works best for you.

Recognize your triggers: Common triggers for emotional eating include stress, boredom, unwanted feelings you are trying to silence, childhood habits, or social influences. You may recognize one or a few of these as being triggers for your emotional eating. One good way to recognize what sets you off is to keep a journal of them. The next time you find yourself going to the pantry when you know you don’t need to, stop and journal about it. What were you doing or feeling beforehand that set you off? Take note of what you wanted to eat or what you ate and how you felt before, during, and after. Self reflection is an important step in acknowledging your tendencies and coping with them.

Redirect your energy: Finding other methods to manage your stress is crucial for kicking emotional eating habits. Identify things other than eating that make you feel good and spend energy on them instead. For example, if you are bored instead of eating go on a hike, pick up a book, or spend some time on a hobby you are interested in like playing the piano or carpentry. If you are anxious squeeze a stress ball, do some deep breathing or stretching exercises, or dance to your favorite song. If you are depressed or feeling lonely call a loved one that makes you feel better, look at a cherished memento, or take a class and meet some new people.

The “two minute” rule: When you are confronted with an impulse take a two minute time out before you act on it. Have a glass of water or cup of green tea and think about what it would really mean if you gave in to your impulses. Ask yourself will giving in to your cravings really actually make your day better? Are you going to die if you don’t? Is there something you could eat instead that would make you feel better afterward? How do you think you are going to feel afterward? Are you going to be mad or ashamed with yourself. After a 2 minute break and some self reflection oftentimes you may find your craving has subsided and logic has won over. All things considered even if the 2 minute rule only works for you 50% of the time, you are still getting half as many of the foods that are disrupting your metabolic hormones and you are still making progress at managing your emotional eating.

Say “Yes” to your health: When you feel healthy and strong you are more well equipped to handle the emotional struggles that may come your way. It is important to not only make a commitment to your diet plan, but to commit to all aspects of your personal health. Things to focus on are

  • Daily exercise: even if it is just walking for 30 minutes a day, physical activity will reduce stress levels, build muscle strength, and improve cardiovascular health.
  • Relax: Give yourself 30 minutes every day to just have “you time”. Take a break from your responsibilities and recharge.
  • Maintain your social life: Personal relationships are a valuable part of your everyday life. Spending time with people you enjoy will help you handle stress and other difficult emotions.
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