Fit Food: Emotional Eating

Eating-Too-MuchOne of the most common challenges for someone trying to change their nutrition habits is emotional eating. According to the Mayo Clinic, it can be defined as any eating (or not eating) in response to a psychological need rather than a physical hunger and sooner or later it affects us all. Eating ice cream when you are sad, drinking wine when you are happy, snacking on chips when you are bored, downing donuts when you are tired and not eating when you are stressed are all examples of emotional eating. Today I would like to talk about some strategies to help deal with this ubiquitous issue, but first I want to clarify that I am not a psychologist. Any advice in this article does not apply to anyone with an eating disorder or who is currently undergoing treatment with a counsellor or psychologist. If you feel that you may have an issue with disordered eating please speak with a professional.

If eating well was purely about science and applying what the research tells us to be true, then many of us would look a lot different from what we currently look like! But humans are complex creatures made up of blood, muscles, nerve impulses, and feelings (in no particular order). Let’s talk about some strategies to help you deal with emotional eating without sabotaging your healthy eating efforts!

Emotional Hunger vs. Real Hunger – According to Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanna Segal, Ph. D., of emotional hunger happens suddenly and needs to be fed at that moment. It craves very specific food, whereas real hunger will be satisfied by anything. Emotional hunger also isn’t satisfied when your stomach is full and is often followed by feelings of guilt and remorse. So how can you tell if it’s real hunger or emotional hunger? You need to be honest and let yourself feel your emotions rather than masking them with food. This will take both long-term and short-term strategies.

In the short-term, I advise a three-step approach. When the urge to eat strikes, pause and ask yourself what you are really feeling. Then ask yourself what you are really hungry for and lastly find an alternative strategy to satisfy that need.

What are you feeling? What are you really hungry for? What can you do for that need?

legs-walking-femaleStressed or anxious: You are hungry for: A break, clarity, control, inspiration, solutions, quiet. Try instead: Exercise, meditate, take a walk, talk it out, delegate.

Sad or upset: you are hungry for:  Comfort, love, company Try instead: Call a friend, snuggle a pet, cry, nap, watch a movie

Happy or celebratory, recognition of a milestone: You are hungry for: Time with loved ones, marking a special event. Try instead: Buy yourself a non food reward, go on an adventure with a loved one, take a picture, blog about it.

Bored: You are hungry for: Entertainment, excitement. Try Instead: Read a book, call a friend, paint your nails, exercise.

In the long-term, you should keep a diary of each emotional eating occurrence and track what happened, how you felt, what you did, and what worked or didn’t work. Eventually you will start to see patterns and become more aware of your triggers.

Triggers – Certain situations, environments and feelings can all be triggers for emotional eating. Perhaps feeling lonely makes you crave grilled cheese because that’s what your dad used to make you for lunch. Or feeling anxious makes you crave salty foods because you always snack on chips while studying for exams so now you associate that taste with stressful situations. Maybe visiting a certain relatives house is a trigger because they always have baked goods around and you have many fond memories of spending time there, enjoying indulgent food. Whatever your triggers are you will be further ahead once you identify them. The second part of your emotional eating diary should be figuring out alternative coping strategies. Keep track of everything you try and make notes of the ones that work. Keep in mind that a strategy may take a few tries to work and may not work every time. That’s why it’s good to have multiple strategies at the ready.

colorful-donuts-sprinklesDistractions Vs. Feelings – While distractions are a good strategy and will often help ride out the craving, you will have to eventually face the feeling in order to gain full control of your emotional eating. You may need to talk to your boss about your workload, deal with an issue with a friend or family member, or just let yourself have a good cry when you are feeling sad. Let yourself feel your emotions without judgement. You aren’t a bad person for feeling angry or sad about a particular situation. Recognize the feeling in yourself and let it play out. Recurring issues may need to be dealt with in multiple ways and as you gain control over one part of your life issues may crop up elsewhere. Such is life. But if you continue to be aware of your triggers and pause each time you feel the urge to eat emotional you will continue to grow and improve.

Happy Lifting!

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3 comments for “Fit Food: Emotional Eating

  1. Leslie
    July 4, 2013 at 8:58 am

    Great article, Dara! Thank you!

  2. May 19, 2013 at 7:04 pm

    Great information as always Dara. I’m guilty of eating as a way to unwind or get rid of that speedy feeling that comes at the end of a hectic day. Carbs work pretty well to suppress that anxiety and that’s my preferred method. I’m well aware of what I’m doing and why but this article brought my attention to it and makes me realize what I need to do to avoid eating a bunch of junk that I don’t need when I’m feeling stressed. Thanks for the great tips!

    • daracoxpt
      May 23, 2013 at 6:40 am

      We all do it Matt, food is often our number one choice for self soothing. Replacing unhelpful habits with helpful ones takes time and effort, but it’s possible!

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