Emotional Eating – A Closer Look
Chicago is home to one of the country’s best culinary scenes. (Why else would the Lyric Opera host the culinary Oscars, the James Beard awards?) But, you might have also noticed your friends, family, or self housing hot dogs or ice cream without any consideration of their flavor or texture. Maybe you, or your loved one, even eats in response to something other than hunger.
It’s common, albeit unhealthy, to eat in response to emotions, not hunger. This is called emotional eating and it’s pervasive. Usually this pattern includes: craving foods that are high in calories, fat, and sugar; eating too much without realizing it; and, feeling even more stress and anxiety after eating.
So, why do so many of us use this unhealthy coping mechanism when it doesn’t actually make us feel better in the long-run? The answer is complex.
First, the consumption of food does have an impact on the brain, which often leads to a temporary physiological rush. This rush is addicting and makes us want to repeat the behavior in the future. Second, people eat to momentarily forget how bad they feel. Most people have heard of stress eating, but people eat to numb other emotions too. Sadness, shame, anxiety, and loneliness are some common catalysts for emotional eating. Third, genetics may play a role. Differences in Binge Eating Disorder, a specific type of emotional eating, has been shown to be 41-57% heriditable [Kessler R et al., 2016]. This genetic susceptibility is also exacerbated by environment (Wade, T., et al., 2006) and trauma (Pike, K., et al., 2006).
The good news – you can develop control over your eating habits! Start here:
1. Build awareness. If you find yourself eating more than you want to, eating when you aren’t hungry, or trying to eat away your negative emotions – you must build awareness. You can start by becoming more aware of what you are eating, how you’re feeling, and when you’re eating. Consider only allowing yourself to eat when electronics are off and you’re at a table. By eliminating distractions, you give yourself a chance to be more attentive to your food and reasons for eating. Further, keep track of what you eat and when you eat it. Specific foods or periods of the day might catalyze cravings. As you track when and what you’re eating, you are more empowered to notice your patterns and more equipped to change the pattern. Finally, take time to mindfully, appreciate your food (how it makes you feel, how it tastes, what it feels like in your mouth). Try this exercise to practice.
2. Identify underlying causes. When you notice yourself emotionally eating, start journaling. After you write, reread what you wrote. You may be able to identify themes or aspects of your life that make you stressed, anxious, lonely, etc.
Alternatively, you can work to develop insight into what you’re really craving. Sometimes we abandon our inner needs and then, ineffectively, attempt to meet those needs with food. Make time for your most authentic self. What does that version of you want or need? What do they like to do? If you don’t know, that’s okay. Start exploring – try new hobbies, go to different places, do something you’ve never done. As you find truly meaningful experiences, lean into them and make time to do more of them.
3. Plan. When you know the triggers that create urges to emotionally eat, you can plan ahead to reduce your exposure to them. Do you eat when you’re stressed? How can you plan ahead to eat differently during a high stress period of your year? Do you eat when you’re anxious? What might you plan to eat when you know a certain situation is likely to make you anxious?
4. Consider medication. For some people, medications can be beneficial for cravings. Seek an evaluation from your primary care doctor to determine if medication would be valuable for you.
5. Exercise. Physical activity is beneficial for general emotional well-being and also helps reduce stress. Build in some kind of movement that you are willing to do consistently. Find something that you like; you’ll be a lot more likely to do it.
6. Get adequate sleep. A restful night’s sleep is crucial for your wellbeing, both psychological and physical. Make sure that you have a standard sleep and wake time. Turn off electronics at least 30 min prior to bed. Don’t drink caffeine or eat close to bed. Avoid excessive amounts of alcohol. With some adjustments to your sleep hygiene, you best support yourself to create healthy eating patterns.
7. Prepare to start and restart. You are going to be successful and unsuccessful. You won’t make change instantly; you’re human. Instead, allow yourself some compassion from guilt and shame. When you’ve emotionally eaten, notice it, and prepare yourself for the next opportunity to do it differently. Success is changing the long-term pattern, not every instance.
8.Consider treatment. Emotional eating can be problematic, but it also might be part of a more severe problem, such as Binge Eating Disorder or another eating disorder. If you’re struggling to make changes on your own, consider seeking out a therapist. CBT, DBT, and interpersonal therapy are all excellent approaches to address the problem.
Relationships with food can be complicated. It’s courageous to consider yours and to take steps to make yourself a more healthy person.