Emotional eating is an extremely common coping mechanism. You’ve been there right? Difficult day, for whatever reason, so you drown your sorrows in what would otherwise never be called a personal-sized pizza and an extra large soda. Hey, you deserve it for all that you’re enduring! Well, maybe. But emotional eating, especially when left unchecked can lead to weight gain, depression, guilt, and losing sight of your long-term goals. Not exactly what you were hoping for when you reached for that last slice…
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating, otherwise known as “eating your feelings,” is when you reach for food—often overindulging in unhealthy foods full of sugar, salt, and fat—because you're reaching for comfort from a stressor in your life. It could be work stress, school, relationships, finances—you name it. Emotional eating can even be in response to everyday emotions such as boredom, loneliness, sadness, tension, and tiredness. In essence, emotional eating is a way of using food to self-medicate or self-regulate instead of dealing with the issues you’re actually facing.
And despite the necessity of food in our lives, you’ll notice that hunger didn’t make the list of reasons to emotionally eat.
Why do I stress eat?
True stress eating, or emotional eating, is never triggered by hunger. We stress eat because it is a distraction from what is really—excuse the pun—eating us. We use food to suppress our feelings, self-soothe, and distract from an otherwise uncomfortable situation or feeling, which is just the start of a vicious cycle, as opposed to truly fueling our bodies with the right kinds of nutrients.
We can get so caught up in the dangerous spiral of emotional eating that at the slightest trigger we reach for food. Anger, sadness, stress, exhaustion—they can all get us indulging in something we’ll soon regret because it makes us feel emotionally worse, as if we have no self-control, and physically worse because overdoing it with food never makes your body feel good. Plus, it can often throw you off your long-term weight loss goals.
And binging then dieting then binging then dieting never did work…
How do I stop emotional eating?
The first step in cutting out emotional eating is recognition. As with any bad habit, you have to see it for what it is—a coping mechanism for a different issue. Once you’ve registered that emotional eating is a trouble area for you, it’s easier to identify and avoid triggers, and come up with alternative ways to handle the problem.
If you notice that a particular emotion has you longing to “treat” yourself to some emotional eating, stop and tell yourself that filling up on food won’t ever fill the void that the emotional struggle has left in you. Confronting the true emotions you’re feeling and then finding a healthier way to handle them are the first steps to stopping an emotional eating impulse.
What can I do instead?
There are a lot of things you can do instead of eating your way out of a situation. And of course, what works for some, may not work for others. Here are several suggestions on what you can do instead of eating your feelings.
If you feel lonely:
Reach out—make contact with a supportive friend or family member. Something as simple as a text to connect instead of disconnecting from your emotions can be a game changer when you start to feel weak.
If you feel stressed:
Try writing in a journal to sort out your feelings. You could meditate to release some of the pressure you’re feeling. There are also great supplements that can help keep your stress levels under control.
If you feel anxious:
Move your body! Exercise, even a brisk walk, can make all the difference if you’re feeling those anxious jitters. And bonus, it takes you away from unworthy food sources (we’re looking at you, pantry full of cookies!) and hopefully into some fresh air where you can burn a few calories.
If you feel bored:
Read a book or magazine, or take the first steps on a goal that’s been taking the backseat to other indulgences.
If you feel tired:
Do some relaxing yoga to give into the feelings of tiredness (if the timing is appropriate). Embrace a new bedtime routine that doesn’t involve snacking yourself to sleep. If it’s not time for sleeping but the Zs are creeping up on you, try scrolling through a few pictures of the last adventure you took to put a smile on your face and a spring in your step.
The next time you find yourself on the edge of a dangerous emotional eating cycle, check in with yourself. First, note that you’re not alone. Somewhere around 75% of overeating is done because of emotion! We’ve all been there. But it’s also something we can work on controlling and changing with healthy habits, helpful supplements, and proper self-care and coaching.