There is more to food than satisfying your hunger. Not only does it provide a break from your busy day, but can also be an opportunity to share meals with your friends and family, bringing feelings of joy and delight.
Even when you’re isolated and emotionally at your weakest point, food can become a source of comfort that mitigates negative feelings.
But solely relying on food to reduce stress, without a second’s thought, can take a toll on your physical and mental health.
What is emotional eating?
According to Healthline, emotional eating is consuming food regularly to soothe and suppress negative feelings.
Emotional eating can be caused by factors such as work pressure, financial worries, health problems and relationship issues, to name a few. These problems can bring out stress and fatigue, taking over your day-to-day living.
A survey by Second Nature found that 25% of respondents felt out of control with their eating habits since the Covid-19 pandemic.
But how can you tell if you are eating to relieve emotional hunger as opposed to physical hunger?
Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. You crave certain foods and eat a lot of them because you feel unsatisfied with your fullness. This can bring feelings of guilt and shame.
Physical hunger comes on gradually. You are open to eating any food, and once you stop eating, you feel full and satisfied.
There is nothing wrong with eating food occasionally to cope with upsetting feelings, as food can help regulate our emotional states.
But emotional eating becomes a problem when food becomes the only primary coping mechanism to deal with negative emotions.
To understand what’s going on, let’s take a closer look at the emotional eating cycle:
- When something upsetting happens to you, this causes emotional stress, increasing your cortisol levels. Not only does this hormone regulate your emotions, but it also alters your appetite.
- Food cravings emerge as your body needs more energy to function under stress. This overwhelming urge to eat shifts your focus to comfort foods that are high in fat and sugar.
- As negative emotions lead to feelings of emptiness, food helps fill that emotional void. But filling up your stomach with food creates a false sense of fullness, so in response, you eat more than you know you should.
- Overeating to cope with negative emotions leaves you more upset than before, continuing the emotional eating cycle. Over time, you feel guilty and powerless over food, making it harder to break away from this cycle.
Emotional eating becomes mindless eating when you don’t think about what you’re doing, which allows your unconscious habits to take over.
But now you’re aware of the emotional eating cycle, you can take steps to build a healthy relationship with the food you eat!
How to take control of your emotional eating:
Step 1: Identify your emotional eating triggers
Pinpoint your emotional eating triggers by keeping a food diary. Aim to record everything related to your eating habits, such as:
- When you eat
- What you eat
- How much you eat
- How hungry you are
- Emotions you’re feeling
Even though this process can be tedious to follow, being aware of how you’re feeling will help you notice patterns that tie your mood to the food you eat.
Step 2: Take action against your cravings
Once you have a good idea of what your emotional eating triggers are, it’s time to tackle your cravings.
There are several ways you could try to avoid your craving:
- Preoccupy your mind with other activities
- Make it harder to access comfort foods when you’re upset
- Do some quick exercise and drink some water
If you need to satisfy your craving, consume a small proportion of food or have a healthy snack on hand. This can help you slowly transition away from your emotional eating habits.
Step 3: Reflect on your progress
Think about what worked for you and what obstacles got in the way. Forgive yourself when you engage in emotional eating and start afresh the next day.
Learning from your setbacks can help drive substantial change to your eating habits. In moments where your health improves, both mentally and physically, celebrate to keep up your motivation.
Step 4: Find other ways to cope with your emotions
Manage your stress in ways that you are comfortable with, such as going on a walk or meditation. A systematic review identified that mindfulness meditation can be an effective intervention for binge eating and emotional eating.
If boredom is the underlying cause of your emotional eating, try engaging with activities like reading a book, listening to music or watching a film.
When you’re feeling sad or anxious, it is good to seek support to avoid isolation. This can be speaking to a family member or friend to improve your mood or even seeking a life coach who can help identify emotions at the root of your emotional hunger.
Visiting a support group can also be a great opportunity to meet people in a similar situation as yours. By sharing lived experiences, this information could be valuable to help reduce your emotional eating.
If your eating patterns are still out of control after trying various self-help measures, seek help from a qualified healthcare professional.
Step 5: Change lifestyle habits to facilitate stress management
One of the most important lifestyle habits that can reduce emotional eating is maintaining a healthy diet, as eating well throughout the day can help identify triggers that you hadn’t noticed before.
While strict rules on eating are easy to put in place, they are much harder to follow. What tends to happen is that you crave these foods even more than before.
So to combat feelings of shame and guilt when rules are broken, give yourself leeway by acknowledging that it takes time to change your eating habits.
Here are a few other lifestyle habits that can provide relief from stress:
- Exercising regularly
- Sleeping well
- Relaxing through meditation
- Connecting with others
- Engaging in hobbies
While food can help with your emotions initially, addressing feelings behind your emotional hunger can help you deal with stress in a healthy manner.
Even though it will take time to ease your emotional eating habits, approaching this process with kindness and acceptance will help you maintain a healthy relationship with food in the long term.
Ready to improve your health? A life coach at Ceed can provide support and encouragement at every step of the way! Take a look at how we can help here.