Overcoming emotional eating
Most of us have dealt with emotional eating at some stage in our lives. You know the feeling – you’re having a hard time with an aspect of your life such as work, family, friends or university and the one thing that seems to make you feel better is digging into your favourite food. And while that can be okay every now and then, when you find yourself eating obscene amounts of food in an effort to feel better every single night, this type of stress eating or overeating can become a problem.
And while eating when you’re upset may help you to feel better in the short term, burying your feelings in a packet of potato chips will likely start to affect both your physical and mental health. To find out how to repair an unhealthy relationship with food, we spoke to celebrity chef, nutritionist and founder of Falling in Love with Food, Zoe Bingley-Pullin. So if you’re ready to break the emotional eating cycle, read on.
What is emotional eating?
We all like to treat ourselves to good food but when we start using it to cheer ourselves up on a regular basis, it can start to become less about the food and more about our feelings. But how do you know if you just had a movie night eating spree or whether it’s something more? “Emotional eating means eating in response to emotions,” explains Zoe. “Emotional eating becomes a negative behaviour if an individual uses food to control or block out emotions. It can lead to binge eating or feeling guilt and shame for overeating or eating the ‘wrong’ kind of food.”
But don’t think you’re immune to emotional eating if you only eat healthy food – while most associate emotional eating with gorging on fried foods or chocolate, it’s also possible to binge eat healthy foods and that’s not great for you, either. Remember what your mum said about too much of anything being a bad thing? She was on to something.
What causes emotional eating?
When it comes to emotional eating, Zoe says there are many reasons why we begin to see food as our emotional saviour. “There are a number of factors which can trigger emotional eating such as stress, fatigue, break ups, poor relationships with others, feeling lonely, depression, anxiety and also dieting,” she says. “When we restrict our food intake and deprive ourselves of the nutrition we need there is an increased risk of emotional eating, especially if weight loss is a goal and results are not being achieved.”
Developing an emotional eating habit can cause a whole host of problems for us, both mentally and physically. “Mentally we may feel guilt, shame, depressed, anxious, low self-esteem and even a loss of control,” says Zoe. “Physically if we overeat due to emotional eating and choose typical comfort foods such as sugar and fatty foods, we may feel physically ill, lack energy or gain weight.” When we can lead to us feeling even worse about ourselves than we did in the first place!
The next time you get the uncontrollable urge to eat certain foods, give yourself a mental once-over. Are you in your feelings while you’re craving that chocolate cake? If so, can you pinpoint what’s really upsetting you? Identifying the cause of your emotional eating will help you to recognise certain emotional triggers and go a long way in breaking the cycle.
Overcoming emotional eating
So you’ve identified the cause of your emotional eating and now you need to work on some ways to get you through those ‘OMG I need to eat that entire packet of Tim Tams right now!’ moments. Depending on the cause of your emotional eating, Zoe suggests being prepared. “If you’re finding yourself triggered by stress and anxiety in your life, some may find it helpful to exercise in these moments,” she says. “Others may find catching up with a friend, sitting down to read a chapter of your favourite book or working on a project or hobby will do the trick.”
And if you’re finding yourself eating emotionally because of a diet you’re following, Zoe says it might be time to reconsider. “Dieting is a huge trigger for emotional eating,” she says. “If you’re finding that this is the case, consider ditch dieting for good and focus on building a healthy relationship with food and a healthy lifestyle as opposed to the number on the scale.
To keep yourself in a healthy mindset with food, Zoe also suggests cooking yourself some tasty meals. “Cooking is a form of distraction and meditation, so it can be a good tool to help overcome stress,” she explains. “Additionally, focus on foods that will make you feel satisfied and support a healthy mood, such as foods rich in lean protein and healthy fats. Aim to avoid excessive refined sugar as it will wreak havoc with blood sugar and may make you feel worse.”
As with any change in our patterns of behaviour, overcoming emotional eating can be difficult at times. So if you do find that you’re slipped up, don’t beat yourself up about it – just accept that it happened and move on. “If you do fall back, don’t view it as a failure, see it as a learning opportunity,” Zoe agrees. “Learn from the regression and put a plan into place to make if you are in the same situation you have support. Let go of the mindset that there are good and bad foods and any other diet rules and start eating according to what your body needs.”
All the being said, sometimes it’s just not that easy to change something that can be so inextricably linked to our feelings. “If you start to binge eat on a regular basis or fall into a cycle of binge eating and restricting food intake, your emotional eating has become a serious problem,” says Zoe. “Furthermore, if emotional eating starts to impact your daily life, whether this is because you feel physically ill, depressed or start to isolate yourself from others, it is time to get help.” In this instance, it’s best to tackle these issues with a trained professional such as your doctor, a dietician or nutritionist or a psychologist.
Have you dealt with emotional eating?