What situations, places, or feelings make you reach for the comfort of food? Most emotional eating is linked to unpleasant feelings, but it can also be triggered by positive emotions, such as rewarding yourself for achieving a goal or celebrating a holiday or happy event. Common causes of emotional eating include:
Stuffing emotions – Eating can be a way to temporarily silence or “stuff down” uncomfortable emotions, including anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, resentment, and shame. While you’re numbing yourself with food, you can avoid the difficult emotions you’d rather not feel.
Boredom or feelings of emptiness – Do you ever eat simply to give yourself something to do, to relieve boredom, or as a way to fill a void in your life? You feel unfulfilled and empty, and food is a way to occupy your mouth and your time. In the moment, it fills you up and distracts you from underlying feelings of purposelessness and dissatisfaction with your life.
Childhood habits – Think back to your childhood memories of food. Did your parents reward good behaviour with ice cream, take you out for pizza when you got a good report card, or serve you sweets when you were feeling sad? These habits can often carry over into adulthood. Or your eating may be driven by nostalgia — for cherished memories of BBQ in the backyard with family or baking and eating cakes with your mom.
Social influences – Getting together with other people for a meal is a great way to relieve stress, but it can also lead to overeating. It’s easy to overindulge simply because the food is there or because everyone else is eating. You may also overeat in social situations out of nervousness. Or perhaps your family or circle of friends encourage you to overeat, and it’s easier to go along with the group.
Stress – Ever notice how stress makes you hungry? It’s not just in your mind. When stress is chronic, as it so often is in our chaotic, fast-paced world, your body produces high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and fried foods — foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure. The more uncontrolled stress in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief.
Tips to overcome the urge of emotional eating
1. Name that Mood: The first step in overcoming emotional eating is to get a clearer understanding of when it happens. When keeping your diet journal, make a note of your mood each time you eat.
This will allow you to identify episodes of emotional eating. Figure out how often you eat when in bad moods, what time of day, which days of the week, and which foods (keep these foods out of the house!). This will give you insight into your patterns and help you know when to utilize the following strategies.
2. Don’t Empower Your Vices: By eating during a negative emotion, you are giving food a new power beyond just meeting your nutrition needs. Food becomes a coping strategy, making your desire for it intensify. You begin to believe that you need food to get through bad feelings. Worse yet, studies show that eating high-fat and/or high-sugar foods can affect activity in the parts of your brain that manage stress, which will further reinforce your reliance on eating in response to stress (Dallman et al 2011). If you feel that you can’t resist eating in response to a bad mood, consider reaching for raw fruit or vegetables since these foods are unlikely to have that effect on your brain.
3. Healthy Coping: The key is to find ways to cope with negative feelings that do not cause more problems. Eating causes more problems, and so does drinking, sleeping too much, and getting lost in TV for hours at a time. Exercise and talking with a supportive friend are good examples of healthy coping. When considering a new coping strategy, ask yourself: “Will doing this make me feel better or worse right now?” and “Will doing this make me feel better or worse tomorrow?” If you can say “better” to both questions, it is probably a healthy coping strategy. There is no sense in feeling better in the moment if it costs you tomorrow.
4. Conquering the Hard Times Is the Key to Long-Term Success: I have had patients who when having trouble losing weight say: “Well, this isn’t a good time for me to be trying to lose weight; things are so busy and stressful now.” This is a Fair Weather Loser — someone who can only lose weight and live healthy when all in their life is calm. When is that going to happen? Life is constant chaos. The secret to weight loss success is being able to keep a healthy lifestyle even in the midst of chaos. If you gain weight every time life gets stressful, your weight will always go up and down. Challenge yourself to keep your healthy lifestyle going during stressful times. This will give you the confidence that you can do this no matter what difficulties come your way.