We all experience times of stress, worry, and anxiety, and sometimes we turn to food to deal with our emotions. For some of us we know what we are doing and when we are feeling good, the emotional eating stops. For some of us, we don’t stop and it can be hard to stop comfort eating.
Further reading; 5 signs you are eating your feelings
What is Emotional Eating?
Many of us turn to food in times of stress, happiness or another emotion. This is known as emotional or comfort eating, where we use food as a way to make us feel better in the short term. We may do this to distract ourselves or avoid dealing with uncomfortable emotions.
If we have been emotionally eating for a long time, we may not even be aware of the emotions we are suppressing with food. All we see is that we are overeating and we don’t know how to stop.
Weight gain is a common result of overeating and low self-esteem. Comfort eating affects our relationship with food and how we feel about ourselves. So we do not feel as good about ourselves anymore. This ironically often leads to us eating more as a way of comforting ourselves. It can be followed by feelings of guilt. We can see it can be a vicious circle.
It is important to recognise when we are using food to cope with stressful situations. And to find more beneficial ways of dealing with them.
The key to breaking the cycle of comfort eating is to identify the emotions behind it. When we have food cravings, take the time to think about why we are doing it. This is the start of mindful eating. Are we really hungry, or are we using food to cope with negative emotions? Once we have identified the emotion, we can then find healthier ways of dealing with it. Such as talking to a friend and keeping a food journal.
Emotional eating can also look like us needing a break. If we have busy lives and our minds and bodies need to pause, we need to slow down for 5 or so minutes, food is the ultimate way to take a break. How many of us love sitting down with a cup of tea and find ourselves mindless eating chocolate or cake?
It is also important to have healthy and nutritious foods available, so that we are not tempted to reach for sugary or fatty snacks. Planning meals and snacks in advance can help us to make healthier choices and to avoid comfort eating. Eating mindfully can also help us to become more aware of our eating habits and to recognise when we are overeating.
By taking the time to identify and address our emotional needs, we can break the cycle of comfort eating and lead healthier, happier lives.
Further reading; 3 ways to stop compulsive eating
What Causes Someone to Eat Because of Their Emotions?
Comfort eating can be caused by many factors. It can become a habit and can be difficult to break. Stress, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, low self-esteem, sadness, guilt, and treating oneself as a reward can all lead to comfort eating.
When feeling stressed or anxious, some people turn to food for comfort. This can quickly become a habit and can be hard to break. Boredom can also lead to comfort eating, as people may eat out of habit, rather than hunger. Loneliness can also be a factor, as people may use eating as a form of self-soothing. Low self-esteem can lead to people eating to make themselves feel better. Sadness and guilt are also feelings that some people may try to distract from with food. Lastly, people may associate food with reward, causing them to turn to food when feeling down.
A common factor for emotional eating is our experience in childhood. If we were not happy in any way, we could have turned to food because of it being readily available. Our parents could have been emotional eaters and we have learnt from them.
If you find yourself comfort eating, it is important to find other ways to deal with your emotions. It can be beneficial to talk to someone about how you are feeling and to find healthy coping mechanisms. Regular physical activity can also be helpful, as it can reduce stress and help to manage emotions.
The Difference Between Emotional Hunger and Physical Hunger
Comfort eating can be triggered by emotional hunger, which is different from physical hunger. Emotional hunger is triggered by a feeling or emotion, such as stress, sadness, boredom or loneliness, while physical hunger is caused by your body needing food to function.
It is important to distinguish between the two types of hunger, because they will lead to different types of eating behaviour. Emotional hunger is more likely to be satisfied by high-calorie comfort foods, such as chocolate, cake, pizza and chips. While physical hunger will be satisfied by any healthy food. Emotional hunger can often lead to overeating and weight gain, while physical hunger will be satisfied with a smaller amount of food.
So how can you tell the difference between emotional and physical hunger? Emotional hunger can be triggered by a negative thought or feeling. You won’t have a body feeling from your stomach, it will be an urge to eat. Whilst physical hunger is a natural response to not having eaten in a while. You will feel this in your stomach. The longer you go without eating, the stronger the actual hunger will get.
Emotional hunger can leave you feeling guilty or ashamed, while physical hunger will make you feel relieved and energised after eating.
If you find yourself reaching for unhealthy comfort foods when you’re feeling down, it may be a sign that you’re experiencing emotional hunger. Taking the time to recognise the difference between the two types of hunger can help you to make healthier food choices and avoid overeating.
further reading; How to stop eating bread to lose weight
How to Stop Emotional Eating
The first step to ending emotional eating is to figure out what triggers it. Identifying your triggers can help you to be more aware of them and develop strategies to deal with them. For example, if you find yourself reaching for a snack when you’re bored, try to find other ways to occupy your time.
When you feel the urge to comfort eat, try to distract yourself with something else. Go for a walk, call a friend, or do something creative. Physical activity can also help to reduce stress and distract you from your cravings.
Instead of turning to food, try to find alternative coping mechanisms such as deep breathing, listening to music, or spending time outdoors. These activities can help you to relax and refocus your attention away from food.
If you find yourself struggling to control your emotional eating, consider talking to a therapist who can help you work through your feelings and develop healthier coping strategies. With the right tools and support, you can learn to manage your emotions without turning to food.
How Can I Identify Triggers That Cause Me to Comfort Eat?
Emotional eating can be a difficult habit to break. It’s important to get to know yourself better and take the time to identify and list your emotional triggers in a journal. Pay attention to the situations that might lead to comfort eating, and be mindful of your physical and emotional reactions when you experience an emotional eating trigger.
Notice the thoughts and feelings that come up before and during the urge to comfort eat, and consider the impact of your environment – is there something in your home or work life that sets off a craving?
Ask yourself questions to gain insight into why you might be comfort eating – such as; What do I need right now? How am I feeling right now?
Being prepared and having a plan for when a trigger arises can be helpful. For example, take a five-minute walk, call a friend, or try some mindful breathing exercises. These activities can take the focus away from comfort eating and help you to feel calmer and more in control. Practicing mindfulness can be a great way to gain insight into why you might be comfort eating, and it can help to build the skills and strategies to help you manage triggers and cravings.
Some common triggers are; restrictive food rules, not eating a balanced diet, and suppressed negative emotions.
Are There Any Mental Health Techniques I Can Use to Help Me Resist the Urge to Comfort Eat?
- Tapping (EFT) known as the Emotional Freedom Technique. This is tapping with your first two fingers on certain acupressure points on your body. It can relieve stress and helps you to recognise what emotion you are feeling.
- Breathing. Doing the box breathe of 4 seconds in, hold the breathe for 4 seconds, 4 seconds out and then hold the outbreathe for 4 seconds. This helps your brain to slow down and just stop for a moment and gather your thoughts.
- Analysing. Analysing your whole life with curiosity. Exploring your patterns of behaviour that may contribute to your eating. Many times it is not just the eating we need to change, but we need to make changes to our pace of life or how much we do.
- Fun. Fill your life up with activities that you enjoy and give you pleasure. A lot of the time we are seeing pleasure, to feel good so we get that from food. When we fill ourselves up in a different way, we no longer need to seek out food to fill that gap.
- Food diary. Keeping a record of what you eat, can help you to see your triggers and your overall eating pattern. Use it as a record, not as a way to beat yourself up about how much you eat. Use it to help you find your common triggers, so you can start to avoid or manage them better.
When to Seek Help
If you feel like your comfort eating is out of control, it might be beneficial to seek help from your doctor or mental health professionals, like a therapist. They may recommend a dietician or nutritionist to help you gain an understanding of the best type of foods to eat.
If you have tried many things to get your eating under control and nothing is working, then it could be a good time to seek help from healthcare professionals who have experience in this subject.
Talking to a counselor/ therapist can also help to explore the underlying causes of your comfort eating, and they can offer coping strategies and advice on how to manage stress without resorting to food. They may use CBT, cognitive behavioural therapy, which can offer behavioral strategies around your eating habits. They will help you work on the underlying emotional issues and It can help you have a healthier relationship with food and yourself.
Alternatively, you could consider joining a support group, where you can talk to others in a similar situation and learn from their experiences.
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