Whether you’re fighting with your significant other, dealing with a demanding boss, or stressed about your final exam, reaching for food to soothe negative emotions is an all-too-common coping mechanism.
It’s actually much more common than you might think.
A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association reports that about 40 percent of participants admit to overeating because of stress, with over a half admit to doing so at least once a week.
In this post, I’ll explain what emotional eating is, the triggers behind it, and what you can do to put a stop to it.
Does this sound good?
Let’s get started.
What is Emotional Eating?
If you catch yourself reaching for food when you’re not hungry, or every time you’re going through emotional strife, you’re likely engaging in emotional eating.
Also known as stress eating, emotional eating can be defined as using food for stress relief, comfort, or self-reward. When this happens, the tendency is to reach for high-calorie, sweet, junk food.
You might binge eat at night because you feel lonely, snack at work because of boredom, or deny yourself food because you felt rejected after a bad date.
Stress isn’t the only culprit—depression, sadness, happiness, among other emotions, can be triggers, too.
The Trap of Emotional Eating
Emotional eating isn’t harmless, and it doesn’t help you feel better. It actually provides nothing but short term relief from the discomfort and can easily spiral out of control.
By eating your emotions away, you set yourself up for an endless cycle of unhealthy eating, followed by regret and guilt, then more unhealthy eating.
When this happens, you’ll typically choose junk foods high in calories, sugar, fat, and salt, but very low in nutritional value. This can lead to food addictions, binge eating, low self-esteem, health conditions, and difficulty losing weight.
The Signs of Emotional Eating
If you’re still on the fence about being an emotional eater, ask yourself the following:
- Do you often feel guilty after eating?
- Do you consume more food when you’re feeling down?
- Do you often have your meals alone or at odd locations?
- Do you eat to soothe and calm yourself when you’re mad, sad, anxious, or bored?
- Do you consider food a friend?
- Do you often crave a specific food and won’t feel at ease until you have it?
- Have you been eating larger portions than usual?
- Do you seek comfort in food when you’re feeling down?
Answer yes to two or more of these questions, then you might often eat based on your emotions. In such a case, eating has turned into a coping mechanism rather than a way to fuel your body.
How to Stop Being an Emotional Eater?
The key to dealing with emotional eating lies not in your kitchen, but your mind—how you choose to approach your problems.
Take the following steps to help you break away from your emotional eating cycle.
Know your Triggers
To start the process of regulating your stress eating, first identify the triggers behind it. Awareness creates its own momentum, as the saying goes.
Next time you catch yourself reaching for comfort food, ask yourself, “Why do I crave this chocolate cookie? Am I really hungry?
Or is there something else driving my desire? Is it pressure? Stress? Loneliness? Worry? Boredom? Sadness?
Perhaps that you have job issues that cause stress and pain, or maybe you’re dealing with relationship strive that causes you to overeat.
If you can single out your triggers, then you can take active measures to tackle the negative emotions before it spirals out of control.
Use A Food Diary
To help shed more light on your eating habits, start keeping a food diary.
Collect as much data as possible about your emotional eating episodes.
Keep track of what you ate, how much you ate, and the feeling you experienced as you ate, whether it’s anxiety, happiness, boredom, sadness, you name it. The more data, the better.
Do this regularly, and you begin to notice patterns emerging between your emotions and eating choices. This should help you tell the difference between emotional food cravings and real physical hunger.
Maybe only you emotionally eat when you feel stressed after a long day at work. Or maybe you overeat when you feel lonely and bored at home. Keep in mind not to judge yourself. Just acknowledge what’s happening and write it down. There are no right or wrong answers.
Plan, Plan, then Plan Some More
To curve the urge for emotional eating, you’d need to find healthier replacement activities to handle these emotions. Nature, after all, abhors a vacuum.
Don’t know where to start? Don’t worry. Here’s the formula.
Fill in the blanks: “When (the trigger), I’ll (the healthier reaction).
Examples of triggers include:
- I feel tired
- I feel down
- My family is driving me crazy
- I feel lonely
- I feel anxious
- My boss is being a prick
- I feel broke
- I feel drained
- You Name it.
The way you respond to these triggers is what matters. Instead of turning for food for comfort, engage in any of the following healthier alternatives:
- Read a book
- Eat an apple
- Take a nap
- Watch a movie
- Hit the gym
- Talk to your mom
- Call a friend
- Go for a run
- Listen to soothing or uplifting music
- Sip soothing, fragrant tea
- Buy yourself flowers
- Or any other activity that makes you feel good that don’t involve stuffing your body with junk food.
For example, if you feel down after a long day at work, go for a run or listen to upbeat music. To keep yourself accountable, write your plan on a piece of paper and keep it on you the entire time.
There you have it!
The above guidelines should put you on the fast track toward eliminating your emotional eating episodes. Now it’s up to you to take action and implement them in your daily lifestyle. The rest is just detail.
About the author:
David Dack is an established fitness blogger and running expert. When he’s not training for his next marathon, he’s doing research and trying to help as many people as possible to share his fitness philosophy. Check his blog Runners Blueprint for more info.