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How to Stop Emotional Eating

“The cycle is always the same,” says Erika Nicole Kendall, the writer behind the award-winning blog, A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss and a NASM-certified personal trainer and nutritionist. “Something stressful happens at work, home, school, on the road, during your commute or wherever. It feels out of your control, you feel powerless to fight it and you have no idea how to solve or fix it. The stress weighs you down – metaphorically and literally – to the point where you feel and think more slowly and react as if you’re under pressure.”

Food waste, piece of pizza remains on plate after dinner

(Getty Images)

To cope with that stress, you eat. “It could be something sweet, something salty, something fatty or something you’re emotionally attached to – it doesn’t matter. You eat it, and you feel better,” Kendall says. “This is the cycle of stress eating, and it will get you every single time.”

What is Emotional Eating?

Stress eating is a form of emotional eating, which is defined as eating “in response to an emotion instead of hunger,” says Gaby Vaca-Flores, a registered dietitian and founder of Glow+Greens, a nutrition and skin care consultancy based in Santa Monica, California. “Stress is one of the main culprits behind emotional eating. During high and prolonged periods of stress, the body’s cortisol levels can become elevated. High cortisol levels can increase our appetite hormones and motivation to eat.”

Erin Holley, a registered dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, notes that, while emotional eating is typically thought of as a negative thing, there are times when it can be a positive experience, for example, “celebrating a promotion at work with a special dinner.”

Vaca-Flores agrees, noting that “most people have been conditioned to associate food with happy emotions. As such, many turn to celebrate joyous occasions with food and drinks,” such as birthday cake or celebratory beers.

She also adds that “during difficult times, turning to foods that taste good or are comforting can provide temporary joy – and sometimes a sense of control over our feelings.”

However, when you use food as a crutch to help you cope with emotionally difficult or stressful situations, such as stress, boredom, sadness, anger or loneliness, it can become a negative situation that can have adverse health effects.

“It can leave us feeling physically and emotionally depleted to use food in this way,” Holley says.

It can also lead to significant weight gain.

Anyone and everyone can engage in emotional eating. “Our human experiences make all of us prone to some kind of emotional eating,” Holley says. “But in particular, those individuals that struggle to express emotions or maintain work-life balance could be more apt to engage in some kind of emotional eating experience.”

In addition, “people who have a history of restrictive eating behavior and those who don’t have the tools or mechanisms in place to cope with negative, stress-inducing events are more likely to engage in emotional eating,” Vaca-Flores says.

How to Know If You’re Emotionally Eating

Engaging in emotional eating frequently or subsequently getting into a binge-purge cycle – where you overeat and then restrict to counteract that binge – can be detrimental to health as it can add excess weight and lead to feelings of shame or a full-blown eating disorder. There are some signs to watch out for before you get to that stage, though, Holley says.

“Watch to see if you’re disconnected from your body” while you’re eating, she says, and consider the following questions:

  • Are you eating when you’re not physically hungry?
  • Are you eating because you’re bored? 
  • Is it a habit to pick up the bowl of popcorn while watching a TV show or movie at night to unwind?
  • Are you completely zoned out and before you know it your hand has hit the bottom of the bag or you’ve polished off that whole sleeve of Oreos? 

Vaca-Flores adds some additional questions to consider:

  • Are you eating more than you normally would in one sitting? “This is a sign that you may be disconnected from your hunger cues and are instead eating to fill an emotional void,” Vaca-Flores says.
  • Are you reaching for foods that you normally wouldn’t eat, such as dessert for dinner? “Reaching for foods that are not on your usual menu may indicate that you’re seeking comfort through your food,” Vaca-Flores says.
  • Are you eating at unusual times? “If you’re eating outside of your usual eating window, this may be a sign that you’re eating out of emotion rather than hunger,” Vaca-Flores says.

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it may be time to take a step back and consider when and why you’re eating.

Strategies for Coping with Emotional Eating

Holley says that first and foremost, it’s important to “give yourself permission to explore this (emotional eating) without judgement. Being hard on yourself or beating yourself up won’t help you reach a solution or make changes.”

Next, she recommends slowing down when you’re eating and forcing yourself to pay attention to why you’re eating. “If you’re eating because of physical hunger, that’s normal and OK to continue.”

But, if you find that you’re often eating when you’re not hungry, Holley recommends “take a moment to pause and ask yourself why you might be reaching for food in that instance. And then ask yourself if there might be a way to meet that need apart from food. Do you need some way to distract yourself like reading or watching a movie? Maybe you need connection and can reach out to a family member or friend.”

Tune in to what you’re feeling in the moment. “Negative emotions are an uncontrollable variable in our lives,” Vaca-Flores says. “We can’t control when they’ll occur. However, we can try to control how negative emotions affect us.”

Vaca-Floresrecommends implementing coping mechanisms, such as “shifting your mindset about food as a comforting response. For instance, if you normally comfort yourself with food after a bad day, try replacing food with a different type of activity,” such as going for a walk outside, calling a friend or picking up a good book.

Another strategy is to keep a food journal. Writing down what and when you eat and how you’re feeling in those moments can help you better track what you’re consuming and why. Being able to see it all on the page in black and white may make it clear if a pattern of emotional eating has become a regular occurrence for you as a means of dealing with the difficulties of daily life.

Using food as a crutch to avoid facing difficult emotions is a common strategy, but if you don’t face those emotions, you could be headed down a difficult path, Kendall says.

“Using food to cope with emotional pain is what facilitates addiction, and it is in fact abuse of a substance, Kendall says. She adds that researchers have found that people who abuse food “experience the same neurological impulses and reactions as addicts of substances such as heroin and cocaine.”

The catch is, though, that you need food to live. “An addiction to food is doubly insidious, because you cannot live without it – you simply must learn how to consume it mindfully,” Kendall says. Like exercise addiction, food addiction can be a challenging health problem to solve.

Not All Emotional Eating is the Same

Lastly, it’s important to point out that emotional eating and binge eating can be two separate things. “It’s possible to binge eat and use it as an emotional outlet, but emotional eating does not equal binge eating,” Holley says.

To further clarify, she says, “typically a binge would be categorized as eating a large amount of food in a short period of time. Binge eating is often accompanied with feelings of being out of control or like you can’t stop eating.”

Vaca-Flores adds that “all binge eating is emotional, but not all emotional eating is binging. For example, I can choose to order a fast food meal for dinner in response to a stressful commute home, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m binging or significantly overeating.”

That said, if you’re experiencing binge eating sessions, “don’t be afraid to seek help,” Holley says. “There’s no shame in reaching out for help” and she recommends looking for an eating disorders-trained therapist or dietitian who can help you transform binge eating and emotional eating behaviors into a healthier relationship with food.

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