We’ve all seen the rom-coms where, after a bad breakup or betrayal, the heroine dives into a tub of ice cream, eating mindlessly while a classic romantic movie plays on the TV in front of her. While this may be a Hollywood-style exaggeration of real life, it portrays a real problem that many of us struggle with on a day-to-day basis: emotional eating.
Throughout our lives, we’ve been told many times to “get over” our emotions, to “pull it together,” and to “keep busy” during a period of negative emotions. We’re trained not to feel our emotions – instead, we stuff them down, often with food.
In fact, one study found that when women were feeling angry, stressed or fearful, they were significantly more likely to experience intense symptoms of bodily hunger and overeat than if they were feeling relaxed or calm.1 Another study discovered that when emotional eating, participants were much more likely to eat sweet, high-energy foods like cake, ice cream, and soda.2
Clearly, by not expressing our emotions, we’re risking our body and our health. We’re also setting ourselves up for a vicious cycle of emotional eating – unhealthy foods containing saturated fat and sodium have been linked to a negative mood over the next few days.3
Fast foods and commercially-baked goods have also been associated with increased rates of depression.4 Eating unhealthy food makes us feel down, so we eat more unhealthy food to “cope” with our emotions … and repeat.
Fortunately, there are ways to break the cycle of emotional eating. For many years, I struggled with emotional and binge eating. From this experience, I created a three step process that helped to free ourselves from emotional eating, once and for all:
- Become aware of your emotions.
- Develop alternatives to emotional eating.
- Determine and release yourself from the root of the problem.
To begin, we need to start with the first step: recognizing our emotions. Without knowing what we feel and why, we won’t be able to recognize when we’re using food to cope with our emotions.
3 Steps To Help You
1. Recognize The Signs
Emotional eating has the following characteristics: hunger or cravings for a specific food that strikes suddenly and urgently, often paired with an upsetting or negative emotion. It likely involves automatic or absentminded eating, and does not cease when the body is full. Eating is accompanied by a feeling of guilt.
When you’re struck with an urge to eat, look for the signs listed above. If many of them describe how you’re eating and what you’re feeling, then you are likely experiencing emotional cravings, not true physical hunger.
2. Track Your Emotions
Once you’ve determined that you have the tendency to eat emotionally, it’s time to tune into your emotions. At the end of every day, set aside 5-10 minutes to write down the emotions you felt during the day, and what may have caused them. Be as specific as you can, and remember that even the smallest emotions are important.
Be sure that you are writing down your emotions, not how your body feels. We have a tendency to mistake feelings like “unfocused” or “exhausted” as emotional states. Emotions are things that aren’t expressed solely through your physical state, like “frustration”, “joy”, or “excitement”.
After a week, you should notice patterns emerging – maybe your daily commute is bringing frustration and anger into your life that you combat with a packet of chips as soon as you arrive in the office. Take note of these patterns.
3. Reduce Negative Influences
After completing the previous step, you should have a better idea of people and activities in your life that are causing you to feel negative emotions. While it won’t be possible to remove all these negative influences from your life, take steps to reduce the negative emotion load.
If you hate your commute, consider using public transportation, so you can read a good book on your way to work, or carpool with a coworker to reduce some of the driving load! By reducing the things in your life that cause you to feel angry, depressed, frustrated, or stressed, you will be minimizing the causes of your emotional eating cravings, and likely, the cravings themselves!
While taking control of your emotional eating is not a quick or easy process, these tips will set you on your path to freedom from the guilty cycle of suppressing your emotions with food. Once you’ve taken the time to go through the steps above, check out my article on step 2, alternatives to emotional eating, to continue your journey to healing.
|↑1||Macht, Michael, and Gwenda Simons. “Emotions and eating in everyday life.” Appetite 35, no. 1 (2000): 65-71.|
|↑2||Nguyen-Michel, Selena T., Jennifer B. Unger, and Donna Spruijt-Metz. “Dietary correlates of emotional eating in adolescence.” Appetite 49, no. 2 (2007): 494-499.|
|↑3||Hendy, Helen M. “Which comes first in food–mood relationships, foods or moods?.” Appetite 58, no. 2 (2012): 771-775.|
|↑4||Sánchez-Villegas, Almudena, Estefania Toledo, Jokin de Irala, Miguel Ruiz-Canela, Jorge Pla-Vidal, and Miguel A. Martínez-González. “Fast-food and commercial baked goods consumption and the risk of depression.” Public health nutrition 15, no. 03 (2012): 424-432.|