18 years ago I lost my mother to cancer. I was 11 when she passed away and although I was always in the higher side of the weight and height percentile, losing my mom triggered some deeply ingrained, extremely poor eating habits. I quickly became an emotional eater.
Now when I say emotional eating, that doesn’t necessarily mean you eat only when you are hurting. Emotional eating is described as eating any time you are not physically hungry, also known as “head hunger”. Instead of a physical symptom of hunger initiating eating, an emotion triggers it. That could be boredom, being happy, sad, tired, wired, nervous, excited, just to name a few. Society and tradition tends to push us toward food as a “celebratory” reward. Holidays are celebrated with food, birthdays are celebrated with cake and ice cream, promotions, anniversaries, births, deaths, weddings, they all focus around food.
This is one of the biggest problems that people with weight issues have. Now I’ve heard people say “I don’t emotional eat, I just love food.” Well to an extent this may be true, however, most times emotional eaters crave “comfort foods” Foods that are not the healthiest choices. According to an article by Brian Wansink, PhD, published in the July 2000 American Demographics, “The types of comfort foods a person is drawn toward varies depending on their mood. People in happy moods tended to prefer foods such as pizza or steak (32%). Sad people reached for ice cream and cookies 39% of the time, and 36% of bored people opened up a bag of potato chips.” Sound familiar?
There are ways to tell the difference between real hunger and emotional hunger:
- Emotional hunger comes on suddenly; physical hunger occurs gradually.
- When you are eating to fill a void that isn’t related to an empty stomach, you crave a specific food, and only that food will meet your need. When you eat because you are actually hungry, you’re open to options.
- Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly with the food you crave; physical hunger can wait.
- Even when you are full, if you’re eating to satisfy an emotional need, you’re more likely to keep eating. When you’re eating because you’re hungry, you’re more likely to stop when you’re full
- Emotional eating can leave behind feelings of guilt; eating when you are physically hungry does not. Emotional eating can also lead to an unhealthy cycle — your emotions trigger you to overeat, you beat yourself up for getting off your weight-loss track, you feel badly, and you overeat again.
To break the emotional eating cycles here are some helpful tips to get yourself back on track:
Tame your stress - If stress contributes to your emotional eating, try a stress management technique, such as yoga, meditation or relaxation.
Have a hunger reality check - Is your hunger physical or emotional? If you ate just a few hours ago and don’t have a rumbling stomach, you’re probably not really hungry. Wait 15 minutes and do something to occupy yourself. You may find that it was just head hunger.
Don’t deprive yourself - When you’re trying to achieve a weight-loss goal, you may limit your calories too much, eat the same foods frequently and banish the treats you enjoy. This may just serve to increase your food cravings, especially in response to emotions. Let yourself enjoy an occasional treat and get plenty of variety to help curb cravings.
Keep a food diary - Write down what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, how you’re feeling when you eat and how hungry you are. Over time, you may see patterns emerge that reveal the connection between mood and food.
Take away temptation - Don’t keep supplies of comfort foods in your home if they’re hard for you to resist. And if you feel angry or blue, postpone your trip to the grocery store until you’re sure that you have your emotions in check.
Snack healthy - If you feel the urge to eat between meals, choose a low-fat, low-calorie snack, such as fresh fruit, vegetables with fat-free dip, or unbuttered popcorn. Or try low-fat, lower calorie versions of your favorite foods to see if they satisfy your craving.
Get enough sleep - If you’re constantly tired, you might snack to try to give yourself an energy boost. Take a nap or go to bed earlier instead.
Start new traditions – Instead of celebrating with foods, reward yourself with a bike ride, a nice hot bath, a vacation, anything that does not involve food.
Exercise – Exercise will not only be beneficial to your weight loss but it will keep you busy and get you thinking with a clearer head.
Get support - You’re more likely to give in to emotional eating if you lack a good support network. Lean on family and friends or consider joining a support group.
If you’ve tried self-help options but you still can’t get control of your emotional eating, consider therapy with a professional mental health provider. Therapy can help you understand the motivations behind your emotional eating and help you learn new coping skills. Therapy can also help you discover whether you may have an eating disorder, which is sometimes connected to emotional eating. If you do have a bought of emotional eating forgive yourself and move on. Don’t dwell on it to much. Things happen and as long as you know that it was emotional eating you can take a step back the next time and possibly avoid it happening again. Focus on the positive changes you’re making in your eating habits and give yourself credit for making changes that’ll lead to better health.