Have you ever thought about emotional eating? Have you ever considered a time when you have eaten food when you know you’re not hungry, or when you feel hunger pangs but know you have no need for food. I assume the answer is YES and for this reason I’d like you to read on. Even if you don’t consider yourself an emotional eater, you could be wrong, especially when emotional eating does not just relate to comfort eating when a negative feeling arises.
In fact emotional eating is when one eats for any reason other than actual hunger. The urge to eat is dictated by emotions instead of the internal physiological cues designed to guide us to eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full.
You might not see this as an issue but there are very negative consequences to this type of MINDLESS and EMOTIONAL eating. Excess weight and its accompanying health issues as well as the risk of depression and the effects of isolation and guilt are the potential hazards of emotional eating, and falling into these categories makes the vicious cycle even harder to break.
So how do you know if you’re an emotional eater and what can you do?
1. HOW LONG AGO? – Ask yourself when you last ate? Everyone’s blood sugars dip at a different rate but if it was within the last two to three hours you are probably not physically hungry or if you are it will not be a strong urge to eat. Longer than this and you may really be hungry and need fuel for the right reason.
2. WHAT DID YOU HAVE AND HOW MUCH? Don’t assume emotional eating until you examine what your general diet consists of. Having the right balance of nutrients comes with eating the right foods and enough of them. A good guide is to divide an imaginary plate into half and then one half into quarters. Half should be made up of salad or vegetables, quarter should be lean healthy protein and quarter made up of slow release complex carbohydrates. If this balance goes out of kilter then physical hunger and cravings may be the consequence, either within a short time or later in the evening or night. Ideally the day should be broken down into 3 main meals and 2-3 healthy snacks in between. A typical day’s eating times may be 7.30am, 10.30am, 1.30pm, 4pm, 7pm and 9.30pm.
3. HOW FAST DO YOU CHOOSE? You can tell emotional hunger if your hunger comes on suddenly. Physical hunger is felt gradually. Emotional eating is not linked to healthy choices unfortunately. High fat, high salt, high sugar are what we look for when emotionally charged. If you’re adhering to points 1 and 2 and still find yourself halfway through a carton of ice-cream or box of Pringles before realising what you’re doing then emotions are likely to be involved. Overeating on high carb, high calorie foods implies that these foods provide some sort of comfort or escape. The irony is that any negative state of mind is only strengthened by this type of eating and so it’s crucial to ask yourself why your mind is hijacking your rational thinking? Only by understanding the emotion and practicing more helpful thoughts to make the emotion less intense can you stop yourself reaching for the ‘fix’. I recommend a pint of water and a question to self “Why do I want to eat….” If you’re really hungry, logical thinking will prevail and you’ll be happy with an apple!
4. KNOW YOUR FEELINGS – As we’ve established, hunger isn’t an emotion. When there’s a craving for unhealthy food or drink and you find it difficult to get satisfied with moderate amounts, then there’s a trigger and you need to know it. What’s the purpose of the food choices, is it a response to negative emotions like anger, guilt or perfectionism or positive emotions such as reward, celebration or relief? Do you mindlessly eat when bored or as a means of relaxing. We’ve all reacted to feelings with food from time to time but when you start to rely on particular foods for psychological benefit (like feeling better) it’s time to break the cycle of an unhealthy relationship with food.
5. SLEEP AND STIMULANTS – You can start to break the cycle of emotional eating by alleviating other offenders. Without enough sleep, anxiety and stress, 2 strong emotional triggers will be heightened. Caffeine is another culprit as it causes the release of stress hormones, adding to the intensity of negative emotions. Drinking more water and getting more sleep benefit the brain by allowing clarity so the ability to manage emotions and make food choices mindfully becomes easier.
Be patient with yourself if you believe you are an emotional eater. If you slip, don’t beat yourself up. Try to keep healthy, filling, tasty snacks at hand and refrain from having comfort foods in the cupboard or fridge. Think about your self-image, often emotional eating is overcome by self-acceptance as negative emotions go hand in hand with a lack of self-compassion. Keeping a food diary and writing down what you eat and how you feel is a great way to understand yourself better and make informed choices that will make you healthier and happier.