Ever needed a pint of Ben & Jerry’s to help you through a break-up, or maybe you’ve ordered a huge cheesy pizza after a particularly long day? This is classed as ‘emotional eating’, as registered nutritional therapist Olga Preston, from the Institute for Optimum Nutrition’s Brain Bio Centre (ion.ac.uk), explains. “Emotional eating occurs when people are in a vulnerable state and use food to support their feelings, rather than because of hunger,” she says. “It can happen due to emotional downturns, such as depression, anxiety, stress or even loneliness. Unfortunately, this can lead to an increase in weight and, in extreme cases, even obesity.” If you recognise this in yourself, don’t panic. There are lots of ways to help yourself overcome emotional eating and put it behind you for good.
Eating your feelings
Whether you feel a compulsion to scoff a bag of crisps to ease your stress levels after a difficult meeting, or find yourself reaching for the biscuits when you’re down, it may be comforting to know that you’re not alone. “At some point in our lives, many of us will come across emotional, or comfort, eating,” says Roxane Bakker, RD at vitl.com. “Finding comfort in food is incredibly common, and people who emotionally eat will reach for food several times a week or more in order to suppress and soothe any negative feelings they may be having. It can often be followed by a feeling of guilt or shame about eating this way, which can consequently lead to a cycle of excess eating and associated issues such as weight gain and eating disorders.”
In fact, many of us may not even realise we are emotionally eating, as specialist Margaret Bell explains. “How many of us eat when we’re distracted by the TV, our work, mobile phone or even reading?” she asks. “As we are engaged in another activity, we’re not aware that we’ve managed to eat an entire meal, bag of crisps, whole bar of chocolate or whatever it might be, as our brain was concentrating on what we were engrossed in. Our brain can only focus on one thing at a time, which is why we can frequently overeat when distracted.”
So how do you know if you’re an emotional eater? “It can look different in everyone,” says nutritionist Jenna Hope (jennahopenutrition.com). “Although, if you’re finding that you’re unable to deal with your emotions and tend to eat in relation to feeling any emotions then you may wish to seek more personalised professional help. Identifying why you’re eating can help you to identify the signs. For example, if you’re eating when you’re feeling stressed, sad, happy, guilty etc., these may be signs that you’re emotionally eating.”
Find your triggers
There are lots of reasons why emotional eating can occur, some of which may be more deep rooted than others. “For example, in deep rooted cases, childhood traumas may be at the heart of emotional eating, which may contribute to a disordered relationship with food,” explains Jenna. “Stress eating is a type of emotional eating. One of the reasons why individuals stress eat is due to the effect that food (generally highly palatable foods, such as high sugar or high fat foods) has on the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol. When these foods are consumed during a period of stress, hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis is dampened down. This is responsible for the secretion of cortisol, so as a result, while you’re eating these foods, you tend to feel less stressed because less cortisol is being released.”
Jenna advises trying to discover what your emotional eating triggers are. “As stress and comfort eating can sometimes occur on autopilot, keeping a food and mood diary can be helpful in order to make you more aware of your habits,” she tells us. “Mindful eating is a very beneficial technique to help you become more aware of the food you’re eating. Remove all distractions (such as phones, TV, newspapers) while you’re eating and try to focus on what the food tastes and looks like. Take note of the textures too. It’s important to note that in some cases, emotional eating is deep rooted and requires expert psychological help.”
Food for comfort
One final note on emotional eating – it’s important to remember that eating in response to feelings is not wrong. “You may be turning to food to soothe yourself, but sometimes eating for comfort is perfectly normal,” says Dr Courtney Raspin, founder of Altum Health (altumhealth.co.uk). “Consider the foods from your childhood that evoke positive memories. They do so because they are associated with positive experiences and feelings of pleasure. Food is intrinsically linked to pleasure; think about it, it’s one of the first ways we are shown love and care when we first come into the world. The danger lies when you use food excessively or as your sole coping mechanism – when every time you face difficult emotions, you turn to food as a way to cope. This is when you move into eating disorder territory. So, while regular binge eating does not offer a healthy relationship with food, using food as just one of a range of methods that we use to self-soothe (i.e., emotional eating), is perfectly normal, and should not be demonised. Remember, there should be enjoyment in food. But when food is your only coping strategy and you are exclusively using food as the way to deal with the stressors in your life, I would encourage you to reach out for some professional help.”
Say no to emotional eating today
If you’re struggling with emotional eating, try these top tips from Roxane to help you feel more in control.
Find other ways to cope with the stress you ’ refeeling
Discovering a new way to deal with stress in your life is often the first step to overcoming emotional eating. This could be anything from writing in a journal, reading a book, making yourself a cup of tea, or just taking a few minutes each day to relax and decompress.
Some people find that regular exercise will help a lot in terms of releasing any extra stress they might have. As exercise will release more endorphins in your body, taking a walk or going for a jog may help, especially in moments where you feel more emotional.
Remove the worst offenders from your home
When we know that something is there and readily available to us, we’re always going to be more likely to cave into pressure and eat it. If you ensure that the foods that are the main culprits when it comes to your emotional eating aren’t in your home, it might help break the cycle by giving you time to think before you start eating.
Do you have a good relationship with food?
A good relationship with food is like any other relationship – it takes time, practice, and a lot of patience,” says Mairead Molloy BSc LLM, relationship psychologist, food disorder therapist and certified master practitioner for eating disorder with the British Psychology Association (marieadmolloy.com). “A good relationship with food involves welcoming all foods in moderation, eating foods that you enjoy, not allowing food to control your life, and knowing that the foods you eat do not define your value as a person. A good relationship with food involves having unconditional permission to eat the foods that make you feel good physically and mentally. No foods are off-limits, and you feel no guilt upon eating foods that are typically labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’.”
Have a read through this list, compiled by mairead, and see how many you can tick off
You give yourself unconditional permission to eat the foods you enjoy
You listen and respect your body’s natural hunger cues
You eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full
No foods are off-limits
You don’t obsess over the number on the scales
You don’t let the opinions of others dictate which foods you eat
You don’t feel the need to justify your food choices
You understand that you’re not defined by the foods you eat
You enjoy all food in moderation
You choose foods that make you feel your best
Calories are not the focus of your food choices
Not checked many off the list?
“If you’re looking at this list and wondering if you’ll ever get to this point, you are not alone,” says Mairead. “Many people struggle with the idea of ditching the diet mentality and pushing away years of the diet culture messages they’ve been getting since a young age. Food now for us has become part of meetings, celebrations and we associate most of our social lives around food and drink. Instead of focusing on checking off every item on the list, try to approach one at a time at a pace that suits you. Remember that having a good relationship with food isn’t something you can achieve overnight. Rather, it’s something that you’ll likely have to work on your entire life – just as you’d work on a relationship with your partner, friend, or any other meaningful person in your life.”