How to stop emotional eating?
We all sometimes eat not because we are hungry but in response to emotions – to comfort ourselves with food.
This is called emotional eating. If you “binge” once a month or even less often, you are unlikely to have any health problems.
If you go through the content your fridge or pantry every time you feel depressed or otherwise agitated – that’s a problem because it usually leads to significant weight gain.
Our bodies need food to survive. So, it makes sense that our brains perceive eating as something good and makes us feel better.
Although we know that eating does not solve the real problem, food often gives us temporary relief when we are stressed, worried, lonely, sad, bored or just tired.
And over time, the habit develops – and we eat whenever we feel unwell.
Food is at the heart of many of our daily activities. Food is part of our celebrations. Cooking for others is a way of showing care. Sharing food is a way to connect.
Emotional connections with food are natural.
We all need to be able to make conscious decisions about when, what, and how we eat.
What causes emotional eating?
Almost anything can trigger the desire to eat.
External causes of emotional eating typically are:
- Work-related stress.
- Financial problems.
- Health problems.
Almost everyone who follows or has followed restrictive diets is also likely to have problems with emotional eating.
Possible internal causes:
- Lack of introspective awareness (ability to be aware of one’s feelings, communication between body, mind and emotions).
- Alexithymia (inability to express feelings and emotions in words and inability to distinguish between inner emotional experiences and bodily sensations).
- Emotion dysregulation.
- Reversed hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) stress axis (under-active cortisol response to stress).
Emotional eating is often an automatic pattern of behaviour, and – the more often you improve your well-being with food – the more stable this habit becomes.
Is emotional eating an eating disorder?
Emotional eating is not an eating disorder in itself, but it can be a sign of unhealthy eating habits that can lead to the development of an eating disorder.
The most common symptoms of eating disorders are:
- Very strict criteria regarding food choices.
- Chronic weight fluctuations.
- Categorisation of foods as “good” or “bad”.
- Frequent dieting or restriction of certain food groups.
- Eating in response to emotions rather than physical hunger.
- Skipping meals or eating irregularly.
- Intrusive thoughts about food that start to interfere with future life.
- Exercise, food restriction, fasting or cleanses to compensate for the ‘bad’ food eaten.
- Feelings of guilt or shame after eating foods you consider “unhealthy”.
Why do we tend to choose food to improve our well-being?
There are many reasons why eating becomes a way to cope with stress, difficult emotions or feelings of emptiness, for example:
- Emotional connection – we are used to using food as a way to comfort, relax, celebrate events, etc.
- Eating can be associated with other pleasurable activities, such as social interaction with friends or family, which creates a sense of well-being and pleasure.
- When we eat, our body releases dopamine, which creates a feeling of well-being.
- Some foods, such as chocolate or sweets, can cause an increased release of endorphins and serotonin. These hormones also improve our sense of well-being and can make us crave food to relieve emotional discomfort.
In other words, if we associate food with emotional relief or relaxation, eating in times of stress and emotional distress becomes an automatic action – you reach for food without even realising it.
Moreover, food, unlike drugs and other mood enhancers, is legal, over-the-counter and available everywhere.
Emotional hunger and physical hunger
People need to eat to live. We need food, and craving for specific tastes or textures is natural.
You may be wondering how to distinguish between emotional hunger and physical hunger. This can be tricky because sometimes you feel a combination of the two types of hangers.
If you haven’t eaten for several hours or eat less than your body needs, you might be more likely to experience an emotional hunger pang.
Here are some differences that will help you determine whether you are experiencing emotional or physical hunger.
Develops slowly, over time.
It comes on suddenly.
Feeling full is perceived as a signal to stop eating.
Satiety does not set in, or if it does, it does not stop you from wanting more food.
Triggered by the need for energy and nutrients.
Triggered by a need for comfort or relief.
Signs of emotional eating
- You can’t stop eating certain foods, e.g. always finish the whole packet of crisps.
- When you feel strong emotions, you also feel the cravings to eat something.
- You feel like eating even when you are not physically hungry.
- Food soothes you and/or improves your mood.
How to stop emotional overeating
You are unlikely to be able to stop emotional eating during the day because the power of habit is immense.
If you rely on willpower and self-discipline alone, it too often ends in binge (and the moaning that follows).
The only way to regain control over what, when and how you eat is to understand how, why, where and when you feel the cravings and to create a strategic action plan in good time.
In the following, I will offer five simple strategies that can help you regain control of your eating habits and get rid of emotional eating for good.
But first things first.
Causes of emotional eating
Emotional eating is closely linked to unhealthy food and has little to do with true hunger. And every time you eat to comfort yourself, you reinforce the craving by forming a habit:
- First, the desire arises.
- It is followed by action – you find the food that satisfies the craving.
- You get the reward – you ate what you wanted, and your body releases dopamine, giving pleasure to your brain.
And – the more often your brain is “rewarded”, the more likely it is to stimulate your desire to eat, and the more powerful that desire can become.
Find the trigger of hunger
Have you ever been drooling at the sight of McDonald’s or the thought of food?
Or smelled the popcorn at the cinema and immediately went to buy it, even though you swore you would never buy it again?
Cravings are often triggered by environmental cues such as sight, smell, taste, your location or company. By tracking when and where these cravings occur, you can find out exactly what triggers them.
And this gives you the opportunity to change your environment and your habits to break the cycle.
Every time you feel a food craving, ask yourself these questions (and write down the answers):
- What exactly do you want? (A particular food? A particular taste or texture?);
- Where are you located? (Note your location, as well as any smells or visual cues such as the restaurant’s facade, advertising, etc.);
- What are you doing? (Driving? Working? Watching TV?);
- How do you feel physically? (Intoxicated? Tired? etc.);
- How do you feel emotionally? (Happy? In a hurry? etc.);
- What were you thinking at this moment? (For example: “I could eat this … I’m not on a diet anymore anyway”);
- Who are you with? (Be very specific).
This is not a one-off event. You should keep records for at least a couple of weeks to see any patterns. Believe me, there will be patterns, and when you find them, try to change your environment, circumstances and habits so that these hunger triggers no longer affect you.
- Suppose that every evening, within an hour after dinner, you have a craving for ice cream. According to your notes, you’re not even really hungry – you just crave something sweet, salty or crunchy…
- Or maybe you’ve noticed that every day after the conference call at 11:00, you walk downstairs to the office cafeteria to see if there’s anything new. There isn’t – and you pick up some “treat” that you didn’t even really need, and with which you take in 500 unnecessary calories.
In other words, you first identify the trigger (smell, action, event, etc.), then what you do to satisfy the emotional hunger, and then try to change your habits or events to eliminate the trigger.
- Go for a walk after dinner so you don’t have ice cream handy when you usually crave it. Or, just stop keeping ice cream in the fridge 😊.
- Change the time of the conference call or start doing something right after it so that the office café is not “in your way”.
And now, 5 promised strategies to take back control of your eating habits and develop a healthy relationship with food.
1 Take a break
When you feel like eating something, wait five minutes without taking any action.
This is not about training willpower. It’s about pausing long enough to let your conscious mind say: “Hey, I’m in charge here!”. A pause gives you a chance to assess the situation and make a rational decision, not an emotional one.
- Are you really hungry? Or are you bored, stressed or just want to procrastinate?
- Are you craving a steak and baked potatoes, or just doughnuts or another snack in the pantry or office lounge?
Of course, you can still indulge your desires. After all, you might actually be hungry. Or maybe it’s just not your best day (but note the hunger trigger anyway).
Don’t consider it a failure.
You don’t have to be perfect when trying to stop emotional eating. Nor is it necessary. The important thing is not to become perfect right away but to consistently try to improve your eating habits step by step.
Just see it as an opportunity to gather more data about your cravings – so that you can understand them better, and your rational self will probably win out over your emotional hunger next time.
2 Start doing something that doesn’t involve chewing
If you immerse your mind or body in an activity for long enough, you can eliminate the desire to eat.
Just step away from the fridge or pantry and go for a walk, clean your phone of videos and photos you no longer need, or make a new Spotify playlist …
Emotional eating is a psychological drive, not a physical need. And, except for very intense sadness or emotional trauma, these feelings usually last no longer than 15 to 20 minutes. If you are not really hungry, the urge to eat is likely to disappear.
You may have already experienced the effects of this “distraction therapy” – when you are so involved in an activity that you forget to eat lunch? Or it’s already evening and you haven’t even noticed?
The principle is exactly the same – the difference is that now you will do it consciously and on purpose.
When you feel like having a snack, choose an activity that requires active thinking or is really interesting to you, for example:
- Work on a project;
- Review tomorrow’s to-do list and cross out what you don’t need;
- Answer some emails;
- Call a friend;
- Play an instrument or a video game;
- Play with the kids;
- Exercise, work in the garden, clean the room …
Remember that you want to activate/engage your mind and/or body, so – watching TV might not help (in fact, it is often the cause of overeating).
Hunger and food cravings tend to appear in waves, rising and falling throughout the day.
Experimenting can help you understand your feelings.
If you have no health problems, try a 24-hour fast. Don’t eat anything, but make sure you drink enough water.
Yes, you will feel hungry, and yes, you will feel like eating.
But these feelings come and go, and for many people, they can be both eye-opening and empowering. Fasting for a short time can also help you to understand your feelings and accept that hunger is manageable.
Have you wasted your time? No.
Do you collapse from fatigue? No.
Is life over? No.
Again, this is not about testing your willpower or denying yourself. The aim of the experiments is to give you a new perspective and to reduce anxiety and discomfort when you feel hungry or craving for food.
4 Eat regularly and get fibre, protein, carbohydrates and fat at every meal
Although food cravings can occur at any time of the day, overeating at night is very common.
It is not about the myth that, if you want to lose weight, you should not eat after 6 pm.
Nor is it about whether you eat a few times a day or more or whether most of the food has to be eaten in the morning or later.
As long as your eating habits work for you, everything is fine.
But over the years, I have noticed that clients who overeat at night often restrict their nutrient intake during the day – consciously or unconsciously.
For example, they may skip breakfast and eat a salad with a small amount of protein for lunch or just salad alone. They may choose healthy foods rich in fibre, protein and healthy fats for dinner, but their appetite is exaggerated. So it’s no wonder they feel hungry again at bedtime.
What you eat during the day plays a big role. It’s not so much about what you eat on a given day (exceptions are normal), but what and how you usually eat.
This makes the intake of both these nutrients (in reasonable portions and at regular intervals) the key to regulating appetite.
Even small adjustments to your eating habits, such as adding a daily breakfast with healthy proteins and vegetables (as well as a reasonable amount of carbohydrates and healthy fats), can help limit overeating after dinner.
In other words, if you have a huge appetite after dinner, pay attention to what you put in your mouth during the day.
5 Enjoy your favourite products
Do you like chocolate a lot? Fine, have one or a few pieces, but choose expensive, high-quality chocolate. Eat it slowly and savour every bite. Although it may seem contradictory, you will eat much less chocolate (or any other craved food) this way.
And – if you don’t deny yourself your favourite foods (in small doses) – the likelihood of “bingeing” will also be significantly reduced.
Or try some unconventional strategies like:
- Don’t deprive yourself of anything but on condition that the product or food has to be bought just before you eat, in a shop at least 15 minutes away from you. In most cases, you will probably decide that it is not worth the effort 😊. Or by the time you arrive at the shop, the desire for the product will have passed.
- You can eat anything, but you have to make it yourself. If you want chips – you have to buy potatoes, slice them and cook them in the oven or air fryer. If you want a cake, you have to learn how to make it and if you want ice cream, you have to learn how to make it too …
Sound ridiculous and impractical? Of course, it is, but both of these methods help answer the question: how hungry are you really?
And that’s exactly what most of humanity did until very recently, and in many places still does.
Another important consideration is that these strategies work much better if your kitchen, home or office desk is not full of ready-to-eat treats.
Because if the food is in your house or property, you or someone you love will eventually eat it.
Junk food alternatives
Healthy snacks are available everywhere, from fresh carrots to healthy ice cream.
But there are some rules to keep in mind:
- Firstly, replacing unhealthy food with something healthier should not be your only strategy. There is evidence to show that when people always consciously choose a “healthy substitute”, they still often overeat.
So, to be helpful rather than harmful, junk food alternatives need to be used in combination with other strategies, such as those mentioned in this article. Otherwise, you will simply continue to satisfy your craving with another type of food.
- Secondly, not all healthy alternatives are actually healthy. If a product label says “Organic”, “Gluten Free”, “Low Calorie”, “Protein”, etc., this does not necessarily mean that the product is low in added sugar, salt, or hydrogenated fats …
Many “healthy” foods are made with a combination of sugar, fat and salt, or other brain-pleasing ingredients and are prepared in such a way that they are easy to eat (read: easy to eat a lot of). Of course, these products might be slightly better choices than junk food. But they are unlikely to help you avoid overeating.
Choose wisely. Healthy products can help change your taste buds – for example, if you get used to eating homemade ice cream, you might start craving it instead of shop-bought.
Then, when you crave something sweet, you might choose fresh fruit over shop-bought sweets. If that happens, so what – craving fruit is not too much of a problem in most cases.
For these reasons, when choosing junk food alternatives – choose foods made from whole grains or whole fruit, vegetables, berries, etc. Meals that you can prepare at home and that are low in calories.
Eat regularly, eat balanced and stay healthy!
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