Want to learn how to stop emotional eating?
Great. We’re here to help.
Emotional eating is one of the biggest hurdles you’ll face when trying to lose weight.
Emotional eating can cause you to
- Eat uncontrollably -leading to overeating and fat gain
- Make you feel guilty – leading to a spiral of more emotional eating and more guilt
- Cause gas, bloating and other gastrointestinal discomfort – which, aside from the acute pain, can be the start of chronic diseases
Fortunately, there are proven strategies for getting past these hurdles.
Let’s chat about how it all starts…
How Emotional Eating is Triggered
Before we start talking to about how to to curb your emotional eating, let’s talk about how it happens and why so many of us turn to food when we’re upset.
According to Dr. Susan Albers, Author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, the reason we turn to food when we’re stressed is that we have no other adequate coping mechanisms.
You see, as we grow up, we develop ways of coping with stress.
Maybe we learn positive self talk from our mothers who comfort us when things go wrong, or maybe we learn to shut everything out and take a nap when we’re feeling down. There are all sorts of coping mechanisms and stress releasers from exercise to venting with a friend, all the way to eating a whole tub of Ben and Jerry’s.
And they all work… At least in the moment.
The struggle most of us have with emotional eating is that it only helps for a brief moment.
You only feel better for the first few mouthfuls.
Then you start to feel out of control.
Then you start to feel guilty.
Then that guilt triggers more emotional eating. You see how this can spiral out of control.
There are lots of reasons why emotional eating soothes you.
Eating when you’re stressed can:
- Alter brain chemicals like serotonin and make you feel temporarily happier
- Take your mind away from stress or boredom by giving you something else to focus on
- Remind you of pleasant memories like your childhood
- Keep you busy when you’re feeling antsy
- Be a conditioned response from parents who offered the bottle or the boob rather than rocking and verbal soothing when you were a baby
- Feel like a reward (especially for former dieters). You feel like you deserve a tasty treat for enduring your stress
- Be a comforting habit that you picked up long ago and have now made routine
- Be an ingrained behaviour you learned from a parent or guardian who also turned to food when they became stressed
So yeah, there are a ton of reasons we might turn to food when we’re stressed. And all of them are legit. You’re not a weirdo. 🙂
So how do we get past this?
Well first, before we can beat emotional eating, we have to understand exactly what we’re up against.
What do You Really Feel?
The trick to learning how to stop this habit is to learn what you’re really feeling when you stress eat.
There’s a difference between belly hunger that signifies a real need for nutritional sustenance, and emotional hunger that signifies a coping response to stress – you aren’t actually hungry, you just need the food as a stress relief.
From Dr. Albers’ bestselling book, here are some guidelines for figuring that out.
With emotional hunger, you’ll notice:
- It often comes on very quickly and suddenly
- It can be very intense. So intense that you don’t have time to think through what you’re about to do
- It’s triggered by the suggestions of others (“Hey, wanna go grab a muffin with me?”)
- It will pop up consistently when you feel a certain emotion like sadness or stress
- It comes in the form of a craving (insert link) for a particular food
- It’s insatiable
- It’s almost always followed by guilt
With real belly hunger, on the other hand, you’ll notice:
- It comes on slowly and is related to how long ago you last ate
- It’s related to fullness. You’re not just looking for a certain taste, you’re looking to feel satisfied
- It’s accompanied by distinct physical feelings like a rumbling stomach or even grouchiness or a headache
- You feel like quitting when you’re full
- You’re aware of the changing feelings in your body from hunger to fullness
- You can wait a while to eat. It isn’t an emergency
The answer to getting past emotional eating isn’t always as simple as just not indulging your emotional hunger. That will work for some but for most, there’s an in-between step that we ignore.
That’s why so many struggle to lose weight.
Let’s talk about that in-between step.
The In-Between Step
Emotional eating is a pretty thoughtless thing.
Sure, you’re thinking about what you’re doing.
You might even think it’s wrong to do but the act itself feels out of your control.
The first step to ending emotional eating is to become more mindful.
Mindfulness is defined as the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.
Start to become aware of when, where, and with whom your emotional eating is triggered:
- At the in-laws?
- With your boss?
- When your ex calls?
- When you miss a deadline at work?
- When your parents get upset with you?
Usually these events will trigger some kind of self-talk in your brain.
You might say things like:
- “I hate that I always give in to what these people want. I’m such a suck.”
- “I never stand up for myself. I’m good for nothing.”
- “I’m such an idiot for dating him in the first place”
- “I’m a failure. I’ll never actually achieve what I want to.”
Your brain thinks thousands of thoughts every day.
Most of them are subconscious and engrained.
By becoming more mindful, you can tune into these thoughts and understand them.
You can call them out for what they are – just thoughts, not truths about who you are.
You’ll also start to become aware of the differences between emotional hunger and belly hunger. Next time you want to eat, you can ask yourself if the feeling you’re having resembles the points I made above about emotional hunger or belly hunger.
Meditation is an awesome way to develop your mindfulness. There’s even a type of meditation called mindfulness meditation. And don’t worry, you don’t have to cross your legs and hold your hands on your knees while saying “Ohmmm.” (You totally can if that’s your thing but it isn’t necessary.)
Meditation is really just the ability to focus all of your attention on one thing. And last I checked we could all improve that ability in this world of non-stop high-tech distractions and… SQUIRREL!
What was I talking about again? Oh yeah…
Mindfulness is the first step to beating emotional eating and it’s very important for long-term weight loss.
But it won’t solve all your problems for you. Once you’ve identified what sets you off and why it sets you off, it’s time to address the problem. Head on.
Addressing the Problem Head On
If you’re in the habit of eating your feelings because something upset you, the problem is not the food.
I’ll say that again: The problem is not the food.
The problem is the problem.
The food is just a coping mechanism.
And, whenever possible, the problem should be addressed head-on. Conflict resolution is way more satisfying than a bag of Oreos. It’s a lot more uncomfortable and a lot harder to do but it feels a hundred times better when you’re done.
This may mean you need to be more assertive, more confident, more social, or more mature. It’s not easy and it’s not comfortable. A course on self confidence or conflict resolution might be in order. Or perhaps you’d benefit from public speaking skills by joining a Toastmasters chapter.
Addressing your problems head-on is the simplest and most satisfying way to cut off emotional eating right at the root. But as we all know, sometimes it’s a little more complicated and it’s certainly not always that easy.
Fortunately, there’s another strategy to help you start getting off the emotional eating train. Let’s talk about that…
What (And Who) is Around You?
According to Drs Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente in their ground-breaking behaviour change book, Changing for Good, “environment change” is a crucial part of changing your behaviour.
And they weren’t talking about global warming… (ok, ok! I’m bad at jokes, I know!)
So what the heck is environment change, you ask?
It means changing what’s around you in the day-to-day.
- Is there someone who enables you to emotionally eat? Can you see them less often than you do right now?
- Is there a certain place that puts you in a bad mood and gets the cravings going? Can you spend your time elsewhere?
Changing your environment can make a huge difference to your behaviour.
This is why we love what we’ve created at Thrive Fit.
We’ve built an environment where everyone is working on the same journey in their own way and everyone is celebrating the small wins. When you’re surrounded by people with a common goal who want to help each other succeed, it’s a whole lot easier to break old habits and solidify new ones.
Changing your environment is an extremely powerful tool for beating emotional eating. Think about how you can change your own environment to make it easier to avoid emotional eating. You might be surprised at what you come up with.
Alright, but what about the times when you know you’re emotional, you can’t address the problem head-on, and you can’t change your environment? What about those awful times you feel stressed and helpless to the calling of comfort food?
Don’t worry, there’s still more you can do!
When All Else Fails
No matter how well prepared you are, stress will hit sometimes. You’ll get upset. It’s part of life.
Let’s make sure you’re armed with some techniques to get through those tight spots without an over-eating episode. The next time emotional hunger strikes, try these out:
- Got a supportive friend you can call to vent to? Give them a call and tell them what’s going on
- Keep a journal on-hand and start writing out what you’re feeling. You’ll likely discover a solution more productive that food
- Have a chance to go for a walk? Go for a stroll. Slow down and focus on what’s around you. See if the blood flow and time away helps you sort through what you’re feeling
- Find a quiet space where you can get rid of distractions. Sometimes stress eating is triggered when we feel overwhelmed by life. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to shut things and people out for a bit while you get yourself back down to earth.
- Get some busywork going. Got chores you can do? Some paper work? A hobby like building puzzles or knitting, or filling out crosswords? Get your mind off the emotion and on to something productive and/or fun
- Pissed off? Get a punching bag in your basement and take out your energy on that instead of the leftover cake in the fridge
- Exercise! If you like to run, go for a run. If you like to pick up heavy things, do that. If you practice yoga, grab your mat and get into it. Exercise will not only give you the benefit of getting your mind onto something else, it can give you endorphins that will help you feel a bit better even if you don’t solve your problems
- Sleep on it. Sleep is restorative and is actually when our brains solve problems that have been on our mind throughout the day. If you have the chance to take a nap or just head to bed, do that instead. You probably need the sleep. We all do. 🙂
- Got a mind for trivia? Look up something interesting online and learn about it.
- Throw on some music that puts you into a calmer mood
When you’re caught in the moment, you’re fighting a battle. The goal is to get your mind off the stress and immersed in something else. Something harmless at worst, and productive at best. The first few times will be a real struggle. You’ll survive only on your resolve alone.
The nice part is, once you find something that soothes you better than food can, the choice becomes easier to make.
Your 4-Step Program to Beating Emotional eating
Let’s put these together into an attack plan for conquering emotional eating. By patiently and consistently following these steps, you’ll be able to gain control of your emotional eating and move past it. That means less stress, less body fat, and more joy and confidence in your life.
- Figure out the difference between emotional hunger and belly hunger – listen to the signs your body gives you and learn the difference between them
- Address the problem head on – find out what’s triggering the eating and be assertive – Try to cut it off at the root
- Start changing your environment to make behaviour change easier – get out of toxic environments and relationships and try to spend time around people who help you to win
- Distract yourself – find another outlet to get your mind off the the stress or bad emotions. One you’ve found something better than food, it’ll be easier to substitute the next time it happens
Overcoming emotional eating isn’t easy and takes a lot of time and patience. Be kind and forgive yourself when you screw up.
Don’t beat yourself up but instead resolve firmly to do 1% better the next time it happens.