Many of us use food to cope with the stresses of everyday life. You may start the day with great intentions, but then real-life challenges get in the way and your good intentions go out the window. For example, you do so well throughout the day avoiding the cake at work etc, then you get home and your child doesn’t settle to bed well and you get worked up and eat some chocolate eventually to make you feel better (which ultimately it doesn’t). Or another classic example is to ‘treat’ yourself to a glass of wine when you get in from a hard, stressful day at work.
This could be simply giving yourself something to do, or procrastinating from something you want a break from. Food is an easy way to occupy your mouth and time. You may feel as though there is something missing, but you don’t know what that something is, in the moment food fills up that empty feeling.
Certain people, places or events can trigger you to emotionally eat. You automatically feel driven to eat something when you go to the cinema (associate watching a film with treats). Or attend a theatre production or sporting event and feel the ‘need’ to have an alcoholic drink.
Childhood eating habits often carry over into adulthood, particularly those that are charged with emotion. Were you rewarded with sweets for doing something well, or given an ice cream if feeling sad? Or perhaps you were denied foods as a child and felt deprived, and now as an adult you over eat those foods to ‘compensate’ or to ‘rebel’ against food restrictions from your childhood. Emotional eating can be driven by nostalgia too – for example, you may want to recapture the feeling of baking fairy cakes with your mother or eating ice cream on the beach as a child.
Ever bought an ice cream because the sun has come out? Or baked some goodies because it has rained all day on your day off?
It is important to try and learn the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger as well identify your own triggers for emotional eating and then you can remind yourself and find coping strategies to prevent yourself from emotional eating.
Below is a table to illustrate the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger:
|Emotional Hunger||Physical Hunger|
|Hunger comes on suddenly||Hunger is gradual, stomach starts to feel a little empty, then an hour later it starts to growl.|
|Involves cravings for specific comfort foods, eg, chocolate, ice cream, crisps||Physical hunger is flexible; you may have preferences but you are open to options|
|Urgent, needs to be satisfied instantly||Patient, you’d rather eat soon, but you can hold on|
|Starts in the mouth and mind||Starts with the stomach (empty, rumbling)|
|Arises from an emotional need –+ve – relief, celebratory-ve – stress, boredom, frustration, tiredness, dissatisfaction, anger, loneliness, shame||Arises out of physical need resulting from a low level of glucose in the bloodstream|
|Involves mindless or automatic eating – you may not realise you have eaten an entire pack of biscuits until they are gone||Involves deliberate choices and an awareness of the food you are eating and how much you eat|
|Doesn’t stop even when you’re full – tend to overeat to feel satisfied||Stops when you are full|
|Usually involves some form of regret after you’ve eaten and often triggers feelings of guilt, powerlessness and shame||Doesn’t involve feelings of guilt or regret|
Don’t tackle too much all at once. Pick the most common emotional trigger for you and conquer it.
2.Play close attention to your chosen trigger
Record a food and mood journal when this emotional trigger occurs. Ask yourself, what physical symptoms do you experience? What types of thoughts run through your head? Does it happen at certain places or with certain people? Does it affect your eating behaviour at the time or afterwards? What type of food does it make you crave or eat? Does it cause you to overeat?
3.Select a healthy coping strategy
Choose a healthy coping strategy and use it each time your trigger comes up. For example, if stress is your trigger, try using a deep breathing technique as your healthy coping strategy. Don’t expect the stress to go away but learn how to manage and tolerate your emotions, not make them go away. These coping strategies may not initially be as satisfying or as enjoyable as food but they will help give you something else to focus on.
4.Practise tolerating uncomfortable feelings
In order to truly overcome emotional eating, you have to learn to tolerate unpleasant feelings and emotions.
From a young age we learn to avoid things that make us feel bad. Nobody wants to feel stressed, angry, sad, lonely, rejected or deprived so we try to numb and distract ourselves from these painful or uncomfortable feelings with things that are not always in our best interests (sugary food).
Allow yourself to experience difficult feelings. Give yourself the opportunity to process and work through them.