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Emotional Eating

When you hear the term “emotional eating,” a romantic comedy scene might readily come to mind in which a young woman is eating ice cream from the tub after a breakup. While this is an example of emotional eating, albeit stereotypical, sometimes this behavior is much more subtle and sneaky than that. It can even persist after a stressful event has longsince ended. Everyone has “emotionally eaten” to some extent in their lives. How is that possible? Because food affects your emotions and their regulation, and some people struggle with that more than others.

Have you ever received a sucker or some type of candy as a child after getting a shot at the doctors office? That’s a great example of when we first start getting trained into the emotional eating process. As a child you get through a difficult situation and they give you something sweet, which triggers a happy chemical reaction in your body that improves your mood

Food is very often used as comfort. If you find yourself eating to relieve stress periodically, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your habit has become problematic, but there are some things to consider. There are some things you can do to help prevent eating unhealthy foods or eating more than you would like to your current state of mind.

What Exactly Is Emotional Eating? 

Emotional eating usually entails consuming larger than normal amounts of food in response to emotions. Normally these foods aren’t fruits or vegetables, but typically junk foods that are high in calories, but low in nutrients. They are tasty though! This can include candy, chips, pop, heavy carbs, etc. Essentially, it’s eating in response to your mental state instead of actual hunger cues. Eating these unhealthy foods in response to stress may make you feel better in the short term, but they often lead to sugar crashes that can leave you feeling worse off than before, maybe even guilty because you ate so much!

Typically, emotionally eating does not assuage hunger, because when you eat solely to comfort yourself the foods typically consumed are not providing enough nutrients to make you “feel full,” but they may fill an emotional void in the moment. These moments when you feel the desire to eat are different than normal and natural hunger cues. When your emotions are triggered in a way that leads you to think about eating for comfort, there is a sense of urgency 

have to eat these donut holes now!  

have to find a chocolate bar!  

I know there are chips hiding around here somewhere! 

 You might even feel like you don’t make the decision to do it, it just happensIt’s hard to stop once you’ve gotten started. This is in direct contrast to actual physical hunger, because that typically does not feel urgent and gradually comes into your awareness.

Tasty Tidbits

“I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them”
– Nora Ephron –

Why Do People Use Food as Comfort? 

People associate food with comfort for a lot of reasons. It feels physically good to eat. It provides instant gratification. When people care about you, they make food for you, etc. When people are feeling low they understandably try to find things to make them feel better, for many people these behaviors include food. Here are some common reasons people turn to food for comfort.

  • Current situation (losing someone/a break up)
  • Chronic conditions like depression/anxiety
  • Food is readily available
  • It makes you feel better in the moment
  • Chronic stress
  • Poor sleep patterns
  • Being taught the behavior by friends or family
  • Living in an environment where others don’t eat healthy

It may be especially hard to break the habit of emotional eating if you live in an environment where that is the normal practice. Junk food may be readily available, and maybe those around you even encourage you to overeat with them in their own attempts to manage their emotions. Environmental factors contribute to eating patterns, both good and bad.

Tasty Tidbits

“All sorrows are less with bread”
– Miguel de Cervantes –

What’s the Difference Between Emotional Eating and Food Addiction? 

Emotional eating may become “problematic” because it distresses you and you want to stop doing it, but that doesn’t mean it qualifies as an addiction. What can become tricky is that emotional eating is often part of food addiction, but just because you emotionally eat from time to time doesn’t mean you’re addicted. Though food addiction is not currently recognized as an official diagnosis, there are a few common signs of behavioral addictions to be aware of:

  • feeling a loss of control,  
  • continuing to do it despite negative consequences,  
  • obsessing about the behavior,  
  • and experiencing tolerance and withdrawal.

Even if you don’t have an addiction, that doesn’t mean that you are happy with where you are! You still may be distressed by some of your eating habits and want to make a change.

Ways to Cut Back or Stop Using Food as Comfort 

It can be difficult to change your eating habits, but it is possible. The point is not to give in and keep restarting the cycle if you find yourself sliding back into old behaviors. It usually takes about a month or two to get over that initial hump of starting a new habit with eating and sticking to it. After that, it becomes a little easier to stick with the routine, and minor slip ups don’t normally indicate a complete regression to previous ways (after you’ve made it past the initial hump).

Things that can help you to start changing your eating habits
  • Know your emotional triggers (what makes you stress eat/emotionally eat)
  • Replace eating with something positive: music, writing, walking, etc
  • Exercise regularly
  • Commit to getting adequate sleep
  • Drink more water regularly 
  • Don’t have huge amounts of treats readily available
  • Get back in touch with your natural hunger cues
  • When you find yourself craving food, be honest with yourself about your emotional state—what are you really “feeding”?
  • Change up your routine throughout the day (pack a lunch instead of eating out, etc)

Ongoing Help 

The suggestions above are by no means exhaustive, but they are some good starters to consider when trying to make a sustainable and realistic change for yourself. Setting a goal for yourself of never eating junk food again is likely setting yourself up for failure and disappointment. A counselor can help you make a realistic and individualized plan for yourself that you can be excited about. If you would like to make some changes in your eating habits and process how emotional eating has come up for you, make an appointment with Angelus today.

Tasty Tidbits

“Life is a combination of magic and pasta”
– Federico Fellini –

Blog Credit: Natalie Drozda, MA, LPC is a PH.D student in Counseling Education and Supervision at Duquesne University & therapist at Angelus Therapeutic Services