Emotional Eating

Don’t Let Your Feelings Guide Your Food Choices

Food is not only necessary for your physical survival, food “feeds” you at an emotional level, too. Think about it. When you were an infant, one of the primary ways your caregiver soothed you when you were upset was to nourish and nurture you with food! If you turn to food when you’re stressed or upset—often referred to as emotional eating—you may be attempting to soothe yourself by eating instead of easing into a difficult or confusing feeling. If you eat to manage your emotions, you are not alone.

“Emotional eating affects most everyone from time to time, but regularly letting your feelings guide your food intake can affect your health,” says Dr. Corinna Press, a psychologist at the Center for Primary Care in Fairfield. “Indeed, you may have discovered that once you’re done eating, you feel even worse.”

Learning to nourish yourself with the right amount of food and nurture yourself with the right amount of compassion are essential parts of healthy development.

Sadness, anger, boredom, and other negative emotions can drive emotional eating—such as polishing off a container of ice cream after a romantic breakup or devouring a bag of potato chips when you’re home alone on a Saturday night. But happy events can lead to it, too. Many people overeat at joyous occasions such as holiday parties and weddings. Far too often, food is used as the only strategy for soothing or rewarding yourself.

“Eating more food than your body needs can have dangerous consequences,” Dr. Press says. “People who eat for emotional reasons often gain too much weight, which puts them at greater risk for Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and cancer.”

Excessive eating has emotional consequences as well, she adds, such as feelings of guilt or embarrassment. Moreover, other serious conditions can be linked to emotional eating. One is binge eating disorder, characterized by eating dramatically large amounts of food well after you reach the point of fullness.

The good news is that there are many ways to increase self-awareness and practice self-care. Learning to nourish yourself with the right amount of food and nurture yourself with the right amount of compassion are essential parts of healthy development.

The strategies on the next page can help you foster a mindful and curious approach to everyday tasks by increasing the ways in which you understand, learn from, and live with your emotions.

Strategies to Break the Cycle

Here are steps you can take to stop emotional eating episodes and break the cycle:

Learn to recognize hunger. Next time you reach for a snack, pause for a moment. Try asking yourself what’s driving you. Scan your body. If you are truly hungry, you’ll notice physical symptoms, such as a growling stomach. Scan your thoughts and/or feelings. Other, less obvious hunger cues include irritability and difficulty concentrating. If any of those signs are absent, you probably don’t need to eat right then. If something is bothering you, just say the thought or feeling out loud. Recognizing your thoughts and feelings in the moment increases your self-awareness.

Keep a journal. Take the time to create a “mood and food” journal. Write down what you eat each day, along with the emotions you were experiencing at the time and whether you were truly hungry. You may find that specific feelings, such as anger or sadness, lead to your overeating. Once you recognize these triggers, you can learn healthier ways to deal with them. For example, if you experience stress, instead of trying to relieve it with a candy bar, take a walk around the block or give yourself 15 minutes to “ride the wave.”

Build a support network. Surrounding yourself with friends and family who support your efforts to change your eating habits can improve your chances of success. It may also be helpful to join a support group, such as the 12-step program Overeaters Anonymous, through which you will meet other people with similar problems and learn better ways of coping.

Cultivate other interests. Finding an activity that you enjoy, such as meditation, yoga, playing a musical instrument, or painting, can increase self-confidence, which is often low for people who tend toward emotional eating. If you find that your eating is driven by boredom, a new passion can fill your hours and make you less likely to look to food for emotional satisfaction.

Get help if necessary. If you can’t control emotional eating on your own, consider getting professional help to learn more about your behaviors and how to practice new ways of dealing with difficult thoughts and feelings. A form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy provides practical and useful skills to help you move away from unconscious reaction (emotional eating) toward conscious action (choosing a healthy snack or a self-care activity). Medication, including antidepressants and appetite suppressants, may also help. Talk with your health care provider to learn about more treatment options.

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