Have you ever reached for food when you weren’t really hungry?
Perhaps you were sad and found solace in a tub of ice-cream.
Maybe you were bored so you opened a bag of chips.
If you have experienced any or all of these scenarios, you’d probably call yourself an emotional eater.
But it may surprise you to know that all of us are emotional eaters.
All eating is emotional
While it’s true that we need food for our physiological needs, the choices we make are all based in emotion. We use food to celebrate, to commiserate, to comfort, to treat ourselves, and to feel good about ourselves.
Very rarely (if at all), do we make choices based purely on nutritional value. Of course, if you’re trying to lose weight, you might factor in how much it will help you, or derail you. But you’ll always chose the most attractive option (whatever attractive means to you) every time.
It’s virtually impossible to separate our emotions around food. Some emotions can be positive and some negative, but they will all help drive our food choices.
The problems arise when you use food to deal with your emotions — which is what most people mean when they refer to ‘emotional eating’. When this happens, eating is often mindless, in excess, and out of habit.
Emotional eating is a result of suppressing and soothing our negative emotions, whatever they may be — fear, sadness, anxiety, stress, boredom, or loneliness, to name a few.
What causes emotional eating
While it’s okay to make choices based on our emotions (e.g. having cake to celebrate a birthday), giving in to emotional eating as a way to cover up your feelings can derail your weight loss journey. When you engage in emotional eating, you’ll usually choose foods high in fat, salt, sugar and calories, which means that you’re not only adding to your calorie intake significantly, you’re failing to feed your body the nutrition it needs to work at optimal levels.
We engage in emotional eating to feel better. Whether it’s work stress, financial stress, relationship problems, a broken heart, family issues, or just feeling sad, many of us use food as a way to bolster ourselves up. This is because negative emotions usually lead to us feeling empty and food is one way to feel ‘full’ again. And we’d rather use food to suppress these emotions, than allow ourselves to feel them, and deal with them.
Often our choices are based on our history. For example, someone may find a cup of tea and a few biscuits comforting when they feel sad because that’s what their mother made them when they were younger. On the other hand, the same person might use alcohol to deal with stress, because that’s how their father used to unwind at the end of a busy day.
Other people may find that when they are extremely stressed, they don’t eat at all. This is also a form of emotional eating, even though they’re not actually eating.
How to recognise emotional eating
Most of the time we confuse emotional eating and normal hunger. But there are key differences:
As we said above there’s nothing wrong with indulging in your favourite foods now and then, but it’s important that these are planned in your week. It’s the spur-of-the-moment choices, based in emotion that you need to be aware of.
So now you know what emotional eating really is and how it can sabotage you, what can you do to stop it?
How to stop emotional eating
The first thing you need to do is to be accountable. Talking to a coach about your eating, and telling them the whole, ugly truth will set you on the path to breaking free of this habit. But be sure you are honest about the extent of your emotional eating. If you’re not, they won’t be able to help you.
In order to change your habit, you need to be aware of what happens when you’re feeling emotional. Recording how you feel, what you eat and where you were when you ate, will give you valuable data and will show you what your triggers are, and what your usual pattern of behaviour is. When you increase your awareness, you’ll give yourself power to change your routine, and change the habit.
Recognising your habit loop
As we mentioned above, recording data will show you what your triggers are, will highlight your keystone habit of emotional eating, and how your habit loop operates. Once you understand this, you’ll be able to change your routine.
For example, Joanna spends her entire day dealing with bad clients in her business. By the time she gets home, she is stressed, anxious and frustrated. Instead of preparing a healthy meal, she grabs a bottle of wine and a bag of chips, and spends the evening on the couch, trying to block out her day. By the time she goes to bed, she feels bloated, sick and racked with guilt
However, Joanna has been working with a coach to overcome her emotional eating habits, and she has now identified that stress is a big trigger for her. The next time she has a bad day at work, she comes home and goes for a walk before dinner, as a way to unwind from her day. By the time she gets home, she feels calm, and happily goes about preparing a healthy meal.
Joanna’s ability to recognise her triggers and her usual pattern of behaviour has allowed her to change her regular routine of drinking and bingeing, to walking and eating a healthy meal.
Feel your feelings and address your emotions
The most important thing of all is to allow yourself to feel your emotions and to address the negative feelings you’re constantly running away from. Unless you do, you will be forever running and it will just get harder and harder to change your habits. By confronting your emotions head on, and allowing yourself to feel what you’re feeling, you may be able to address some of the situations and issues that cause you to feel this way in the first place. While you can’t always control all the situations that cause you to feel negative emotions, learning to sit with your feelings and let yourself feel them, is important. The more you do this, the less you’ll need to suppress them with food or alcohol.
What else can you do?
Of course, getting to this point will take some time and some work — because some habits, especially emotional eating, aren’t changed overnight. So while you work on recording your data, increasing your awareness and changing your habit loop, you can also employ the following strategies to reduce the likelihood of episodes of emotional eating.
Replace tempting foods
It’s harder to engage in emotional eating if you don’t have tempting foods around you. By replacing these foods from your pantry, fridge, desk and car with delicious, nutritious and better options, you’ll reduce the likelihood of caving in and eating them. If you’re the person who takes a detour through the drive-thru on the way home from work, then plan a different route, where there is no drive-thru to tempt you.
At Imani Tribe Transformations, we encourage and show all our clients how to prep food for their week. Research shows that you’re more likely to reach for food that is in close proximity. By purging and pillaging your pantry, fridge and workspace of tempting foods, and replacing them with food that will help you reach your goals, you’ll be less likely to engage in emotional eating, and stay on track with your weight loss journey.
Plan your food
There’s no need to eliminate the foods you love when you’re trying to lose weight. You can still eat out, attend family BBQs and enjoy the occasional dessert. The trick is to plan these meals in advance, so you can enjoy them as part of a balanced diet. Planning your favourite foods in your weekly meal plan will also reduce emotional eating, because you know you have them to look forward to, and that you can enjoy them without the guilt.
Eat a variety of foods you enjoy
Being bored with food can sometimes trigger you to emotionally eat. When you’re bored with what you’re eating, you’ll always go looking for something more exciting. By taking the time to prep foods that you enjoy eating you’ll be more likely to stick to your plan and lose weight. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to eat steamed chicken and broccoli, or boring rabbit food to lose weight.
Eating a variety of different foods that are rich in colour and texture will keep your food choices interesting, and alleviate boredom. Plus, you’ll increase the nutritional value and satiety of your meals, meaning you’ll feel fuller for longer and won’t crave the unhealthy foods so much.
Attach your emotions to your dreams
By re-assigning your emotions to food, you can significantly reduce emotional eating. Imagining yourself achieving your goal will cause you to feel positive emotions. By associating these emotions with your healthy meals, and seeing every meal as a meal closer to achieving your dreams, you’ll find that you’ll be less likely to eat the foods that sabotage your success, and you’ll want to eat more of the foods that will help you get there.
Ready to stop emotional eating in its tracks?
Of course, getting over emotional eating takes time and work, because it’s likely to be habit that you’ve engaged in for a long time. But by working with a coach you’ll be able to overcome this stumbling block. At Imani Tribe Transformations, we help our clients see how emotionally eating impacts them and what their triggers are. We then come up with a personalised plan with action steps, to help them overcome this habit and stop the emotional eating that is sabotaging their success.
If you’re sick of the roller-coaster that is emotional eating, please contact us TODAY, because we can help you.