Do you eat in response to your feelings and not hunger?
Do you crave specific foods like chocolate, pizza, chips or ice cream?
Do you eat because there is nothing else to do?
Do you feel guilty or ashamed after eating?
Do you eat in secrecy?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you may be an emotional overeater.
Most of us experience emotional eating at some point in our lives. Emotional eating is a learned behavior. It’s even learned as early as infancy! When a baby starts crying, new parents are often stressed and don’t’ know what to do, so they give the baby a bottle. Maybe the baby was hungry, but maybe not… maybe the baby was tired, uncomfortable, or irritable. So, at an early age we learn to connect food with comfort. A parent may say to an older child, “If you are good at the dentist today, we can go get some ice cream.” Again, this is a message of comforting someone with food.
Overeating can also be fear-based. For example, if you grew up with food not always being available or abundant, then you can develop emotional eating in relation to fear of not having enough food.
We can also lose an awareness of our physical hunger and satiety level. A lot of us grew up when wasting food was unacceptable, so we were members of the “clean plate club.” When we are told to eat everything on our plate, we can lose a sense of when we are getting satisfied with food, and we develop a pattern of over eating.
As adults, we can use food for comfort when we are tired, upset, bored, lonely, stressed or feeling down. Emotional eating is when we eat because of our emotions and not because of physical hunger. So, our mood dictates what, when and how much we eat.
With emotional eating, we also crave a certain type of food, mostly simple carbohydrates, protein, and fats. These “comfort” foods that are high in fat and carbohydrates (cakes, cookies, ice cream, pizza, chips…) release good mood chemicals in our brain (endorphins). So, it gives us a sense of enjoyment after eating these foods. When we are bored, tired, depressed or stressed, we crave foods that give us comfort. This is different from physical hunger in that physical hunger involves enjoying a variety of food and not craving any specific food like we do with emotional eating. Physical hunger is gradual and can wait, whereas emotional hunger needs instant gratification.
Ways to Overcome Emotional Over Eating:
1. Avoiding mindless eating can help in the process of reducing the amount of food you eat. Mindless eating is when you are eating food, and you are so distracted that you may not even be aware of what you are eating, how much you are eating. You may not even be tasting the food! An example of this is when you are driving in the car and eating, or eating in front of the computer at work. Often times, we are distracted by doing something else that we don’t even remember eating! So, if you like to eat in front of the TV or another distraction, you may want to measure the food out first, before heading to the couch. Instead of bringing the entire bag of chips to the couch, put some in a small bowl and take that with you.
Mindless eating also occurs when we eat, but we are not physically hungry. Maybe you see a commercial on TV and now want that particular food, or eat lunch because it is at a particular time, even though you are not hungry. Mindful eating (eating when you are fully present with the food and enjoying each bite, chewing it slowly and savoring the tastes and textures of the food) is an easy way to overcome emotional eating. Mindful eating also involves developing an awareness of when we are physically hungry.
2. Eating slowly is also a good way to keep in check with the amount that you are eating. So, instead of grabbing a handful of peanuts, try taking one at a time, and eat them slowly. By doing this, you can actually taste the peanut, savor it, enjoy its flavors. You’ll find yourself slowing down your food intake and saving a lot of calories in the process! Chewing each piece of food 30-50 times will ensure that you eat slowly and will also help with easing digestion and feeling satisfied sooner. It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to register that your stomach is full, so the slower you eat, the less food you will eat.
3. Keeping a journal is a great way to get a good visual of what, when and how much food you eat. I highly recommend also journaling your mood at the time since 75 percent of over eating is based on emotions.
When you see a pattern from journaling, then you can address what is going on, like eating several cookies after a stressful day at work, or heading for the ice cream after an upsetting phone call with a family member. Then, you can gradually replace the behavior of eating with something else, like going for a walk, or cleaning a room, or calling a supportive friend.
4. Remember, this is a gradual process. Since cravings last about 20 minutes, think of something that you can do to get you through that period of time. I always recommend physical activity, since it is a natural de-stressor and releases those “good mood” chemicals in your brain which can lessen the desire to emotionally eat. Physical activity also improves sleep; when you are well rested, chances are you won’t be emotionally eating due to tiredness.
Keep in mind that overcoming emotional over eating is a process and takes practice. Set realistic goals for yourself along the way to reduce your emotional over eating and increase healthy behaviors to replace it. Be gentle with yourself, and acknowledge that you are worthy, beautiful and divine. Take time to take great care of yourself, since you are deserving of it. In doing so, you can take care of loved ones and enjoy quality time with them.