If you’ve ever eaten when you’re stressed, bored, angry or upset, even if you weren’t actually hungry, you’re not alone. Most of us have eaten for emotional reasons at some time, and if it only happens occasionally it is unlikely to be a problem.
For some however, emotional eating can become a viscous cycle, where food is used as a way of dealing with negative emotions, and overeating then leads to feelings of guilt and poor self-esteem.
There are many reasons why we eat in response to our emotional state – food can provide pleasure and improve mood, eating can be a distraction from unpleasant or stressful situations, or we may have developed a habit of using food as a reward or way of feeling better.
Unfortunately this only provides a short-term solution and in the long term, emotional eating can result in health and weight problems and can prevent us from learning more productive ways to deal with emotional problems and stress.
If you find yourself regularly eating in response to your emotions, here are some tips to help you overcome this habit:
- Learn to recognize true hunger. Many people have lost the ability to distinguish true physical hunger from a desire to eat. Learning to recognise when you are really hungry (and when you are full) is the first step to conquering emotional and other non-hungry eating. If you’ve eaten a meal in the last few hours then you’re probably not hungry – try a glass of water or cup of tea first, then wait 15 minutes to see if you still feel the need to eat. If you weren’t actually hungry, the craving to eat may have passed in this time. A good trick is to get into the habit of rating your hunger before you decide to eat. Ask yourself where you are on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is ravenous and 5 is full; try to avoid eating if you rate a 4 or 5.
- Identify eating triggers. Knowing the situations that trigger your desire to eat when you’re not hungry is an important step in overcoming this habit. The best way to identify your triggers is to keep a food diary. Write down what you eat, when you eat, how you are feeling and how hungry or full you are at the time. Do this for a week or two, then review your diary to identify any patterns, including particular situations that cause you to overeat, or any ‘danger’ times in your day or week.
- Find alternatives. The key to changing unhealthy habits is to replace them with positive alternatives. If eating makes you feel better when you’re upset, then plan some other feel-good activities to do instead – have a bath, read a good book, meet a friend or have a massage – anything that’s enjoyable and relaxing for you. If, on the other hand, you eat to distract yourself from a boring or stressful situation, try to plan some other activities to keep you busy such as cleaning out your wardrobe, sorting old photographs or meeting a friend for a walk. Make a list of alternatives and keep it handy so you can easily refer to it at times when you are ready to reach for the biscuits! If there’s a particular time of the day or week that’s a problem for you, then regularly plan other activities to fill that time.
- Remove temptations. It’s all too easy to turn to your ‘comfort’ foods when you’re feeling vulnerable if they’re always within easy reach. Instead aim to keep a range of healthy snacks you enjoy at home and at work, and keep the ‘treats’ as occasional indulgences that you can include in small amounts when you are feeling good and can truly savour and enjoy them.
- Eat a balanced diet. Eat a well-balanced diet with regular meals and snacks built around mostly unprocessed wholefoods. This will ensure that your physical hunger is satisfied and your body is getting the energy and nutrients it needs to function at its peak. Avoid missing meals or cutting out whole food groups as this can lead to hunger and cravings, and may trigger overeating.
- Exercise regularly. Exercising regularly makes you feel better, both physically and mentally. Exercise is one of the best ways to reduce stress levels and improve depression, and can help to regulate appetite. So next time you’re feeling down and are tempted to reach for the chocolate, grab a friend and head out for a walk or put on your favourite music and slip on your dancing shoes!
- Get enough rest and sleep. Feeling tired can cause you to turn to food to improve your energy levels, and can also reduce your resolve to eat well. Research has also shown that lack of sleep can affect hormones that increase appetite, which may in turn contribute to overeating and weight gain. Aim for 7-8 hours of good quality sleep each night.
- Learn to manage stress. If stress is a major trigger for your emotional eating, it’s worthwhile learning different ways to manage your stress. This could be done by building in activities that you find enjoyable and relaxing (such as having a bath or sitting in the sun and reading a magazine), taking up meditation or yoga, or using a guided relaxation program at home. If these don’t help, you may want to consider getting professional help from a psychologist or counsellor who can assist with strategies to help you to relax and cope with stress.
Finally, if you do give in to emotional eating, don’t beat yourself up about it! Learn from the experience and work out ways to prevent it happening again. Then put it behind you and get back to your healthy eating plan.