To fix a problem, we must first understand the problem. This is a true statement for all that we encounter in life. And one problem that is quite prevalent with those of us who have ever had a weight problem is that of emotional eating.
According to the American Psychological Association:
- Many adults report engaging in unhealthy eating behaviors as a result of stress and say that these behaviors can lead to undesirable consequences, such as feeling sluggish or lazy and feeling bad about their bodies.
- Thirty-eight percent of adults say they have overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month because of stress. Half of these adults (49 percent) report engaging in these behaviors weekly or more.
- Thirty-three percent of adults who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress say they do so because it helps distract them from stress.
- Twenty-seven percent of adults say they eat to manage stress and 34 percent of those who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress say this behavior is a habit.
- After having overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods, half of adults (49 percent) report feeling disappointed in themselves, 46 percent report feeling bad about their bodies and more than one-third (36 percent) say they feel sluggish or lazy. After skipping meals due to stress, 24 percent say they feel sluggish or lazy and 22 percent report being irritable. (1)
Do you find yourself racing to the pantry when you’re feeling down or otherwise upset?
Finding comfort in food is common, and it’s part of a practice called emotional eating. Quite often, our strongest food cravings hit when we are feeling at our weakest points emotionally. Emotional eating can sabotage your weight-loss efforts. When we eat to soothe our emotions, this action often leads to eating high-calorie, sweet and fatty foods. Emotional eating is how we often attempt to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness. Major life events or, more commonly, the hassles of daily life can trigger negative emotions that lead to emotional eating and disrupt your weight-loss efforts. The downside to emotional eating is that while it might make us feel better in the moment, the harm it causes far outweighs a momentary benefit. It is not rocket science to conclude that overeating causes us to become overweight or obese, therefore increasing our risk for Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Obesity is a major contributor to preventive death in the U.S. and greatly raises our morbidity risks associated with chronic diseases, such as hypertension, stroke, respiratory problems and various cancers.
Can you distinguish between physical and emotional hunger?
I know from personal experience just how difficult it is to overcome emotional eating. While it is not an easy thing to do, it is far from impossible. I know how eating to pass the moment has only left me more stressed and depressed than before I sat down and began stuffing unhealthy food choices down my throat. I have experienced feeling like a junkie looking for the next fix while scrounging through the refrigerator or pantry looking for sugary and fatty foods. I also know for certain this can be overcome, but it takes full commitment of self in order to do so. It requires a change in thinking and lifestyle. It requires a change in your relationship with food when you have this problem. You can still enjoy food, but it needs to be viewed as a fuel for your body and physical health rather than a short term fix for your stress or emotions. If you are prone to emotional eating, then you must make a permanent change to your lifestyle for you will eventually fall back into this rut. It happens every day, and the evidence is clearly visible if you follow any weight loss forums for any length of time. I have read and studied many of them, and this is the common thread in them all.
But, what can we do?
Find other ways to cope with stress!
Discovering another way to deal with negative emotions is often the first step toward overcoming emotional eating. This could mean writing in a journal, reading a book, or finding a few minutes to otherwise relax and decompress from the day. It takes time to shift your mindset from reaching for food to engaging in other forms of stress relief, so experiment with a variety of activities to find what works for you.
Some people find relief in getting regular exercise. A walk or jog around the block or a quick round of calisthenics may help in particularly emotional moments.
- Exercise helps chronic depression by increasing serotonin (which helps your brain regulate mood, sleep and appetite) or brain-derived neurotrophic factor (which helps neurons to grow).
- Exercise reduces immune system chemicals that can make depression worse.
- Exercise increases your level of endorphins, which are natural mood lifters.
- Exercise helps by getting your sleep patterns back to normal. We know getting enough sleep can protect the brain from damage.
- Exercise gives you a focused activity that can help you feel a sense of accomplishment.
- Exercise limits the effect of stress on your brain.
It is helpful to keep a detailed log of what you eat and when and why you eat. This can help you identify triggers that lead to emotional eating. When we log what we eat, it is a form of accountability to ourselves and it allows us to reframe the question in our mind if we are really hungry or are we going to eat out of boredom or emotional reasons.
Successful and long term weight management require that you ensure that you get enough healthy nutrients to fuel your body. Yes, it can be difficult to distinguish between true and emotional hunger, but if you eat only foods that bring nutritional value to your body throughout the day, it will be easier to still manage your weight.
Practice becoming more aware of your emotional triggers for eating. The next time you pick up a “comfort food,” stop and ask yourself why you’re reaching for it.
Feeling sad, anxious, or lonely? Identify your feelings, then pause and reflect on the action you usually take (such as reaching for a sweet treat).
Talk to Your Doctor
If you’ve tried addressing your cravings on your own without success, you may want to talk to your doctor. Sometimes, cravings for certain foods can be a sign of an underlying health condition. For example, you might crave certain foods if you are deficient in essential vitamins and minerals. Medications can stimulate appetite or cause blood sugar problems, including drugs used to treat depression and bipolar disorder. Other prescription and over-the-counter medications can affect your appetite as well. Once your doctor is on board, you’ll be able to work together on developing strategies for coping with cravings and their cause.