If I had to choose the one issue that people talk to me about the most, it would be emotional eating.
Don’t get me wrong, the occasional emotional eating episode is totally normal! We’re conditioned to think it isn’t, but we all do it sometimes. And hey – eating emotionally doesn’t have to be in response to a sad or stressful situation. We all eat out of happiness (hello, birthday cake!), relief (like that ice cream you ate after you finished that huge exam), and excitement (like hoovering popcorn during an exciting movie…I’m so guilty of that). Today though, we’re going to talk about the emotional eating that comes as a result of negative emotions.
Most of the time, emotional eating isn’t a big deal. The big deal comes when it’s the only tool in our coping toolbox, and we’re using food to soothe ourselves all the time. That behavior can not only affect our physical health, but it can also perpetuate the stuffing-down of emotions that we’re trying to hide, but really need to be addressed.
True hunger VS emotional hunger: What’s the difference?
Emotional hunger (aka what drives emotional eating) is not dependent on how hungry or full you are, because it’s triggered by feelings. True hunger usually comes on slowly, and is satisfied with a meal or snack.
Emotional hunger jumps up suddenly, in response to a feeling or situation, and is often not satisfied by food. You eat, but the feeling that caused you to eat the first place just comes back, usually with other negative feelings.
With emotional eating, even if you’re full, a triggering situation can still cause you to eat.
As much as I’ve told you all that guilt and shame do not play nice with food and eating, those feelings come up often when people discuss their emotional eating habits.
To them, it feels like they’ve ‘lost control,’ which can lead to negative emotions like anger, frustration, low self-esteem, and feelings of failure. Eating out of true hunger rarely has that effect.
Emotional eating is a completely different piece of your relationship with food puzzle than feelings of guilt and shame around eating. And although figuring out out what’s making you eat emotionally won’t necessarily solve the guilt and shame you feel, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction to healing your attitude towards yourself and food.
Just drink some tea….or not?
Replacing emotional eating with another habit is a really popular method of dealing with it. I’ve read all sorts of recommendations to stop emotional eating like, ‘sip some tea!’ or, ‘choose veggies instead of chocolate!’ but they don’t really solve the issue. Also: who the eff wants vegetables when all they crave is chocolate?
If you’re an emotional eater, telling someone to satisfy their cravings with cucumber and hummus is probably not going to cut it. Portioning out food, drinking some tea, or eating in a mindful way are fine, but they don’t get to the heart of WHY you’re eating.
Without the WHY, it’s hard to get rid of the triggers. I talk a lot about finding your ‘why’ in my book, Good Food, Bad Diet, which is coming out in January 2021.It’s a huge thing for me, because I really and truly believethat it’s almost impossible to make meaningful change to your eating habits without looking inward at what’s going on with your emotions.
The issue with finding your ‘why,’ is that it’s uncomfortable. Nobody wants to do it. Instead, they want to sip tea (I really can’t let go of that one because it’s so lame) and ignore what’s really going on.
Let’s not do that.
Here’s how to cope with emotional eating:
Take some time to figure out exactly what you’re feeling.
It might seem easy to identify your emotions, And sometimes, it is. But other times, it’s actually not that simple.
For example, fear and sadness often disguise themselves as anger. Loneliness can manifest as sadness or fear. It’s important that you drill down to the true emotion you’re feeling, because that’s the way to deal with it. You can’t keep covering it up with something else.
The trick to doing this is to sit down in a quiet place and really let that emotion show itself.Don’t let it get away with being labelled as ‘upset.’ Drill it down to what the actual emotion is. You might find it helpful to journal exactly how you’re feeling. For some people (including me), getting things down on paper can really help organize their thoughts. It can also be good to read over what you write.
The most common negative emotions are: fear, sadness, jealousy, and disgust.
Ask yourself to identify how you’re feeling with a word or two. For example, are you stressed? This might be a manifestation of fear. Are you feeling lonely? This might be sadness.
While you do this exercise, try not to push difficult emotions away as they appear.
Dig up that emotion and look it right in the eye.
I know, not comfortable. That’s why we distract ourselves away from difficult emotions with behaviours like eating. Because it sucks to unearth what’s bugging us.
Once you have the emotion (or emotions, there may be more than one) you’re feeling, you’ll need to figure out why you’re feeling it.
That might look like this:
*Reaches for a bag of chips*…I’m so upset right now.
But wait. Why am I upset? What emotion am I actually feeling?
Am I angry? Am I afraid?
I think I feel sad, but I’m not sure why.
*thinks for a while*
I think I’m actually sad because today, I saw someone I went to school with, and they seem to be doing so much better than I am in life. Why am I not in her position? I feel like a total loser!
Sounds like sadness and jealousy to me.
But whatever it is, these are the emotions that are making you want to eat.
This is a really simple example. Yours might be a lot more complicated, and if they are, seeking professional help to work through this with you can really be valuable.
Sit with whatever you’re feeling.
This is also shitty, but totally necessary. We’re used to brushing off our emotions and letting them trail behind us like a ball and chain: not super close to us, but enough to be disruptive to us moving forward.
In my book, I describe these emotions like a boulder that we’re trying to roll uphill. We start to make progress with whatever our goals are, and oooof! That boulder rolls on top of us, crushing our efforts again and again. Time to get rid of that boulder once and for all!
What is that boulder holding you back from doing?
Take whatever emotion you’re feeling, and instead of trying to immediately get rid of it, really feel it. Don’t judge yourself.
Turn the emotion over and over in your hands. Look at it. Know it. Sit with the discomfort.
Shining a light on this emotion can help to defuse it and rob it of its power.
Again, if this feels overwhelming, a licensed counsellor can help you through this important work.
Ask yourself what you really need at this time.
Do you need calm?
Do you need closeness and comforting?
Do you need to express how you feel?
Sometimes, if you take a moment before automatically defaulting to food, you can figure out what you really need right then. Out of habit, we tend to just grab food to comfort us. But what if there was something else that could address the need you’re having?
Ask yourself what you can do to improve your situation.
The last key to learning how to deal with emotional eating is taking steps to change or manage the situation that’s triggering it. Like a lot of people, I used to whip myself into a frenzy, worrying about things that I couldn’t control. It still happens sometimes, but more often, I find myself releasing those worries and turning my focus on things that I can control. Like, how I react to uncertainty in my life. So instead of obsessing and going around in circles about something that’s making me anxious, I am a lot better at understanding that my responsibility lies not in trying to control the uncontrollable situation I’m anxious about, but how I react to that situation. That’s when I take a deep breath and adjust my priorities away from making myself nuts with worry.
Instead of turning to food, can you speak to someone, work on what needs to be worked on, make a plan to get into a better space?
If it’s a situation that you can’t do anything about that’s causing you anxiety, then ask yourself if you can manage it by releasing control. Remember that you can’t control everything, and trying to do that can drain you of your energy.
Eating and the emotions behind it can be complex. But taking the first steps to figuring our your ‘why,’ can be a huge move forward in taking charge of what’s really holding you back.
Do 95% of people who lose weight really gain it back? Read my post about it here.