Emotional eating is when we eat in the absence of physical hunger to comfort ourselves during periods of stress, boredom, depression, anxiety, frustration, work pressure, relationship trouble or when we reward ourselves with food.
According to the American Psychology Association, 30% of adults, when stressed, skip meals. In comparison, 34% of adults will overeat or choose unhealthy foods during stressful times, and 27% of adults claim to eat to manage their stress levels (APA 2014).
Both men and women may crave and use food to ease or control their emotions and bring comfort to themselves in times of anguish. At the same time, some choose not to eat in these circumstances by starving themselves because their feelings have affected their appetite. We know that how we feel and what we think affects our stomach, and how our gut feels affects how we think and feel (Read the Gut-Brain axis blog https://www.wellnessmdhealth.com/post/the-gut-brain-axis ).
Under and over-eating leads to malnutrition, which may lead to poor health outcomes and exacerbated stress levels.
To some extent, we all may use food to appease our emotions occasionally; in fact, it may even form part of our culture and background or learned behaviour from childhood. I am sure we can all remember a moment where we were given an ice cream or a candy bar after falling and grazing our knees or perhaps we were treated to a milkshake to celebrate the joy of receiving good grades at school.
However, emotional eating or eating when we are not hungry can lead to health concerns and interfere with our health and wellness goals if done consistently and ongoingly.
It is interesting to note that many published health and scientific articles during the pandemic reveal an increased prevalence of emotional and stress eating with a higher intake of processed and sugary foods. Increased ingestion of these foods can lead to an undesirable amount of fat, sugar, and sodium in the body, contributing to unwelcome diseases, fatigue, and lethargy.
Where do you as the individual fit in, and what can you do about it to safeguard yourself from emotional eating? Instead of using food to suppress or distract you from the emotions you are feeling, you can do many things to set yourself on the right path to health and wellness.
Be mindful of your emotions and what goes in your mouth – keep a journal of your feelings and your corresponding food intake. Determine what type of person you are when dealing with stress. Do you overeat or undereat, or do your food choices change? Consider what your hand reaches for when you are feeling frustrated and when you are feeling happy. Often we are
so programmed into set behaviours that we eat without being conscious of it. Our food choices can be affected by how our day is progressing, and therefore being mindful, addressing and naming those emotions can help you avoid the trap of emotional eating.
Our emotions are big flashing arrows to something more critical, so responding and reflecting on our emotions can help deal with the deeper matter at hand instead of suppressing them. Negative emotions will point to what we believe about our situation, which we may not even be aware of; our beliefs then dictate our behaviours. If we can identify these unhelpful or negative thoughts, we can help establish positive and uplifting thought processes to replace them.
Make a note of your stress triggers and give yourself some options to relax when you find yourself in a stressful situation. For example, read a book, take a walk, clean out a cupboard, call a friend, write a letter explaining how you feel in your journal, pray, meditate, look outside and enjoy the beauty of nature. Remember to be kind to yourself, speak to yourself as you would a close friend or loved one. Take the time to feel that emotion and understand what you are believing.
We encourage you to learn the skill of identifying when your body is hungry or "tummy hungry." It sounds like I am stating the obvious; however, many people find it very difficult to identify their body's hunger signals. It may seem to be an easy thing for some and the hardest thing to face for others. Are you a person who says, "I am always hungry," or are you someone who says: "I can go the whole day without eating because I am so busy?" Eating when you are hungry is when you respond to your body's need for food as energy for daily living which develops over time since your last meal.
Are you hungry, thirsty, happy or sad, bored or lazy? Identify how you feel before making your next move. It may mean drinking a glass of water first to hydrate yourself and eliminate the possibility of thirst over hunger. If you are able, adjust your schedule in the day to eat when your body tells you in the form of rumbling or hunger pangs that it is hungry, instead of eating at noon because it happens to be lunchtime. Be aware of your body's needs and learn to trust your body to give you the signals that symbolize hunger; concentrate on getting your body the healthy food it needs to get through your day.
Avoid having unhelpful foods around.
Rid your pantry of foods that you know are a weakness for you. If you are the first to run to the chocolate box when feeling tearful, don't keep them at home or ask a family member to keep them out of arm's length. If you like to relax with a bag of chips while watching a movie, then opt for a small bowl of popcorn or a piece of fruit and some nuts. If the temptations are not around, it helps the process. It is a good idea not to do grocery shopping when you are hungry or are experiencing an emotional or stress trigger. Rather have a small snack before you leave home or time your grocery shop after a meal to avoid the urge to buy the high calorie processed food that you may believe you are craving.
Eat until you are satisfied and know when to stop.
Our bodies are like cars; you have to put fuel in them to get moving. If you put in $5 gas, you may get to a particular destination point in your area, but you could get a lot further if you put in $50. It is the same for our bodies; for example, if we put in an apple, it may last us about an hour depending on our energy use and activity. But if we consume a plate of food that is more energy-dense, it will allow us to go for much longer without needing any more fuel. It is all dependent on our activity level, and metabolism just like it would be for a car.
Put your eating utensils down between mouthfuls and only pick them up again when you have finished chewing and swallowing.
It may sound time-consuming, and that is precisely the point; in this way, the stomach registers that you are eating can experience the feeling of fullness. If you eat too fast, your brain does not receive the message that your stomach is full, which would typically reduce appetite and stimulate your satiety center. This results in eating a larger amount of calories than what is needed. Practicing this will also decrease the urgency to claim the second food serving.
Focus on your senses when eating. Enjoy the taste and smell of the food and the texture in your mouth. Prepare meals that are visually beautiful by introducing different colours to your plate.
Practice eating in a quiet, relaxed environment at a table without any distractions. Avoid standing at an open refrigerator or pantry door, mindlessly munching on whatever snack bag you can find. Instead, place a healthy snack or meal on a plate, take it to a quiet place, sit down, and eat slowly. Serve yourself smaller portions instead of feeling guilt if you don't finish a larger portion or overeat. Make sure you can see a variety of colours, and you can still see some of your plate around the edges and in between; this is to ensure that you are not serving up more than what is necessary. Enjoy the flavour and mouthfeel of each bite you take.
Eating is a social activity, so savouring a meal with family or friends at a table can be a fantastic opportunity to enjoy a meal in each other's company, gaining support from those around you.
Reach out to a friend, family member or health coach if you need support. It is vital to have someone that you can talk things through with or be accountable to, and someone who will encourage you to stay on the path and make healthy choices.
Be kind to yourself, speak positively and practice self-care.