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.