Sitting in front of the TV with a tub of ice cream after a breakup. Coming home from work and going right to the pantry for a snack. Munching on treats while pulling an all-nighter studying for an exam. Do these situations sound familiar? We have probably all found ourselves doing something like this at least once before. But does that make you an emotional eater?
“Normal” eaters may sometimes find themselves eating when they are feeling happy, sad, or just bored. It is common for everyone to do a little emotional eating from time to time. However, when this type of eating happens daily, or even several times a week, you may be an emotional eater. Emotional eating can then lead to poor nutrition, an unhealthy relationship with food, and feelings of frustration and guilt.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating happens when people use food to manage or cover up intense emotions. Sometimes these emotions are negative and sometimes they are positive. For example, someone may eat when they are stressed out or sad, in need of comfort, or celebrating an event.
People may also use food as a reward, as recovery, or as a way to help them cope with an uncomfortable emotion. When food is used to help cope with negative emotions, it can be considered a form of disordered eating—or an “eating disorder.” This can be considered an unhealthy strategy and something that should be addressed.
Most important to note is that this type of emotional eating only provides a temporary relief from difficult or uncomfortable feelings. After this eating, one is often met with guilt, shame, and even more physical and emotional discomfort.
What causes emotional eating?
Emotional eating is most likely a symptom of unmet emotional and spiritual needs. It can be the direct result of not being conscious of what or why you are eating. It’s often not about the food itself at all, but about what you’re managing or covering up within yourself by using food.
How do you overcome emotional eating?
To overcome emotional eating, we must understand the difference between emotional hunger versus physical hunger. Emotional hunger starts when a person has a craving or wants something very specific to eat. Physical hunger usually starts at the stomach with grumbling and leads to giving your body the nutrients it needs. Physical hunger is not associated with feelings.
A hunger scale (0-10) can be used to identify if your hunger is emotional or physical.
0 signifies starving
1-4 are degrees of hunger
5 is neutral
6-9 are degrees of feeling full
10 is uncomfortably full
The hunger scale will help you separate your emotions and instead put the focus on how you feel physically. You can then better identify how to proceed.
If your hunger is physical at a number between 0 and 5, then you should be eating nutrients to satisfy this hunger. If your hunger is between 5 and 10, it would be more helpful to identify what emotion you are feeling and if there are other ways of managing this emotion rather than eating.
Using non-food activities will help you cope with the emotion. So in order to put an end to emotional eating, you need to develop strategies for substituting your food-focused habits with non-food coping skills instead.
First, identify the emotion you are feeling. Then, come up with a tool box of non-food activities that you can use when you are feeling an uncomfortable emotion. For example, when we’re feeling bored, we may turn to food to help us cope. But a non-food activity to use instead could be to call a friend, listen to music, or journal our thoughts and feelings.
But what if you can’t identify how you’re feeling and you have a strong urge to eat, even when you know you’re not physically hungry? A strategy that works for my patients is to work on delaying eating emotionally.
First, realize that you want to eat for emotional reasons and start out by delaying eating for at least five minutes. Then, increase the amount of time you delay for each time this occurs. During this delay, try to do any non-food activity to fill the time. When the time is up, ask yourself if you were able to do something else that did not involve eating. If you are able to choose something else to do, then great!
But, if you are not ready to do that, don’t beat yourself up. Just try again next time.
The key is that as the time passes, your uncomfortable emotions will decrease in their level of intensity. And as the intensity diminishes, so will the likelihood that you will use food to cope with how you’re feeling at that given time.
It takes practice and time to change this behavior. But be patient and keep working on it. It will all be worth it in the end.
Last but not least, so many of us use negative self-talk. But it is very important that we use positive self-talk instead, as a way to overcome our negative feelings.
Learning to care for yourself is imperative. When we do not tend to our personal needs, this can result in emotional struggles with eating.
Self-care is when we do things that nourish our body:
Learning to eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full.
Learning to nourish yourself in ways other than just with food.
Learning to trust yourself to listen to the signals your body sends you.
Being kind to yourself.
Honoring your wants and needs, while finding joy in life.
Because you deserve to be cared for and to find a healthy balance in life.
If you are struggling with emotional eating and need further help, talk to a health care provider, a mental health counselor, and/or a registered dietitian.