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Emotional Eating

For many of us, when we encounter a problem, food is the perfect solution.

When you’re tired, chocolate is there for you. When you’re stressed, cake has your back. We usually know that we’re not hungry, but the urge to soothe that craving is just too strong to resist. Some foods may feel comforting to us, and so we use food to numb our negative feelings, but the pain inevitably returns.

Eventually, after having to deal with the consequences of “self-soothing” with food, like obesity or chronic illnesses, we have to accept that using food to feel better is not a healthy way to live.

To be clear, indulging occasionally in delicious food, despite not actually being hungry, is not a problem. It is when you find yourself repeatedly overindulging if foods that make you feel “better” that you run the risk of jeopardizing your health. So, how can you develop a healthier relationship with food?

According to health and eating psychology coach Mel Wells, the crucial thing is to figure out what you are actually craving apart from food. Wells described the difference between emotional cravings and real hunger. She said: “An emotional craving is a strong and sudden desire to eat food right now, which can also cause a sense of panic and urgency. If you sit with it for 10–15 minutes it will pass. You feel it in your head, not your stomach, while real hunger comes on gradually over a period of hours in your stomach. It doesn’t feel urgent. It doesn’t cause you to panic.”

The phenomenon of overeating in response to unpleasant emotions has been referred to as “emotional eating.” This occurs when there is a breakdown in emotion regulation, which leads to a binge-eating episode with food itself becoming the regulator, even though no significant and stable improvement in mood occurs afterwards.

According to the Harvard Special Health Report Lose Weight and Keep It Off, there are parts of the brain that are rewarded from eating high-fat or high-sugar foods. Research suggests that behaviors that are rewarded are likely to be repeated. So what can you do?

  • You may be able to stop stress eating or emotional eating by figuring out why you crave comfort food. Identifying these thought patterns can make it easier to resist succumbing to them. Coming to terms with the fact that emotional eating does not solve the problem that made you upset is also helpful.
  • Another way to control emotional eating is to determine what your triggers are. Keep a journal that records what you ate, how much you ate, and how you felt at the time.
  • Once you identify a pattern of eating, devise a plan to break it. For example, if you eat because you are stressed, create a stress-management plan that does not involve food, and implement it as soon as those food cravings return.
  • Find a way to distract yourself from the temptation to indulge in emotional eating until the urge dissipates. Some possible distractions include going for a five-minute walk or calling a close friend just to chat.

If you are unsuccessful in stopping emotional eating on your own, consider consulting a therapist for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT teaches you how to identify negative and unproductive ways of thinking and then how to replace them with more helpful ones. The most important step you can take is to first acknowledge that you may, in fact, have a problem.

By Dr. Karen McGibbon
Assistant Professor in Clinical Counseling
Practicum & Internship Coordinator

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

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