How to Stop Emotional Eating

Do you eat when you're stressed, tired, bored, lonely, or for any other emotion?

Intuitive Eating Series Principle #7 - Deal with your emotions without using food

You eat when you’re stress, when you’re tired, when you’re angry, when you’re sad, lonely, happy, and during any other time you experience emotion. Sound like you?


Today is a big one. Emotional eating is the hot button topic. We all do it. Sometimes it doesn’t really affect us, and other times, it leaves us feeling feelings of guilt, failure, disgust, and absolute despair. But let me tell you one thing about emotional eating, it’s a normal part of life and it doesn’t have to be filled with these negative feelings. What on earth am I talking about you say? Let’s talk about it. 

 

DEFINITION OF EMOTIONAL EATING


Let me first define emotional eating. It's eating when you’re not biologically hungry. I'll say that again. Emotional eating is a form of eating when you are not biologically hungry. And you know what? Sometimes that’s ok.

Think about the times you’ve had a neighbor bring you a warm plate of cookies to chat for an afternoon, or when you’ve gone out with friends or family to a restaurant to celebrate a momentous occasion. Sometimes you eat when you’re not biologically hungry and that’s ok! We start to run into problems when we begin USING food to deal with or numb our emotions and when it becomes a coping mechanism for the emotions brought on by everyday life, whether it be excitement or stress or sadness or anything in between. 


Each time you experience a significant life experience and celebrate (or deal with it using food), you deepen the emotional connection to food. Think about a certain kind of food that brings up an emotion for you? Maybe it's your grandmother's home cooked stew, or a dessert you used to love to bake at home, or a restaurant that has a particular meaning in your life. Just as babies and mothers experience with breastfeeding, we also create emotional connections with our food. The key is to understand and be aware of the intensity of the emotion and how it affects us. 


In fact, emotional eating lies on a continuum. It ranges from mild to severe. As I talk about this continuum today, I want you to think about your own relationship with food. Where do you lie and soon I'll give you the steps to work on it in your own life. 

 

THE EMOTIONAL EATING CONTINUUM


The mildest feeling of emotional eating is called sensory gratification. It just means that you enjoy food as pleasure. This is great! It's a completely normal part of life to experience pleasure in eating. Allowing yourself to eat and enjoy food often offsets the urge to overeat. 


Next, we eat for comfort. Maybe you crave soup on a cold day or a sno-cone on a hot one. Having these moments occasionally may not affect you much. It's normal to have a few comfort foods in your life. As long as you pay attention to your hunger, satiety, and don't feel feelings of guilt afterward. 


Third, we eat to distract. You may find yourself eating food to disctract from uncomfortable emotions. Although it is hard to experience and feel your emotions all day every day, it's important to remember that disctraction from our feelings can be a harmful coping mechanism when used too often. Finding a good balance in having occassional distraction (such as snacking on some chips when you're a little nervous for a meeting) and constantly distracting yourself from feeling and dealing with your emotions is important.


Fourth, we eat to sedate. This is a more serious form of emotional eating and is for the purpose of numbing or anesthetizing. Eating to sedate yourself keeps you from experiencing any feeling for long periods of time. It can be extremely dangerous and deprives you of enjoying experiences with food. You may sedate to deal with past or current stress or trauma. Although it can happen once in a blue moon, using food to sedate your emotions is not healthy and can lead to regularly turning to food to numb yourself. 


And lastly, the most severe form of emotional eating is eating for punishment. You punish yourself for whatever you did wrong by using food. This completely eliminates any joy or pleasure in eating and turns food into a punishment. At this point, most people hate food. 


So, now that you have a general overview of emotional eating, where do you generally lie on the continuum? Knowing that information can really help you in finding ways to work on emotional eating and get help if needed as well. 

 

WHAT ARE YOUR TRIGGERS?


The first thing I want to focus on when thinking about emotional eating in your own life is to look at your unique triggers. It's important to understand what triggers cause you to perform what behaviors. Let's talk about a few common triggers people experience when turning to food to deal with their emotions. 


These can include boredom or procrastination (I mean, obviously you need a little snack to help you get motivated, right?), bribery or reward, excitement, soothing, love, frustration anger or rage, stress and anxiety, being connected with other people, and even mild depression.

Phew - that's a lot of emotions to deal with! No wonder food seems to be the first resort. It could be exhausting to deal with that all day - and in any given day you may experience one or several of these emotions. 


So, how do we cope? How do we cope with these emotions without using food? 

Before I go on, I want to let you know that I have a 100% free more in-depth course that will help you identify and overcome emotional eating that provides you with more information and more practice than this video can. The course is a member favorite - so if you feel like you need a little more help with emotional eating, I'd definitely recommend checking out that course. 

 

3 STEPS TO COPING WITH EMOTIONAL EATING

There are 3 steps to coping with emotional eating. They are a series of simple questions to ask yourself when you are experiencing the desire to emotionally eat.

First, ask yourself if you are biologically hungry. If yes, then eat! If no then ask yourself the next question, "What am I feeling?" This is a huge one because you're learning to tap into the wants and needs of your body. What emotion are you experiencing? Are you angry, bored, tired, or anything else? Then, do something that can help with that emotion. For me, when I get tired, I tend to eat. I know that if I pay attention to my needs and go lie down for a few minutes (whether or not I actually sleep), the desire to eat usually diminishes. 


When you've figured out what you're feeling ask yourself "what do I need?" This is when you come up with a plan just like mine and taking a rest. What do you need to do to fulfill that emotion? Maybe it's a walk, a phone call with a friend, or simply to step away from the food. Figure out what you need and allow yourself to take care of that need. 


I know it sounds simple and it really is, but it will take some practice in first recognizing the emotional eating that is about to happen (rather than ignoring it) and then coming up with something to do about it. But, over time it will get easier and you will learn some great coping mechanisms that work just for you. 


If you need a few suggestions, here are some I personally use that help me: 

  • Take a minute to just rest and relax,
  • go for a walk,
  • play a game with your spouse, kids, or friends,
  • Get a massage (my personal favorite, but not something you can do allll the time),
  • writing in a journal (it might seem hard at first, but it really can be very therapeutic),
  • call a friend, breathe deep,
  • cry (yeah, sometimes we women just need a good cry don't you agree?),
  • read a book,
  • watch a movie,
  • organize something (my family really likes it when this is my coping mechanism),
  • listen to an audiobook or podcast,
  • do some work on the computer. And oh, there's so much more.

 

Write down a little list of things that will either help you nurture your emotion, deal with your emotion, or distract from the emotion. 


And before I go, I want you to know that emotional eating can be a great tool. It allows you to be more in tune with your body, to learn to give your body what it truly needs and to use the right kinds of methods to cope. Emotional eating can be a great red flag to tell you that things are out of balance with your life and to take a few steps to get that balance back. I'll leave you with this, emotional eating can be a wonderful gift that can benefit your life.