3 Tips to Overcome Emotional Eating
Do you ever find yourself eating when you’re not hungry? Maybe you’ve had a stressful day, and can’t seem to keep away from the chocolate… or perhaps you find yourself with a snack in your hand, and no idea how it got there! In either case, you may end the day feeling uncomfortable, bloated or sluggish… or just not as good as you were made to feel!
If this sounds like you – you’re not alone. As humans, emotional eating is something that most of us will come up against at some point. We can learn all the latest health info, exactly what to eat and how much to eat… but without addressing our underlying food habits we may not see the results we’re after.
Are You an Emotional Eater?
Often when it comes to emotional eating, our first thought is of someone sobbing into a bucket of ice-cream, post breakup. While this definitely would be considered emotional eating – this is certainly not the only way emotional eating may look… and it need not be so dramatic!
Essentially, emotional eating is when we eat to avoid or “buffer” against any uncomfortable emotion that we don’t wish to feel. Rather than using food to fuel and nourish our bodies, we eat against our true hunger cues when we’re not hungry (or even when we’re full!). This serves as a distraction from our emotional lives. In the example above, the emotion we are trying to escape is sadness, but this could be replaced with any negative or uncomfortable emotion – be that anger, boredom, anxiety, restlessness or frustration.
To really illustrate this point, here are some examples of what emotional eating might look like…
You’re working on a project and you feel restless or bored, so instead you procrastinate by finding a snack.
You have to make an important phone call. You feel stressed and anxious, so you start reaching for a sugary snack instead.
You’re at a party where you don’t know anyone and you feel tense, so you eat instead.
In each of these instances, this may be a conscious or unconscious habit. In other words, you may find yourself with food in your hand… and you can barely remember how it got there! To be clear – when we speak of emotional eating, we are not referring to binge eating disorder or another disorder of that degree.
You can also see that emotional eating need not be dramatic – in fact, I’d bet most of us can relate to eating as an emotional buffer against boredom!
The Problem With Emotional Eating…
The problem with emotional eating is that food is very rarely the solution to how we are feeling. By using food as an emotional buffer, we not only continue to feel the discomfort of the emotion we were trying to escape… but we now ALSO have the discomfort of having over-eaten.
In our bodies, we can feel bloated, uncomfortable or sluggish (keeping in mind that constant grazing isn’t great for our digestion).
In our mind, we can start feeling out of control, frustrated or straight-up insane around food.
But here’s the thing – we are human. Our lives do not exist in a vacuum, and we will inevitably experience emotional ups and downs. It’s part of the deal. Rather than getting down on ourselves, we must instead learn how to lean into discomfort and manage our emotions in more appropriate ways.
Related: 6 Root Causes of Food Cravings
Keep in mind that this is all a continuous, ongoing practice. If you struggle with emotional eating, these 3 tips can really help to identify + address the underlying emotional triggers, and to heal your relationship with food:
#1 – Become Aware of Your Thoughts
Changing any habit always begins by becoming mindful and aware of our thoughts. When you begin to understand how our thoughts influence our feelings, actions and behaviour, you can see that our thoughts shape EVERY result that we see in our lives.
So next time you catch yourself eating when your not hungry, I would invite to gently step back and take note of what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling in your body. Do you feel tense? Stressed? Bored? Restless? What was the exact thought preceding your urge to eat? Are you actually hungry?
This sounds simple, but so often emotional eating can become an unconscious, automatic habit that we barely notice. Being able to pinpoint the specific thoughts and feelings that trigger emotional eating can help us find the root cause of the habit. To do this, you may like to keep a food journal with space to note down your thoughts and feelings when you eat.
#2 – Lean In to the Discomfort + Start Managing Your Mind
If we understand emotional eating as a way that we buffer against uncomfortable emotions, then we need to learn how to be present with an emotion without trying to resist or avoid it. Rather than fighting against what we are feeling, we simply allow it to be.
This could be likened to what we practice during meditation. Rather than feeling pulled towards or reacting to our thoughts, we step back and watch them run their course. This helps us to create some space between ourself and the thought or emotion.
Then, get curious. Take some time to explore the feeling deeper – one way to do so is again with journaling. Actually experiencing our emotions (rather than trying to buffer against them) can tell us SO much about ourselves and what we truly desire. What are your actual thoughts and feelings saying? What lessons can you learn about yourself? Keep in mind that being in this place will feel uncomfortable – however, learning how to lean into this discomfort is necessary for us to start living our lives more authentically.
From this place, we can start making decisions and developing coping mechanisms that are based on our higher reasoning that truly address the root cause.
For example, after becoming more mindful of your thoughts, you may find that you use food as an emotional buffer against boredom or restlessness when you are working on a project or studying. By exploring this feeling, you could potentially discover a few things. Perhaps you do not enjoy your degree or job, and would really like to pursue something else. Or perhaps your body is just restless and you need to take a break and go for a walk!
#3 – Reconnect With Your Hunger Scale + Practice Mindful Eating
When we engage in emotional eating, we tend to become disconnected with our body’s true hunger signals. Instead, we eat when we are not hungry, or even when we’re full!
One way that we can repair our relationship with food and start eating intuitively is by gauging our hunger on a scale of 1 – 10. When doing this, it is also important that we are fuelling our bodies with healthy, whole foods that ensure we are receiving the correct hunger signals. Processed foods that are devoid of fibre, water and nutrition (and are high in refined sugars + low in healthy fat) can essentially trick our body into feeling hungry more often and cause us to overeat. We advocate an ancestral approach to diet that emphasises whole, nutrient-dense foods that help us to naturally regulate our hunger.
So the next time that you feel an urge to eat, ask yourself where your hunger is on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being you’re completely stuffed and 10 being you’re starving. If you find that your hunger is around a 7 or 8 – your body probably wants fuel! If not, you may be responding to an emotional trigger. Doing this exercise even for a few days can tell you SO much about your eating habits and can help you to reconnect with our body.
Practicing mindful eating is another fantastic way to start developing a more positive relationship with food. Often, when we engage in emotional eating we are barely tasting our food… and sometimes don’t even realise we’re eating! So, the next time you sit down for your meal take the time to fully experience what you’re eating. What does it taste like? Look like? Smell like? What’s the texture? By simply slowing down and becoming mindful of each bite, you’ll be surprised at how much more you appreciate and enjoy your food!