I hope you're well. Today we're talking about something that many of us often overlook - comfort eating! Whether it's stress eating, eating because you're bored, lonely or feeling depressed about how your body looks, emotional eating is something that you need to work through. We'll talk about practical ways to start depending less on food and more on healthy emotional coping mechanisms in this post.
What is emotional eating?
According to Susan Alders, a psychologist writing for Cleveland clinic, emotional eating is "eating to escape, numb, change, or amplify our feelings...Research shows that about 75% of all of our eating is emotionally driven...we eat not because we’re hungry, but because we’re bored, stressed or anxious.” By this definition, we learn that emotional eating is a coping mechanism to manage challenging emotions but that we can also eat in response to happy feelings, such as to reward ourselves for achieving something significant, or when celebrating special occasions with loved ones.
While it’s totally okay to cope with food from time to time, it’s important not to become dependent on food as your primary emotional coping mechanism. Besides the physical health complications that this can cause, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and fatigue, emotional eating also hinders us from developing into emotionally healthy people. Think about it - if you resort to eating a piece of chocolate every time you get stressed, let’s say by a hectic work deadline or an argument with your significant other, how will you gain the stress management and healthy conflict resolution skills we all need in this life? Additionally, occasional, or moderate, emotional eating can snowball into a more severe form of disordered eating, such as binge eating disorder. In my Food & Body Freedom Forever coaching program workbooks, I go into more detail about what emotional eating is and how it differs from binge eating disorder. Make sure to get your free copy here.
Why it's hard to acknowledge that you are an emotional eater?
Emotional eating, or comfort eating, is normalised in our society. Think about how many times you’ve watched the movie scene of the broken-hearted girl who’s just been broken up with cushioned between her two best friends, going through a whole tub of ice cream as she cries. Moms and grannies love to make their young ones feel good with aalll of the food - at least that was my experience growing up! In all cultures, people gather around food to celebrate and mourn. This way of engaging with food can also spill over into our personal relationships with food without us realising it. Therefore it can be hard to realise that we have a tendency to self-soothe with food. I have a great free resource which can help you become more aware of whether or not you tend to respond to emotions with food. You can grab your free copy here.
What you can do about emotional eating
After you’ve created awareness of how your emotions affect your eating habits, the next step is to take practical action. Here are four tips that you can start putting into action today:
Differentiate between physical and emotional hunger: before you reach for your next packet of chips or piece of chocolate, stop to ask yourself what type of hunger you are experiencing. Do you want to eat something because of an overwhelming sense that you need to relieve a particular emotion (emotional hunger) or do you feel a physical sensation in your stomach, or another physical hunger cue that lets you know that your body needs energy (physical hunger)?
Name your emotion: when you realise that it’s emotional hunger that you’re experiencing, pause to gain clarity on the feeling you’re experiencing. The more you do this, the more you will become aware of your emotional eating triggers. With time, you will become more comfortable with these feelings and you will learn ways to cope with them in other ways.
Take time to experience the feeling: when we rush to food to soothe our emotions, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to develop emotional resilience (in other words, the ability to get through the difficult emotional waves). You are stronger than you think and using tools like journaling can help you channel your ability to sit with challenging feelings until they pass. Sometimes it can be really difficult to go through this process by yourself, in which case I highly recommend working with a mental health professional or coach.
Find a healthier coping mechanism: while you're just starting to heal from emotional eating, you will need an alternative to eating in response to an emotional trigger. Ideally, this should be something that makes you feel more centred and that's very easy to do. For example, you could take a quick break to go experience fresh air, sit in the sun, or watch a short uplifting video.
If I continue, this post will be super long, so I’m going to leave it here. If you want more detailed steps and reflection prompts on healing emotional eating, please download the free Healing Emotional Eating workbook (part of the Food & Body Freedom coaching program workbooks) and the Emotional Eating Journal. These are both free and I promise they will significantly help you.
Please share any questions you’d like me to answer in a blog post in the comments below. This space is for you so take advantage of it! Let me know how my posts are helping you as this is a huge encouragement to me to keep on creating this content!
Cleveland Clinic. 2021. Emotional Eating: What It Is and Tips to Manage It. [online] Available at: <https://health.clevelandclinic.org/emotional-eating/> [Accessed 28 April 2022].
LiveWell Dorset. n.d. The Effects of Emotional Eating. [online] Available at: <https://www.livewelldorset.co.uk/articles/the-effects-of-emotional-eating/> [Accessed 28 April 2022].