Overcoming Emotional Eating

How many of us feed not only our bodies, but our emotions as well? The following guest post from Dr. Renee Allen offers practical solutions for this very common struggle most ladies are dealing with.

Emotional eating vs. physical hunger:

Have you ever found yourself reaching for the bag of greasy potato chips, box of donuts or that pint of ice cream after a very stressful day at work, school or with your family?

Emotional eating or stress eating is using food to make yourself feel better—eating to fill immediate or chronic emotional needs, rather than to fill your stomach. It is eating, urgently and instantly, as a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness. It has a numbing, softening effect on our unwanted feelings, and takes our attention away from them momentarily. 

Physical hunger is eating in response to a physiological need to eat for energy to fuel your body to make it through the day. Your body will give you gradual cues that it needs to refuel (stomach grumbling, headache, feeling weak or tired). 

When you are physically hungry, almost any food sounds good—including healthy stuff like vegetables. Very rarely, however, do you make healthy choices with emotional hunger; instead, emotional eaters tend to crave high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods that provide an instant rush, but have minimal nutritional value.

Emotional hunger can be very powerful, so it’s easy to mistake it for physical hunger. It can become a coping mechanism and as such, a never-ending cycle that never fulfills or satisfies over the long-term. Eating may feel good in the immediate moment, but the feelings that are triggered by it still remain. Often, you will feel worse than you did before because of the unnecessary calories consumed. When left untreated, emotional eating can lead to chronic overeating and eventually can cause obesity. In some cases, it can even lead to food addiction

The physiological basis for emotional eating:

It is thought that the increase in the hormone cortisol, that is one of the body’s many responses to stress, is similar to the medication prednisone in its effects. Both tend to trigger the body’s stress (fight or flight) response, including increased heart and breathing rate, blood flow to muscles, and visual acuity. Another part of the body’s stress response often includes increased appetite to supply the body with the fuel. 

People who have been subjected to chronic rather than momentary stress (like job stress, family stress or abuse) are at risk for having chronically high levels of cortisol circulating in their bodies, which may contribute to developing chronic emotional-eating patterns. 

Identify your triggers and hotspots:

You need to identify what feelings, places or situations push you to an emotional state of needing food to calm down or feel better.  What are your comfort foods? It should be noted that not all emotional eating is linked to negative emotions. Some women also will emotionally eat to express positive feelings like happiness, love or pride.
Some common triggers are:

    • Stress/Anger
    • Childhood habit
    • Boredom
    • Feelings of worthlessness
    • Social Influences or Peer pressure
    • Relationship Conflicts
    • Loneliness
    • Health Problems

Whatever your personal identified triggers are, the unhealthy cycle remains the same.

Release the emotions:

The key to ending this pattern is to not abandon yourself when your emotions go awry, but instead to invite them in, center and allow yourself to feel them. Substitute the negatives emotional drivers for positive alternative behaviors.

Identify and name the emotion (anger, sadness, guilt). Recognize that these emotions are valid and have a right to be expressed—in a healthy manner. These negative emotions are just as important as your positive emotions for laying of the foundation for your overall psychological health and well-being. Accept the negative emotion and try to figure out what these emotions wants from you. Find other ways to fulfill yourself emotionally, aside from eating. Center yourself by mediating and focusing on only the raw emotion, identifying what led to it, what actions/consequence can dissipate it. Mediation and other relaxation techniques are powerful tools in this regard. Beyond diet, they can help by decreasing high blood pressure and heart rate.

Substitute the behaviors:

Through listening to your emotions, you’ll discover what it is you truly want, and can create new strategies for deeper satisfaction. It’s not enough to simply understand the cycle of emotional eating, or even to understand your triggers, although that’s a huge first step. You need alternatives to food that you can turn to for emotional fulfillment. If you’re depressed or lonely, call someone you love or play with your beloved dog or cat. If you’re bored, read a good book or explore the outdoors. Take relaxing bubble baths, get massages, smell the flowers on long lazy walks, exercise regularly and do exciting things. Give your body other ways to experience feeling good, aside from eating. 

Eat Well, Live Well:

Make it a priority to eat the highest quality and most delicious foods. Sit down and savor every bite. Don’t eat empty calories, don’t eat while driving, don’t eat “diet” food you dislike. Recognize the sensation of satiation (feeling full) and learn when to stop. When you allow yourself to enjoy and experience food in a healthy way, rather than denying/restricting, the pressure to over consume eases up.

Seek The Support You Need:

If you’re having trouble with overeating, first know that you’re not alone. Many people deal with the same problem every day and there is no shame in seeking out help. Your toolbox to overcome emotional eating could include:

  • Talking to a friend or family
  • Finding an online community and/or forum
  • Journaling/blogging your feelings at the moment
  • Joining a supportive exercise class or club like Yoga
  • Joining a group or meet up such as Overeaters Anonymous
  • Mental-health professionals/therapy 

Though it often feels like the temptation will never stop, emotional eating can be treated, safely and effectively, by recognizing the symptoms, admitting you have a problem, and finding healthy ways to treat it.

About the Author:

Dr. Renee Allen is a physician, physician trainer and consultant. She received her medical degree from Michigan State University  and currently practices in Atlanta, Georgia. She has a special interest in international health and completed her first international medical mission to Jamaica in October 2012. Dr Allen has served as a member of the Global Faculty of Footprints, a  Foundation whose local and global mission is to reduce maternal and infant mortality and morbidity.

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