Understanding Emotional Eating

You probably have come across this term by now, Emotional Eating. And if you haven not, you probably have eaten “emotionally” at some point (like most of us, humble human beings).

Who can blame us? Food is great! It is comforting, satisfying, rewarding, it fills our bellies, reminds us of good times and memories… In short, it is pretty easy for food to make us happy, that’s why it is also very easy to rely on it when our feelings lean a bit towards extremes of both, positive and negative emotions.

That is right, positive emotions also trigger our Emotional Eating, despite it being widely associated with negative ones. Think about the treat (or treats, in plural!) you had while on holiday, or when you celebrated a happy event, that is also Emotional Eating! It is pretty much when we say to ourselves…. “F**k it, I’m going to have XYZ (insert food of your preference here), I don’t care, the situation deserves it!“. And the reality is that we can say this for both, good and bad reasons.

Most common emotions triggering Emotional Eating

As mentioned, both positive and negative emotions can tempt us to eat “emotionally”, however, when this is discussed in the media, the negative emotions are the ones we focus on the most. This is usually because we can feel a certain level of negativity quite frequently (stress, anger, frustration…), whereas when we feel positive, we are more likely to have our heads “in the right place”, be in harmony and well-balanced. However, that doesn’t exclude the “celebratory treats”, which are also Emotional Eating, but they just happen less frequently, that is all.

  • Negative emotions – Stress, sadness, overwhelm, boredom, frustration, loneliness, anger… These are some of the most common feelings that trigger our Emotional Eating. When we feel bad, we go to food in order to cheer up. The reason makes sense and, worse, it often works. The big problem with this is that we can become “addicted” to certain foods and acquire habits that will be detrimental to our health in the long run, not to mention to our waistline too!
  • Positive emotions – Happy, celebrating, holidaying, satisfied, relieved, relaxed… In contrast, here are some of the “good” emotions that can also trigger us to eat more, or choose foods that we would not normally eat. It is not unusual to indulge ourselves as a way of celebrating, yet some personalities tend to more hedonistic than others. So, here is something else to watch out for!
Photo by Andres Ayrton on Pexels.com

How to prevent Emotional Eating

Now, let’s tackle the key question – how to avoid (or minimise) Emotional Eating? The first and most important step is to observe ourselves and start becoming aware of which hunger is real and which hunger is rather “emotional”. Then, there are other things we can do to avoid or, at least reduce, Emotional Eating.

  • Alternatives to deal with our emotions – This is the most popular recommendation, try to replace food with healthier alternatives in order to deal with our feelings. Mediation, journaling, talking to friends are some of the most recommended tips when it comes to offload our emotions and feel better without overeating. This is particularly helpful to help with feelings such as stress, anger or sadness.
  • Make sure we are not (physically) hungry – A good way to distinguish emotional eating from normal hunger is to check in with ourselves and find out how hungry we really are. More often than not, Emotional Eating happens when we are not physically hunger, but we feel peckish at certain foods. Next time you feel like eating ask yourself, “How hungry am I on a scale of 1 to 10?”
  • Rely on low-calorie liquids – If you are going through some emotions and feel the need to rely on food to feel better, try to rely on liquids and drinks instead (not talking about alcohol here). It is better to “treat” ourselves with a drink of our like, without all the extra calories that food brings us – especially when using food/drinks for comfort.
  • Be aware of distractions – This not only applies to Emotional Eating, but to eating in general: make sure you are paying attention to your food and avoid silly distractions such as TV, smartphones, etc. These will only make you eat more by keeping your brain busy and therefore delaying the sensation of fullness (hence eating more). Since Emotional Eating is usually linked to “bad” foods, such as sugary, fatty, or processed treats, the lower the ingestion, the better – so minimise distraccions.
  • Food quantity matters – Even if you succumb to some cravings, be aware of it, conscious about what you are doing and at least keep an eye on food volume. Remember, the more food ingested, the more calories, and many of these might be unnecessary if they are related to Emotional Eating.
  • Keep track of cravings, timings and feelings – Finally, it is advisable to keep a diary (it can be a mental diary) about the types of foods, emotions and/or times of our cravings (i.e.. do I crave fatty foods when I’m stressed after work?). Self-awareness is key in order to understand ourselves better, and see what we need at different times. The more we know what makes us click and why, the better the can prepare introducing healthier alternatives.

Am I an Emotional Eater?

To wrap up, if some of the points above have resonated with you and you wonder how much of an emotional eater you are, here are some questions to get you thinking:

  • Do you tend to eat more when you’re feeling extreme emotions?
  • Do you find yourself eating even if you’re not hungry or when you’re full?
  • Do you eat to feel better, safer or less frustrated?
  • Do you regularly reward yourself with food?
  • Do you feel out of control around food?

Reading this list of questions looks like, in a way, the antidote to Emotional Eating is Intuitive Eating. A very interesting concept worth exploring in future posts. Until then… enjoy your “treats”, but don’t abuse! 😉


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