You’re stressed, sad, upset, or just in a crummy mood. How do you respond? If your first instinct – consciously or unconsciously – is to reach for food, then you are likely eating for comfort. This is known as emotional eating.
Emotional eating is actually a very common coping strategy for stress. Some emotional eaters are aware that they do this, but most really aren’t. Food actually can make you feel better, and your brain is smart enough to make the connection that if you eat something you’ll feel better. For those struggling to lose weight, an emotional eating is one of the fastest ways to sabotage your diet plan.
Depending on the type of food consumed, eating releases the feel-good hormones: endorphin and dopamine. The usual offenders include any form of refined carbohydrate, spicy foods, and sweet drinks (including soda and alcoholic beverages).
“The human brain is easily tricked by pleasure foods as they confuse the brain’s regulating systems. In North America, it seems we get the most pleasure from refined carbohydrates, vegetable oil, and diet pop to name a few. Refined carbs – empty-calorie foods – may make us feel good, but because the brain seeks micronutrients and empty-calorie foods like white bread, pasta, cake and cookies don’t provide these micronutrients, the “eat more” signal typically stays on. It also turns out that vegetable oils – found in most snack food – may be making us stoned! Vegetable oil promotes snacking because new research suggests that it plays on endocannibinoid receptors much the same way that marijuana causes the ‘munchies.'” – DoctorOz.com
The good news is that emotional eating can be controlled.
First: How do you know if you’re actually hungry?
It is possible that you are genuinely hungry, even if you have a tendency to be an emotional eater. Ever gone into your pantry out of boredom, just to discover that nothing actually looks good? Give yourself a simple test: Are you hungry enough right now that you would eat raw broccoli? If you’re not physically hungry enough to chow down on a plate of greens, then you’re emotional eating. If that sounds good, then eat!
What this test can help you reveal is whether you want to eat food in general or if you are being guided by cravings for a specific food that will serve as medicine for your emotions, feelings or emptiness.
What should I do now that I know I’m not physically hungry?
Be mindful: How do you feel right now? Are you stressed? Bored? Sad? Are you in pain? Depressed? Anxious? Tired? Are you eating because you’re unhappy with how you look or because you feel alone? The triggers for emotional eating can be as varied as the people who do it.
The trick is to learn to recognize your triggers. Keep a food diary to help you recognize patterns. Write down what you ate, when you ate, and how you felt at that time. Turn this new knowledge into action and channel your energy elsewhere. Here are some good options:
If you’re looking for endorphins, exercise is an infinitely better way to get them. Endorphins act on the same opioid receptors as sex, food, and narcotic painkillers. Some athletes refer to the post-workout feel-good as a “runner’s high”. If you don’t have a lot of time, do a few push-ups or find some stairs to go up and down a few times. If those aren’t options, go for a short walk.
If you know that you’re going to find yourself in a triggering situation, make arrangements to exercise beforehand or right after. Already engaged in stress eating, burn off some of those calories with exercise. Better yet, make exercise a habit and benefit your emotional and physical health at the same time.
Play a game
If you’re in need of a distraction, find one that won’t add unnecessary calories to your diet. Playing cards, playing Candy Crush on your phone, playing fetch with your dog… Find something you enjoy! Just be careful not to replace one addictive behavior with another.
Do some housework
Cleaning your living area is a great way to channel your energy into something productive. It may be that you’re overwhelmed by housework (maybe it’s your trigger?), but you have to start somewhere. Instead of dirtying some dishes, reorganize your living space one area at a time. Let go of any items that you’ve been meaning to get rid off. Let the cleaning and reorganizing of your home be symbolic of the physical transformation you are engaged in. Most people feel more at ease when there’s less clutter and messiness anyway.
Talk to someone or use a journal
Some emotional eating triggers can’t be fixed with a simple distraction or exercise – and that’s ok! You may just need to talk to a friend, or you might need to see a counselor or therapist. Don’t feel bad about taking advantage of either option.
Should you find yourself not wanting or able to talk, consider journaling. The mental and physical health benefits of regular journaling are well-documented, even in clinical studies. You’ll get to know yourself better and be able to process your thoughts and feelings more effectively.
Lastly, remember that YOU have control of your actions and your body. Emotional eating doesn’t have to control either one if you don’t want it to.