Although food serves a very important biological function, we not only turn to it to satisfy hunger, but often as a form of stress relief, comfort food, and as either a reward or compensation.
There is a viscous cycle between stress and emotional eating. Stress drives consumption of rich and fatty foods for a quick access to energy as well as to sweeten some hard and bitter times. However emotional eating does not fix the emotional problem and instead can add guilt, regret, and more stress back to the situation. Learning to recognize your emotional eating triggers is the first step to overcoming any compulsive eating habits and breaking free from your cravings.
Identifying Triggers of Emotional Eating:
- Sense of emptiness/ lack of fulfillment
- Childhood habit of being rewarded with food
- Reward for an accomplishment
- Uncontrolled stress
- Numbing uncomfortable emotions
- Social gathering
- Overabundance of available food
- Peer-pressure and others having seconds
Recognizing Emotional versus Physical Hunger:
Determining what form of hunger you are experiencing can be tricky, especially if you are the type of person to regularly use food to deal with your feelings. The following are clues you can use to distinguish the root of some of your eating habits:
Emotional vs. Physical Hunger
|Emotional hunger comes on suddenly||Physical hunger comes on gradually|
|Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly||Physical hunger can wait|
|Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods||Physical hunger is open to options–lots of things sound good|
|Emotional hunger isn’t satisfied with a full stomach||Physical hunger stops when you’re full|
|Emotional eating triggers feelings of guilt, powerlessness, and shame||Eating to satisfy physical hunger doesn’t make you feel bad about yourself|
Tips for Coping with Emotional Eating:
- Keep a food and mood diary. Every time you overindulge or feel compelled to reach for your comfort food, take a moment, backtrack and figure out what the triggering event or emotion is. Write down what you ate (or want to eat), what was the trigger, what emotion or sensation you felt before you ate, and how you felt afterwards. Overtime patterns will emerge to be weary of.
- Cravings: replace can’t with wait. When a craving hits, do not just tell yourself that you can’t succumb, as the forbidden is even more tempting, but rather tell yourself to wait. Take 5 minutes to reflect as described above. Even if you still go for the comfort food, this practice helps you build an understanding of your habits and sets you up for a better response next time.
- Acknowledge your emotions. Learn to accept the feelings that drive your emotional eating. Talk to a supportive friend or counselor, journal, exercise, do a fun activity, and learn to communicate and express your emotions. They are a normal and healthy part of life and if we have the capacity to create them, we also have the capacity to control and overcome them.
- Substitute. If you frequently crave snacks and foods even if you are not hungry, make sure you have healthier snacks available and at arm’s reach. If you crave sugar, calm your craving with sweeter fruit such as grapes, bananas, cherries or apples. If you crave salt, try rice crackers with hummus, celery or carrot sticks, or pick on a few olives.
- Bite, chew, savor. Mindfulness Based Eating techniques focus on the practice of savouring – slowly chewing and swallowing to truly taste food and be aware of the sensory experiences associated with every bite. Avoiding mindless eating while watching TV or at the work desk and instead focusing on each bite, allows for a much smaller quantity of food to satisfy the emotional hunger.