Is the uncertainty surrounding the “new norm” causing you to feel stressed? ls social distancing making you feel isolated? Bored? Hungry? For many of us, eating is not always a response to physical hunger. Instead, we often turn to food for comfort, and impulsively reach for junk food, sweets, and other unhealthy foods. Emotional eating is triggered by our feelings, and it usually makes us feel much worse after the initial surge of pleasure passes. Not only does the original emotional issue remain, but it’s amplified by feeling guilty for overeating.
Emotional eating can take the form of overeating, eating more frequently than usual, or craving specific comfort or junk foods. It’s normal to eat emotionally when we are partaking in a celebration – hello, birthday cake with buttercream frosting! Certain foods spark a warm and desired feeling of happiness, reward, and nostalgia, but there are other common moods that often trigger emotional eating: stress, anxiety, depression, and boredom. The urge to eat unhealthy foods is most prominent when we’re most emotionally vulnerable, and it can be a way to distract ourselves from the feelings and emotions that we don’t want to address. It can easily become a soothing habit – we start to eat on autopilot.
The urge to eat, snack, or reach for comfort foods can strike so quickly, we might easily mistake it for physical hunger. How do we know if our hunger is real and something we should act upon? Here are a few things to consider:
Emotional hunger usually comes on suddenly, whereas there is typically a slow-build to physical hunger. The next time you suddenly find yourself craving food, check in: When was the last time you ate? Was it one hour or several hours ago? Spacing between meals will vary depending on the person, but if you ate a healthy, balanced meal an hour ago and are feeling hungry again, it may be emotionally driven.
Satiation is short-lived with emotional hunger. This makes sense because when we emotionally eat, we’re not actually addressing what we’re really hungry for….is it anxiety? What’s making you anxious and how can you calm yourself (without food)? Boredom? Are there other activities that can fill your time? Think about the things that are nourishing spiritually and emotionally: a hobby, being active, a prayer or meditation routine, and deepening personal relationships. The key to satisfying emotional hunger is to identify the underlying negative emotions you’re feeling.
Here are some tips to help stave off cravings when negative emotions threaten to trigger emotional eating:
1. Be Aware. Just like any habit you want to break, awareness is the first step in identifying whether or not you are struggling with emotional eating. Keep a journal to track whenever you feel hungry. Note the time of day, the activity you’re doing (or not doing), and how you’re feeling (a smile or frown face will do). Also, notice where in your body you feel the hunger. Try keeping track for a few days and see if you notice any patterns.
2. Have a hunger reality check. Give the craving time to pass. When hunger strikes suddenly, take a quick inventory and respond honestly. Where do you feel the hunger? Is it in your stomach? Chest? Or is the idea of food appealing? Are you craving something salty or sweet? When was your last meal? When was your last glass of water? When you have a craving, can you pause long enough to imagine eating the food and truly feeling better after you eat it? There are no “right” answers. Just get in the habit of checking in with yourself and note your responses.
3. Fight boredom. Instead of snacking when you’re not hungry, distract yourself and substitute a healthier behavior. Take a walk, watch a movie, play with your cat, listen to music, read, surf the internet or call a friend.
4. Be mindful of triggers. Slowing down when we eat is crucial for distinguishing between feeling comfortably satiated versus uncomfortably stuffed. Whenever you’re eating, be sure to sit at a table. Try not to eat at your desk or in front of the TV. If you’re always eating or snacking while watching television, mindlessly grabbing food before you sit down to tune in becomes a habit. If you’re going to have an evening snack, have it at the table so you can disassociate eating with the couch. If you tend to snack or drink soda in your car, only doing this at a table will mitigate the Pavlov’s-dog-response, i.e. getting in the car and craving soda.
5. Select healthy snacks. If you feel the urge to eat between meals, choose a healthy snack. Fresh fruit, nuts, string cheese or veggies with hummus are excellent choices.
6. Take away temptation. Don’t keep hard-to-resist comfort foods in your home. Also, never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach, or when you’re in an emotionally fragile state – sad, angry, depressed. Delay shopping until you have your emotions in check. Our environment can also play a big role in our eating habits; even subtle things like food advertisements and the size of the dishes we use can subconsciously impact our cravings.
7. Stay hydrated! Did you know that dehydration can feel like hunger? When you feel the urge to snack, it could actually be your body telling you that it’s thirsty, not hungry. Try drinking a full glass of water before reaching for food. Feel free to add lemon or cucumber for flavor.
8. Make sure you get appropriate amounts of sleep. Exhaustion, or even being more tired than normal, can impact what you crave. Adequate rest sets you up for success by ensuring that you’re energized, and you’ll be much more likely to reach for healthy foods (versus giving into a sugar craving, which often accompanies fatigue).
9. Feel your feelings. Because emotional eating is driven by our feelings, we will have a much better handle on it if we address the underlying cause. No one wants to experience unpleasant emotions. However, it’s reassuring to remember that no feeling is harmful or permanent. Feelings come and go. Accept all feelings and sit with them – the good and the bad. The more we can sit with our feelings, acknowledge them, and label them, the less they will dictate our eating behaviors.
10. Call your health coach! We all need support while working to break our emotional eating habits. Your EMP Health Coach is there to support and guide you through the process. Your coach will help you set realistic health-related goals that matter to you, and provide accountability as well as a safe space for you to explore the deeper issues that may be causing you to feel stuck. Leaning on your coach can make a huge difference in helping you change unwanted behaviors and patterns and achieve a sustainable, healthy lifestyle. *
Remember, be good to yourself. We all emotionally eat. Forgive yourself; it’s normal to experience setbacks. Breaking the pattern of emotional eating is a process. You didn’t create the habit overnight, and temptation is everywhere — you won’t change your habits in one day, and building resilience is like building muscle. Approach your efforts with compassion and nonjudgmental curiosity. When you identify a pattern, don’t force or shame yourself into changing. Simply take note and remember: small steps will lead to big shifts in behavior that last a lifetime.
*EMP180 Coaches are not licensed psychologists, psychiatrists, or therapists. Mental health – and taking care of it – is as important as physical health, and the two are intertwined. We encourage clients to seek professional help and resources if emotional eating behaviors become more extreme or difficult to control.
Not sure where to start?
Come into EMP180 to begin your weight loss journey. In addition to planning meals and snacks, we can help you explore the reasons behind over-eating and teach you how to manage difficult social occasions. Let’s work on establishing healthy habits that work for you and your lifestyle!
At EMP 180° we offer a personalized approach to nutrition and weight loss. We support you throughout your weight loss journey, giving you the tools to lose the weight and EMPowering you to keep it off—forever.