Understanding Emotional Eating

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Most people have eaten for emotional reasons at one time or another. It can be the go-to thought when there is stress. I remember many occasions at work when one person would say to colleagues, “I am stressed – who wants to get something with me (meaning something sweet)?” We were all stressed and didn’t know how to handle it except by eating.

Eating to manage emotions over a long period of time can end up having some negative consequences. One of the biggest problems with using food to manage emotions is it can lead to weight issues, and with the weight comes many more problems.

Eating for emotional reasons is used to quiet any of a number of emotions such as: sadness, anger, frustration, loneliness, or boredom to name a few. Emotional hunger is not the same as physical hunger (the true reason to eat) and you are looking for food to satisfy the emotional need. We know that ultimately food cannot satisfy an emotional need because it is meant to satisfy physical hunger.

The starting point for emotional eating is to know if you engage in it. Truthfully, many people are unaware that is what they are doing, thinking they are simply overeating. The foods chosen for emotional eating tend to be those that you would consider comfort foods: high in fat, salt, and sugar. Here are some signs of emotional eating:

  1. Eating when you are not hungry.
  2. Eating when you are experiencing feelings.
  3. Eating in isolation.
  4. Eating and feeling guilty afterward.
  5. Overeating and not knowing why.
  6. Eating to make yourself feel better.
  7. Craving a food for no apparent reason and thinking you cannot live without it.

Emotional eating can be reinforcing since it tastes good at first and there are all the positive thoughts about how much you want or need it. The positive feelings (relief, calm) from emotional eating will last for only a certain amount of time (one minute to hours) followed by a turning point where you find yourself experiencing the following situations:

  • Feeling guilty.
  • Feeling ashamed.
  • Feeling upset that you overate.
  • Feeling a resurgence of the original feeling that triggered the binge.
  • Feel upset that you have gained weight or that you might gain weight.

The ultimate end result is that emotional eating does not work to satisfy the emotion that sent you to the food in the beginning. Understanding this is the starting point to changing this behavior. Acknowledge it to yourself. Also give yourself praise that you are now “getting it.” You might feel the need to beat yourself up for doing this for so long. However, this thought process will not serve you in any positive way, but rather send you back to overeating for being mad at yourself for overeating (a circular process). The starting spot is acknowledgment and then self-compassion. Know you have done the best you can and now is the time to seek out strategies for making a change. Some good strategies are: reading self-help books, seeing a professional who specializes in ending emotional eating, or attending 12 step groups. The main objective is doing something now to begin altering this pattern. I know you can do it.