What You Need to Know About Emotional Eating

It is human nature to seek comfort when you are upset or stressed. One of the ways people may seek out comfort is by eating. In fact, it is normal to have specific comfort foods you turn to in times of trouble.

That is why the term “comfort food” is part of popular culture. The foods likely to comfort you depend on your tastes, but junk foods like ice cream or chocolate bars may be near the top of your list.

Eating comfort food when you are upset may not sound problematic. However, turning to food for comfort on a regular basis is not a good idea. Emotional eating is a common cause of weight gain. Constant emotional eating may also cause mental hardship.

You may feel guilty about your eating habits and become upset. In turn, being upset may cause you to eat more. To break the emotional eating cycle, you must understand why it happens. Below are some things you need to know about emotional eating and how to stop yourself from doing it.

Common Reasons for Emotional Eating

One of the most common reasons for emotional eating is mental distress. You may be aware of your distress and turn to food for comfort when you experience it. The food may act as a temporary way to suppress your feelings entirely. However, suppression makes the feelings worse over time. Common feelings you may have that can lead to emotional eating include:

  • Anger.
  • Sadness.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Fear or worry.
  • Stress.

You are also likely to be an emotional eater if you are overweight. You may already be self-conscious about being overweight. Therefore, when you turn to food in a moment of emotional weakness, it may cause guilt. Those feelings together can lead to binge eating.

Furthermore, turning to food for emotional comfort is a potentially addictive habit. As a result, you can become trapped in a cycle of excessive eating and guilt until you find a way to change the pattern.

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However, placing yourself on a strict diet when you are stressed can increase the chances that you eat emotionally. Dieting often leaves you much hungrier than you are used to.

When you try to cut back on calories or restrict the foods you are allowed, you may crave the foods banished from your diet.  If you find yourself facing stressful or emotionally difficult situations at such times, you may eat unhealthy foods in large quantities.

Why Emotional Eating Works Temporarily

There are several reasons why emotional eating may make you feel better temporarily. For example, a study conducted in 2015 indicates there is a correlation between emotional eating and altered responses to brain cues associated with food and eating.

Findings published in a 2017 Harvard Special Health Report support the conclusion. The Harvard report indicates eating foods with excessive fat and sugar triggers a reward response in your brain, making you feel temporarily better.

According to Harvard Medical School experts, emotional eating may also make you feel particularly good when you are under stress, not just angry or sad. Stress causes the release of multiple hormones in your body, including cortisol. Cortisol makes you hungry. Since eating certain foods while under stress can make you feel happier and make you crave food more, it can easily become habitual.

Some evidence also suggests specific foods can reduce stress responses in your body. Fatty and sugary foods appear to temporarily stop stress responses entirely, according to some experts.

If your stress levels decrease when you are eating, you may be encouraged to eat more and for longer periods of time. You may also find yourself binging when you are bored or not paying attention to your meal while you eat.

Identifying Your Personal Emotional Eating Triggers

The best way to prevent yourself from succumbing to emotional eating is to identify and avoid your personal triggers. One method for doing so is to stay cognizant of your emotional responses. Be aware of what you are eating and why you are eating it.

To assess your risk factors for emotional eating, you should keep a food diary. A food diary is a journal tracking all your meals. When keeping your food diary, you must write in it consistently to get a full picture of your eating patterns. Provide as many details as possible about your eating experiences. Your food diary should include:

  • What time of day you eat.
  • Types of foods you eat.
  • Calorie counts or portion sizes of foods you eat.
  • Reasons you eat.
  • Feelings you have while eating.

Consistently recording all data about your food consumption is essential. Focusing on your eating habits may reveal patterns that are not noticeable when you pay less attention. For example, you may find out you are more prone to emotional eating when you are bored. Alternatively, you may be more prone to eating excessively when people around you are also eating. Recognizing those triggers can help you avoid them.

Making Behavioral Changes to Reduce Emotional Eating

To stop emotional eating binges, it is necessary to alter your behaviors. Some of the necessary alterations are minor distractions. For example, when you notice yourself thinking of comfort foods, redirecting your focus for a few minutes may be enough to get rid of the urge to eat. You can redirect your thoughts with short-term activities like:

  • Calling a friend.
  • Exercising.
  • Listening to music.
  • Reading a book.
  • Doing household chores.

You can also make more long-term behavioral changes. For example, enrolling in a class gives you less free time. Therefore, you are likely to eat less. The same is true of taking up a new hobby or playing a sport. It is also important to change how and when you eat.

Eating alone may provide an opportunity for binge eating away from the judgment of others. You can avoid binging alone by asking a loved one to join you for meals. You can also lower the risk of weight gain and illness from emotional eating by substituting your favorite comfort foods with healthier snacks.

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