A chance ménage a trios with Ben & Jerry after a particularly stressful day at work isn’t anything to panic over. But how do you stop the occasional pick-me-up treat from turning into a regular emotional eating habit that stands in the way of weight loss success? And if you find yourself already trapped in a destructive emotional eating cycle, how do you break free of it to start achieving the pure weight loss you are actually hungering for?
When you feel like you’re about to stuff your face with an emotional feast of empty calories that you know you don’t really need, first pause, take a slow, deep breath, and ask yourself these four questions:
1. Are you eating to fill your stomach or your emotional needs?
Emotional eating is when you use food to make yourself feel better, to help you deal with negative (and sometimes even positive) emotions or problems in your life. Breaking out of an emotional eating pattern has to start by recognizing that you are stuck in one to begin with – often, this is easier said than done. That’s because, once you start regularly using food as a coping mechanism, it can become difficult to differentiate when you are eating because of a physical need and when you are eating for an emotional one.
The first step of breaking an emotional eating habit is recognizing the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger, and learning how to identify which one you are experiencing in a given situation. Emotional eating specialist, Dr. Robert Gould, M.D., outlines a number of cues you can use to help you figure out whether you’re eating to satisfy emotional needs rather than physical ones. Did your hunger come on suddenly and urgently? Does the hunger feel overwhelming? Can the hunger only be satisfied with particular foods? Does the craving feel like an obsession you can’t get out of your head until you’ve given in to it? Do you keep wanting more, no matter how much you eat? Do you find that you’ve finished the whole container without even realizing it? Have you eaten until you are uncomfortably stuffed? Do you feel guilt, shame and regret after you’ve eaten? If you answered yes to any of these, than you’ve likely just eaten to try and satisfy emotional needs rather than your stomach.
And since emotional hunger can never actually be satisfied with food, you’re not only left with the same emotional problems that led you to eat in the first place, but you’ve just consumed an excess of unhealthy calories that will keep getting in the way of achieving your weight loss goals.
2. Which emotions are making you hungry?
Once you’ve determined that you are experiencing emotional hunger rather than physical hunger, it’s important to determine which emotion or situation is triggering that hunger. Typical triggers include stress, boredom, loneliness, anger, sadness, emptiness, nostalgia, fear, shame, low self-esteem, anxiety and pressure.
On a physical level, these kinds of stressors cause an abundant amount of cortisol, a stress hormone, to be released in the body, triggering cravings for sweet, salty and fatty foods to provide feelings of relief through a burst of pleasure and energy. On an emotional level, we often want to soothe, escape or numb these kinds of difficult feelings, and so we seek to achieve this through the mechanical action of eating.
In order to figure out what triggered your desire to emotionally eat, Dr. Gould recommends keeping a Food-Mood Diary. Once you’ve identified your urge to emotionally eat in step 1, reach for your food-mood log and record it. Include the day and time, which food you are craving, what happened prior to the craving that may have upset you (this could be an event, a critical remark that was made at you, a thought you had, a memory, etc.), and how you felt before, during, and after you ate (or wanted to eat). Soon, you’ll start to see a pattern amongst the emotional eating episodes that will help you uncover which emotions or situations routinely trigger this destructive behaviour. Sometimes, simply writing one or two logs down already makes the triggers quite obvious. This is an important step to start paving the way towards removing these triggers from your life.
While it may seem, in the moment, that eating will help you chase away the negative emotions and provide a sense of comfort, it never truly works. And using an ineffective solution to a problem not only leaves you with the same problem you started with, but it also piles on additional feelings of guilt and regret. The build-up of more negative emotions leads to more emotional eating, and this vicious cycle can be a difficult one to escape from.
Once you’ve acknowledged the feelings or situations that are getting you down, it’s crucial to come up with ways to soothe them with methods that don’t involve food. Stress can often be calmed with a few minutes of slow, deep breathing with your eyes closed. You can also try going for a walk outside, doing a meditation exercise, listening to music, sipping tea, singing, inhaling the aroma of scented candles or incense, massage, reiki, or escaping for some exercise. Boredom or the need to occupy your hands can be alleviated with mechanically repetitive activities other than eating, such as painting your nails, knitting, pressing on a squishy stress ball, brushing your teeth, rubbing in hand cream, stretching and twisting a rubber band, playing an instrument, braiding your hair, pacing back and forth, running on a treadmill or going outside for a refreshing run. Loneliness can be alleviated by picking up the phone and calling a friend, going out to a (non-food related) place that’s usually busy with people (like the gym), or spending quality time with your pet.
At the back of your food-mood diary, make a list of different strategies that help you feel better after experiencing your trigger emotion. Then, when you’re in the midst of experiencing emotional hunger and recording the episode in your diary, flip to this back page and choose one of these strategies to try instead of eating. Giving yourself healthy coping mechanisms that replace the eating response help to retrain your brain and your body from turning to food for immediate gratification.
4. How can I stop these emotions from eating away at my life?
Logging your emotional eating triggers can help to uncover some of the damaging patterns and situations in your life. While it’s possible to remove yourself from some of them – like pulling yourself away from a critical friend who’s always making you feel bad about yourself, or spending too much time mindlessly munching in front of the television – other situations are more difficult to separate yourself from, and other emotions may stem from far deeper inner roots.
It’s important to acknowledge these emotions and to deal with them head on, rather than ignoring them, keeping them inside or repressing them (which is what causes emotional eating to begin with). Find someone to speak to about problems you are struggling with or emotions you are finding difficult to cope with, whether that be a trusted friend or a professional. Also, research shows that getting 7 or more hours of sleep a night, 30 or more minutes of exercise a day, and eating a healthy diet can have an enormous effect on elevating one’s general emotional state and lowering the negative impact of stress. Other highly effective strategies of stress relief include taking 30 or more minutes of relaxation time for yourself every day, as well as spending time with positive people in your life that help you feel calm and good about yourself.
While you may have all the best intentions and all the right nutritional information you need to begin on a women’s weight loss program, all of this is useless if you’re harboring emotions that continue to sabotage all of your very best weight loss efforts. Becoming mindful of your emotions and dealing with them directly is the only way to prevent them from eating up your weight loss success and control over your own life.
Feeding your body, mind and soul with a healthy lifestyle is the best way to succeed on your quest to finding happiness in your life, both inside and out.