Who doesn’t like comfort food? When I think of comfort food it conjures up wonderful tasty images of mac n’ cheese, lasagna, chocolate cake and ice cream sodas. Many people often turn to these homey, childhood favorites when they crave a familiar taste during a challenging or chaotic time. Clearly, food can be closely tied to emotions, but for some people this link becomes unhealthy. It’s known as emotional eating, and it can lead to weight gain, an unhealthy relationship with food and even eating disorders.
Recognizing Emotional Eating
Emotional eating is when a person turns to food in order to soothe or avoid negative feelings like loneliness, stress, boredom and sadness. Experts say that approximately 75% of overeating may have an emotional component. Most of my patients have used food to improve their moods at one time or another. It’s understandable to eat ice cream while you’re watching TV alone or grab a candy bar after a stressful work meeting.
Most people don’t even realize they are using food as a pick-me-up. When this type of eating becomes habitual, however, you may be setting yourself up for unhealthy consequences like weight gain.
How do you recognize emotional eating versus simply indulging in the occasional treat?
Think about the last time you turned to your favorite comfort food. Were you hungry? If not, your emotions were dictating your behavior. Emotional eating tends to cause feelings of guilt or regret, which leads to more eating. Responding to genuine hunger does not make you feel bad. Emotional eaters also tend to keep eating even after they feel full. Also, if you are hungry, you are likely to be satisfied by a variety of foods. Most emotional eaters suddenly find themselves craving one particular thing—chocolate, cookies, salty chips for example—and won’t be satisfied until they eat that item.
Many people go for years before they recognize the destructive pattern of emotional eating. Often, they will try a variety of weight loss plans without success because all the diets in the world won’t break an emotional bond to food. If this sounds like you, rest assured that you can change your behavior and stop gaining weight for good.
How to Break the Cycle of Emotional Eating
The quickest way to stop emotional eating is to recognize genuine hunger. Many people fear hunger, but a stomach rumble is not the end of the world. It is unlikely that you will starve to death if you let yourself get hungry.
Try this: Instead of eating until you feel stuffed, eat until you are about three-quarters full. You should be satisfied but comfortable. Then don’t eat again until you feel truly hungry (in general, 4 to 5 hours). This exercise will help you recognize your own physical sensation of hunger. Emotional eaters tend to eat so frequently that they can’t remember what hunger feels like.
To get at the root of emotional eating, keep a food journal for two weeks. Not only should you record every bite you put in your mouth, but jot down why you’re eating and how you feel before and after.
For example, “I ate a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread because it was my lunch break and I felt hungry. After, I only felt half full, so I ate an apple and felt satisfied and calm.” If things aren’t going so well, it’s important to write it in your food journal. For example, “I ate a Snickers bar at 3:30. I was still full from lunch, but I was stressed out because the sales report is due tomorrow and I have to work late.”
Look back after the two weeks and identify any patterns. Maybe you tend to eat candy in the afternoon when all the stress of workday starts to pile up. Maybe you will discover that you are most vulnerable late at night after the kids go to bed. If you know the situations that lead to emotional eating you can devise solutions to make them more manageable.
If emotional eating has led to weight gain, don’t be too hard on yourself. Tackle the negative emotions and situations that caused you to turn to food in the first place. Keeping the food journal and listening to your hunger cues have been a tremendous help to my patients who struggle with this issue. When you start making food choices based on hunger, not emotions, you are likely to lose weight naturally. This will lead you to make healthier food choices on a regular basis. Remember that it is possible for anyone to recover from emotional eating and reach a healthy, happy weight.
Photo Credit: Luigi Diamanti