What is Emotional Eating and How to Stop It

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If you have ever found yourself eating in response to feeling down or in a negative state, then you are one of the millions of people who engage in emotional eating. 

While you should never feel guilty about eating, you should be mindful of "emotional eating" since it can lead to a host of physical and psychological problems that, over time, can affect your everyday life. 

What is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating is defined as eating in response to negative stress or emotion. It can be harmful, because at it's core, it's a form of self-medication.

You may not even be aware you are eating emotionally: often, emotional eating is done sub-consciously out of habits formed over time.

The pressures of modern day life, stress, relationships and our inner voices all can contribute to a sense of overwhelm, which in turn can lead us to binge on unhealthy food as a form of comfort to quell painful feelings. 

The food you choose when you are seeking some type of respite or refuge, is generally about filling an emotional void that temporarily makes you feel better.

Unfortunately, there's not enough food in the world to fill your emotional needs. 

Yes, food can be--and should be--a source of comfort, but it also needs to be a source of joy.  The balance and divine variety of colours of whole foods from nature's tables should be all that we need to feed all of our emotions, but the truth is it's not how it always works in practice. 

Keep reading to discover why emotional eating - which leads to feelings of remorse afterwards - will only exasperate the emotional stress and make you feel worse in the long run. 

Learn more: Stress Management Without Harmful Addictions.

The Cycle of Abuse of Emotional Eating

It’s important to note that everyone can sometimes eat emotionally, and while not ideal, it is not necessarily indicative of a problem.

When emotional eating becomes an issue is when it is a daily, cyclical occurrence that gets out of control. At this point, it goes from sporadic emotional eating to binge eating disorder. 

The emotional eating cycle begins with stress or a trigger. Next, the person turns to food as a source of comfort and for a time, there is a sense of relief--but it is short-lived. The person will then feel sadness and guilt and the cycle will begin again. 

Why Do We Emotionally Eat?

People emotionally eat because they are looking to fill a psychological emptiness with a physical sensation. Food is the substitute for whatever is perceived as missing in a person's life, be that love or success or attractiveness or worth.  

There are thousands of reasons people emotionally eat but it all boils down to try to fill a void. 

The Dangers of Emotional Eating

Emotional eating can lead to eating disorders like binge eating disorder and even bulimia. It can also result in obesity, and the many consequences of carrying an excess of fat on your body including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. 

Learn more: Top Cancer Fighting Foods & Lifestyle Practices.

How to Overcome Emotional Eating

1. Learn the Difference Between Emotional and Physical Hunger

As human beings we don't need three square meals per day.  It's simply a habit that has developed over time as a result of our societal upbringing.  In other words, we don't NEED to eat anywhere near the amount of food that we do as a species - in fact, if that we only ate what we "needed" or when we felt genuinely "hungry", as a population, we'd be a lot healthier and there'd be a lot less dis-ease.

One of the most important steps in learning how to overcome emotional eating is to learn to understand the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger.  

The fact is that some of the physical symptoms of emotional hunger and physical hunger are very similar, which can make them difficult to distinguish, especially when a person is feeling distressed. 

Emotional hunger and physical hunger can both manifest with irritability, being unfocused and even feeling desperation for food if you allow your physical hunger to develop long enough. 

But unlike emotional hunger, physical hunger usually develops slowly and over time. Emotional hunger will come on quickly. 

Another important distinction between emotional hunger and physical hunger is that when you're emotionally hungry, you'll crave sugary, fatty foods. This is because you're looking for the quick hit of energy that these processed foods provide. 

Conversely, when you're physically hungry, you will be open and eager to eat healthier foods. This is because you're following your body's physical need to be nourished, not your emotional response for a quick fix.  

Learn more: Overcoming Sugar Addictions and the Best Natural Substitutes.

It's easy to see how many people can form food addictions, especially in a culture that champions "life-hacks". The truth is developing good mental and physical habits can take months or even years, and when it comes to real health, there is no hack. 

The best strategy is to be consistent over time. 

2. Identify Your Triggers

Determine what experiences, feelings, situations and conversations are precursors to your emotional eating episodes. 

It can be useful to keep a journal to help you identify your triggers. Write down what you are feeling when you eat when you're not physically hungry. 

Over time, you'll notice a pattern to your thoughts and feelings and your trigger(s) will emerge. 

Next, you’re going to want to take steps to adjust your reaction to these triggers. We're going to talk about how to do that below.

 3. Replace the Behaviour

Habits and addictions don’t simply disappear: they are replaced with new, hopefully healthier behaviours. 

So, when you feel the urge to emotionally eat, you need to find another activity in which to engage. It’s important that the activity you choose is an activity you like.

For example, if you decide to replace emotional eating with going for a run, but you don’t like running, then the behaviour swap is not going to work. However, if you relaxing outside and meditating, then you might choose to go earthing for 15 or 20 minutes to re-centre your emotional urges. 

Learn more: What is Earthing? And How It Benefits Your Health & Wellbeing

4. Have Healthy Alternatives 

Willpower can only get you so far, and it alone is not enough to combat an emotional dependency on or addiction to food. This is why you shouldn’t expect yourself to be able to resist a smorgasbord of junk food in your kitchen.  

Get rid of it!

Arm yourself with healthy, whole food alternatives that satiate your taste buds and nourish your cells.  When you are nourished, you're less inclined to binge of junk foods.

Have snacks like raw nuts, ripe bananas, raw peanut butter, dried mango or apricots, hummus and crackers on hand. 

Pulse Sacred Meal is also a convenient, delicious and nutritious way to satisfy those pesky cravings and can regulate blood sugar, helping you stay fuller, for longer. 

The point is to have food you can readily grab and enjoy. If you have to spend time preparing your snack, you’ll probably lose momentum and your resolve to try to take control of your emotional eating.  

Learn more: Mindful Eating: 7 Ways to Be More Conscious with Food & Nutrition.

5. Don’t Starve Yourself!

Severe calorie restriction is not an effective or healthy way to curb your emotional eating. In fact, starving yourself is only going to further confound your negative feelings about food, which is meant to be enjoyed.

Quit counting calories and focus on quality whole food wherever you can.  The more of these types of nutrient dense foods you eat, the more nourished you'll be, and less likely you'll feel the urge to binge on food for comfort.

Find emotional fulfilment in your passion, hobbies and some type of activity outdoors that takes you away from the refrigerator, cupboard and couch.  This is the best medicine for your soul.

Left unchecked, emotional eating can become a serious issue and even lead to life-threatening diseases. Use these strategies to help you free yourself from a dependence on food as a drug and start enjoying it as a gift from nature. 

Tolman Self Care.

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