What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is a common response to life’s everyday stressors. It is a natural impulse that attempts to suppress negative emotions such as anger, boredom, sadness, and loneliness. Unfortunately, it is a temporary solution that often makes you feel worse, leading you further away from your weight loss goals. Many of our clients at VIVA Wellness feel trapped in an unhealthy cycle where they fall back on emotional eating as a coping mechanism. Emotional eating often triggers feelings of guilt, which leads to more emotional overeating, creating an endless loop that often leads to weight gain and other health problems.
Am I eating emotionally? Questions to ask yourself before you eat:
Here are some questions to ask yourself before you eat to determine if you are feeling physical hunger or an emotional craving:
- Am I stressed, sad, or anxious over a specific situation, such as relationship or work difficulties?
- Has there been a recent event in my life that I’m struggling to cope with?
- Am I eating more than I usually do?
- Am I eating outside of mealtimes, especially late at night?
- Have I learned from family or friends to use food for comfort?
If you answered yes to some of these questions, you may not be feeling physical hunger. Try mindfulness and dialoguing with your sensations before you give in to food cravings. As you explore, perhaps also look to see if this is a blood sugar issue, a nutrient or water deficiency, etc. Ask: have I been on top of my water intake today? Have I eaten enough protein and fiber today?
How do I stop eating emotionally?
Once you recognize that you tend to eat in response to your feelings, you can use techniques to cope with these negative emotions and avoid overeating.
#1 Reduce and Manage Stress
Stress can take a significant toll on the body. When faced with persistent stress, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol, which increases appetite. A 2007 British study showed a significant association between daily stressors, hormone responses and the amount that people eat. This correlation between the number of stressors and food intake was only observed when the participant had high cortisol levels, meaning their body was having a physical response to stress.
Unfortunately, this means that a stressful situation can often go hand-in-hand with cravings for comfort food that is high in fat and sugar–something many of us are quite familiar with! However, it’s important to recognize why such cravings occur so you don’t punish yourself if they feel out of control. This means that learning how to relieve stress in response to emotional situations will help you to stop stress eating.
Some healthy stress coping mechanisms to try:
- Meditation/yoga: try these simple yoga poses that put your body at ease after a stressful day.
- Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT/Tapping): a quick and effective way to release the energy of an emotion by tapping on various points on your body. Guided videos here—choose a voice that you resonate with!
- Exercise: regular physical activity produces endorphins and improves sleep, which results in reduced stress.
- Social support: Research studies have found that having social support improves resilience to stressful situations.
- Deep breathing and mindfulness: taking deep breaths can also release endorphins in your brain to reduce stress.
#2 Check-in with Hunger
Before you reach for the ice cream, check in with your body to see if you are actually physically hungry. After years of emotional eating, it may be difficult for you to distinguish between physical hunger and emotional cravings. Nemour’s Health suggests paying attention to these differences between physical and emotional hunger:
- builds up gradually
- can be satisfied with healthy foods
- you will stop eating when you feel full
- you won’t feel guilty after you eat
- comes on suddenly and feels urgent
- may cause specific cravings, especially for unhealthy foods high in carbohydrates or fat
- can be difficult to stop when you’re full
- may trigger feelings of guilt after you eat
#3 Keep a Food Journal to Track Eating Habits
Keeping a food diary is an effective way to gain insight into your eating habits. Each day, record the time you ate, what you consumed, and whether it was for nourishment or an emotional reason such as fun, mindless snacking, or binging—no judgment allowed! Additionally, note any thoughts and uncomfortable emotions related to particular meals. This will help you recognize things that may trigger emotional eating so that patterns can be identified over time. This practice of tracking will help develop healthier behaviors towards food and overcome the instinct to eat for comfort. Be as open as possible, including any non-mealtime-related stressors occurring in your life, or even on a more global scale—these are all helpful tools in determining the root of your unique situation.
#4 Snack Healthy
Incorporating healthy snacks between meals into your routine may also help in maintaining energy throughout the day. Prepare ahead of time by stocking up on nutritious options such as high protein and high fiber options, as well as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. When you’re out and about, pack a few travel-friendly items like grass-fed jerky, nut butter packs, unbuttered popcorn, fresh fruit, or cut-up veggies in smaller containers for easy access in case you feel hungry later on. When you do eat a snack, don’t forget to be mindful. Put away any distractions so you are able to stay in tune with how hungry (or full!) you truly feel. Lastly, make sure hydration stays a top priority: Drinking plenty of water can help satiate cravings and help you recognize if you are truly hungry.
If you need healthy snack food ideas, here are some great snack choices that will keep you satisfied and help you lose weight.
#5 Don’t Deprive Yourself
Overcoming emotional eating isn’t about depriving yourself of your favorite foods. It’s about comforting yourself in a way that helps relieve the real problem. Feelings of deprivation can be a surprising, hidden trigger for emotional eating. When you’re “not allowed” to eat foods you enjoy, you may feel deprived. Restriction and deprivation often lead to stronger cravings and overeating. Often this leads to guilt, which fuels the difficult emotional eating cycle.
At VIVA Wellness, we believe that food is meant to be enjoyed and no food should be completely “forbidden.” Instead, we encourage mindful eating. When you eat mindfully, you can take control of your eating and break the cycle of deprivation. Instead of allowing yourself to become consumed by what you “can’t” have, use thoughtful consideration in deciding which foods best satisfy both your desires and nutritional needs. There’s no need to cut out potato chips entirely; just avoid mindlessly eating the whole bag!
#6 Get Your Sleep
Research studies show a relationship between poor sleep patterns and increased food consumption in emotional eaters. Good sleep habits are essential for everyone, but they are especially crucial if you are prone to stress eating.
MD Anderson Cancer Center has some great tips for getting back on the sleeping track:
- Set a consistent sleep schedule. Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time every day.
- Create a bedtime ritual. Do the same thing every night before bedtime, like taking a bath, reading, or meditation. Your nighttime routine should be relaxing to get your body to calm down and prepare for sleep.
- Get regular exercise. Avoid exercising within two hours of bedtime to give your body plenty of time to wind down.
- Have a healthy snack before you hit the sack. Eating large quantities before bedtime may make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep, but a healthy snack promotes sleep.
- Limit caffeine and nicotine. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants that lead to restless sleep. Aim to limit caffeine to two servings per day, ideally only in the morning. Quitting nicotine altogether will improve your sleep and overall health.
- Avoid alcohol. Some may swear by a glass of wine before bed since alcohol is a sedative. However, it interferes with your sleep cycle during the night, causing you to wake up frequently. It’s best to avoid alcohol four to six hours before bedtime.
- Have a short nap. Long naps during the day often interfere with your sleep at night. If you feel the need to nap, 20-30 minutes is ideal.
- Your bed is only for sleep! Don’t watch TV or surf the web in bed. Make sure your bedroom is a dark, quiet place, and keep it cool. If you make your bedroom a haven for sleep, you’ll associate your bedroom with sleep instead of activity and stress. Start using blue light-blocking glasses in the evening hours to reduce the rays that keep you on alert.
#7 Avoid Being Bored
Frequent boredom can lead to mindless eating. To combat this issue and improve your eating patterns, address emotions associated with being bored. One way of achieving this is by taking on a new interest or hobby that occupies the mind instead, such as joining classes, clubs, or learning online activities. Scheduling enjoyable tasks at certain times when you are prone to boredom, like during evenings when most people fall into mindless snacking in front of the TV, may also prevent you from eating out of boredom.
#8 Limit Temptation
Don’t keep your go-to comfort food on hand. The more effort it takes to acquire comfort foods, the more time you’ll have to check in with yourself and try another healthy coping mechanism. Also, steer clear of the grocery store when you’re hungry or feeling stressed. Only go to the store when you’re clear-headed with a shopping list of healthy food in hand.
#9 Get Professional Help
Emotional eating can be a part of more serious eating patterns that require support from a mental health professional. At VIVA Wellness, we are passionate that mental health is an important part of overall health. There are multiple types of therapy that can help with binge eating and other eating disorders, and we are happy to refer you to local providers that we know, like and trust. VIVA Wellness clients have had success with treatments such as:
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a type of talk therapy used to understand your thoughts and feelings. You will work to change negative thoughts in hopes that a change in thinking will result in a change of behavior.
Dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT): DBT focuses on mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, distress tolerance, and emotional regulation. DBT can help you manage meal and stress challenges through weekly individual and group therapy.
Relationship/family therapy: This type of eating disorder counseling may be used in some cases because relationship difficulties can be emotional eating triggers. The primary goal of relationship therapy is to improve current relationships in your life that may be causing chronic stress.
Emotional eating support groups: It can be helpful to recognize that you are not alone in your struggles by finding a support group. Some support groups can also offer accountability partners to help you stay on track. Organizations like Overeaters Anonymous have support groups nationwide.
#10 Get Nutritional Therapy
When you are working to stop stress eating, having a personalized nutrition guide can be extremely helpful. At VIVA Wellness, we recognize that every person’s journey with food is unique. Our team of Nurse Practitioners is committed to providing personalized nutrition plans tailored specifically to your individual body.
Our NPs have a wealth of knowledge in weight management and nutritional optimization. Your dedicated healthcare professional will get to know you and your health history to create a custom approach to guide you on a path toward achieving a true wellness transformation. We may try a ketogenic, low-carb, paleo diet, a reduced-calorie meal plan, or something entirely different, all dependent on you and your body. Additionally, we will measure your progress and make any necessary adjustments to ensure you reach your health goals.
Perhaps surges in hunger that feel hard to control are related to deficiencies or blood sugar spikes? Maybe the emotional aspect feels that way because you are actually depleted in something that helps you manage your mood—we have to start this conversation somewhere!
How do you break out of emotional eating?
Many of us still struggle with emotional eating, even when we know the “rules”, so it’s important to pair the entire conversation with a massive dose of compassion. These things become hardwired, and in many cases, are crutches to help soothe during stressful and emotional moments. So, to actually resolve this behavior, we need to both remove any charge and stigma around it—and then we need to get smarter with our tools. To control emotional eating, our team emphasizes recognizing your behaviors without judgment and finding healthy coping mechanisms to replace eating comfort food. We help with this!
Your past struggles with emotional overeating can be leveraged as valuable learning tools that ultimately lead you toward finding your best self. At VIVA Wellness, we understand your physical health correlates with stress management and other areas of the body. This means when you learn to cope with strong emotions without food, you can experience healing in your whole body.
Get Control Over Emotional Eating with VIVA Wellness
We are willing guides on your quest for health who will listen to you and help you discover the root causes of stress eating. Our highly trained team encourages open conversation about our clients’ health challenges, even if they don’t seem related at first glance. In addition to offering comprehensive services tailored to your individual needs, we also work with an extensive network of compassionate professionals who specialize in various traditional and Eastern medicine methods. All referrals come backed by our confidence, so you know you will get excellent care from expert sources.
Our caring weight loss and nutritional counseling nurse practitioners and professionals know that wellness is not just about the struggle to lose weight but feeling good overall. You deserve excellent health regardless of how we get there, which is why our team is dedicated to providing a connected and holistic wellness experience for every client that comes through our door.
Contact us to start your journey to overcome emotional eating. We believe in your ability to gain control over food, even if you don’t believe in yourself!