Emotional Eating. “How to get past it”

Why do we emotionally eat?

Is it to avoid or to soothe ourselves for comfort? Whatever our reason may be, we always seem to gravitate towards the kitchen in times of emotional discomfort, stress, and loneliness.

For many individuals, this can be a conscious or subconscious reaction. When we are emotionally distressed, our impulses look at food as a distraction, sometimes we can consume food without even realizing it or enjoying it!

The act of eating is a distraction, followed by the feeling of guilt and shame. We focus on eating food vs dealing with our stressors and challenges. This can also lead to an unhealthy cycle, an emotional roller coaster. Our emotions trigger us to overeat, we beat ourselves up for getting off track, feel bad and we overeat again.

This was my personal struggle for years before doing the uncomfortable work needed to get through my own triggers and emotions. I related my cycle of emotional eating to relationship conflicts, a hectic life of being a mom, workplace stress, and fatigue. My emotions became so tied to my eating habits I would automatically reach for a sweet treat or a bag of chips whenever I was angry, stressed or lonely, and this would happen without me thinking about what I was doing.

I was being controlled by my subconscious. I was emotionally eating and feeling guilty almost immediately after.

Understanding the six emotions of eating; sad, happy, disgust, surprise, fear and anger helped me identify positive and negative emotions. Including emotional hunger vs physiological hunger. 

What is emotional eating, and why do we do it?

Emotional eating was a way for me to suppress or soothe my negative and positive emotions. I would gravitate towards my kitchen regardless of me being sad or happy. This roller coaster of emotions eventually became a habit. I had no control over my subconscious behavior, and soothing with highly processed foods was something I looked forward to after work. It was the quick release of dopamine that my brain was looking for after the consumption of these foods that kept me emotionally hooked. But the effects were temporary, the emotions would return and it would leave me with the burden of guilt about getting “off track” with my health.

My cycle of emotional eating was related to relationship conflicts, hectic life of being a mom, workplace stress and fatigue.

Most days it felt like self-sabotage and labeling my days as “good” or “bad” eating days would come up in most of my conversations with others. My negative self talk was at its worst on days I would eat emotionally. I would try to distract myself and pretend that I wasn’t feeling these six emotions; sadness, disgust, fear, anger and even on the days I was feeling happiness or surprised I was emotionally eating. Everything around me was a trigger, followed by an endless stream of emotions. On one hand, we can all eat for reasons other than hunger once in a while, but if you notice you are often reaching for food out of these six emotions, you may eat for emotional reasons.

Some common signs you could be emotionally eating:

  1. Eating to avoid facing stress.
  2. Eating to soothe emotions.
  3. Eating when you are not hungry or full. 
  4. Eating and using food as a reward.
  5. Eating because of learned childhood habits.

How to recognize physical hunger: 

  1. You have no negative emotions towards food.
  2. You crave a variety of foods vs junk food.
  3. It comes on slowly and not during a high emotional state.
  4. You feel satiated after eating.

Emotionally consuming food becomes a short term, not a long-term solution and prevents us from getting to the root cause of our challenges and triggers. This emotional cycle was interfering with my health goals and nutritional food choices. I had to decide, do I want to continue down this path of making undesirable food choices or do I take a stand and change my story? Do I work on my personal relationships, my work stresses, and stop ignoring my triggers? The choice I made not only changed my life but the lives of other women I have worked with as a registered nutritionist. Food no longer is a distraction or a bandage for me, and by addressing my personal stressors it helped me work through my childhood relationship with food as well.

How do we get past it?

The first is to know there is a disconnect and you’ve been using food as a distraction. The purpose is to help you realize your actions.

Drinking a glass of water, waiting 5 mins and writing what you are feeling in the present moment will allow you to release the stress positively.

Movement such as a walk, yoga, or meditation, gentle breathing exercises may help support your journey and reduce stress/emotional eating. These can all be acts of self care and compassion. Pick one activity so you are not overwhelmed.

Identify the feeling.

  1. What is the emotion that is driving you to eat?
  2. How can you take care of that emotional need besides using food as the solution?
  3. Watch your words. Negative Self Talk- can spiral us into emotional eating habits.
  4. Understand that using distraction to “get over” your emotions will only bring them back stronger and is not a long-term solution.
  5. Get professional support and guidance. You don’t have to do this alone. Lean on friends and family, if possible. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) can help you work through negative thoughts and emotions for long-term results.
  6. Know that there is no such thing as perfection here, we will have days that will fall apart, but know that tomorrow is another day. An opportunity to start over. Learn from your actions and change your story one day at a time.
  7. Eating without distractions, putting the phone away, truing the t.v off. Sitting at the dinner table, paying attention to what you are consuming, how you are feeling before, during, and after you eat. Chewing slowly is important too. This will help to turn off your hunger hormone ghrelin and release leptin, a hormone that tells your brain you are full. Meal planning will help to make sure you are getting enough nutrients to avoid blood sugar levels from dropping and reaching for processed foods.
  8. Removing junk food from your pantry will help support your efforts and reduce temptations.

Getting support through periods of emotional eating helped me rediscover ways to work through the triggers that used to lead me to eat mindlessly. Keeping a journal, finding a good book, or some days taking time to relax and decompress from a stressful day really helped. What I had to keep in mind was that it takes time to develop new habits and work through old ones, including the emotionally attached ones. I had to create a safe place in my heart, a place of non-judgment, shame, or guilt. It’s important to work on your self-talk, we can become our biggest critic. It took me time to work through my habit of emotional eating, but what kept me committed to it was gaining clarity on why this work was important for my emotional, mental, and physical health. Always remember that your story can change, and you don’t have to do it alone.


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