What is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is using food to make ourselves feel "better." We often eat to satisfy our emotional needs, rather than to satisfy physical hunger. Many of us have our comfort foods, such as having a bowl of ice-cream or a few chocolate chip cookies or having a bag of chips or fries. Most of us also experience various triggers that results in emotional eating such as stress, boredom, loneliness, or an event such as a recent break up. Now some of us might experience loss of appetite when feeling stressed out, which is also very common and not a healthy way to cope with our underlying emotions.
Occasionally using food as a reward, or to celebrate an event is not necessarily a negative thing. However, it becomes a problem when emotional eating is our primary coping mechanism to deal with our emotions. I have noticed that the minute I feel stressed out at work, I think of picking up Osmows on my way home. We get stuck in the cycle of emotional eating and often forget to address the real problem, which is our underlying feeling (i.e. stress, sadness, boredom). It is important to understand that emotional hunger cannot be filled with food. Emotional eating may give us a sense of relief/pleasure in the moment, however, it results in experiencing guilt and shame as the time goes by.
Sometimes it is difficult to make a change; however, it is not impossible. We can find healthier ways to deal with our emotions, we can learn to eat mindfully instead of mindlessly, we can try to regain control of our eating habits, and finally put a stop to emotional eating. Lets look at the difference between emotional hunger vs. physical hunger.
Emotional Hunger vs. Physical Hunger
Emotional hunger can be powerful, because our underlying emotions can be very intense, so it’s easy to mistake it for physical hunger. However, there are clues which will help us differentiate between physical and emotional hunger.
Emotional hunger comes on suddenly, whereas physical hunger comes on more gradually (unless you have not eaten for a very long time).
Emotional hunger often leads to mindless eating. How many of us have eaten a whole bag of chips or an entire pint of ice cream without really paying attention or fully enjoying it. On the other hand, physical hunger, we are usually more aware of what we are eating and how much.
Emotional hunger is not located in the stomach. Rather than a growling belly, we feel our hunger as a craving where our mind is driving the need to satisfy those cravings. We think about the specific textures, tastes, and smells that make us want to have more and more.
Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods that provide an instant rush. For example, "I need cheese-cake," rather than mindfully making a decision of having a cheesecake or not.
Emotional hunger does not give us the sense of satisfaction even though we are full. We keep looking for more comfort foods, often eating until you’re uncomfortably stuffed. On the other hand, physical hunger does not need to be stuffed. We feel satisfied when our stomach is full.
Identify Your Emotional Eating Triggers
I would encourage you to make a list of various triggers that leads to emotional eating. It could be anything, may be a specific place that triggers emotional eating, or different situations, certain feelings, or childhood eating habits, or feelings of boredom or emptiness.
Other Ways of Coping with Emotions WITHOUT Food
If feeling bored, read a good book, watch a comedy show, explore the outdoors, or turn to an activity you enjoy (playing the guitar, singing, drawing etc.)
If feeling exhausted/stressed, take a bubble bath, light some scented candles, or going for a run or to the gym.
If feeling depressed or lonely, call a friend or a significant other who makes you feel better, spend time with family, or listen to happy music, go for a walk.
If feeling anxious, engage in deep breathing, squeezing a stress ball, or going for a walk.
Evidence Based Treatment for Emotional Eating
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and/or Dialectical Behaviour Therapy