Mastering emotional eating: How to do it?
Food is everywhere and strongly linked to both good and bad moments in life. We can’t avoid that and we don’t have to. It only becomes a problem when you (over)eat because of emotions. What causes emotional eating? Why do many obese people with bariatric surgery suffer from it? And how do you master emotional eating?
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating means that you eat to soothe or suppress negative feelings. You feel bad, sad or stressed and reach for unhealthy foods. Eating provides safety, comfort and solace. It distracts from what you don’t want to feel. At least, it seems that way for a while. Because the effect of sugary and high-fat foods is brief. In reality, you avoid what is really going on and that is detrimental to your (mental) health.
What causes emotional eating?
According to psychologist Agnieszka Węgiel, who specializes in bariatric surgery, emotional eating usually originates in childhood. “Many people have not learned to deal with emotions. In addition, there are many prejudices about being overweight. If someone is overweight, then they must be lazy. Because if you really want to, you can do something about the pounds. Overweight people believe this and start dieting. They fail, of course, which confirms that they are not strong enough. This not only creates low self-esteem. A sense of failure also lowers the threshold for turning to unhealthy foods.”
People also often seek motivation and strength outside of themselves. “Do you opt for bariatric surgery so you can no longer overeat, but don’t address the underlying problems? Then it has no effect,” Agnieszka explains. “You need a strategy to deal with emotions and stress. Otherwise, there is a risk of gaining weight again. Or the eating addiction will be replaced by something else, such as alcohol.”
How is emotional eating connected to stress?
Overthinking, worrying about what might happen or striving for perfection. All are triggers for stress. Dieting also causes stress in your body . This causes your cortisol levels to rise. Cortisol stimulates negative emotions such as anxiety, fear and anger. “That we want to get rid of those unpleasant feelings is human,” Agnieskza explains. “There are healthy ways to do that, such as a run, a walk or a yoga session. Other people start drinking, smoking, taking drugs or eating an entire roll of cookies.” This makes you produce endorphins and serotonin (the “happiness hormones”) and you feel good again for a while. It doesn’t help in the long run because the effect of overeating causes higher cortisol levels. That’s how you maintain the negative stimulus.
Why is it so hard to stop emotional eating?
Firstly, because food is available everywhere and strongly intertwined with our lives. Think cake on a birthday, a well-stocked table at Christmas and that bowl of ice cream to deal with heartbreak. As children, we are taught to stop crying or throwing a tantrum. Did you have a fall? Then you probably got some candy to ease the pain. In our childhood, we discover that it feels better when we eat something. Moreover, sugar is addictive. Sugar releases dopamine in the brain that creates a feeling of reward. In fact, sugary foods seem to increase dopamine in the brain, similar to addictive drugs. To achieve the same effect, you need more and more sugar. So its addictive effect is one reason why we eat too much of it. That doesn’t happen with broccoli or a bag of carrots.
Imagine this. Something unpleasant happens at work. You come home, feel bad, and before you know it, you finished a bar of chocolate. Then the guilt kicks in. You decide to cut chocolate out of your life. Because you are denying yourself something, you get stressed and that makes you feel bad. To get rid of that stress, you give in and add another bag of chips to your shopping cart. And so the vicious circle continues.
How do I master emotional eating?
- Start by asking yourself why you overeat and what emotion underlies it. Maybe you are agitated because you are too full of commitments. Maybe someone overstepped your boundaries. Or you’re tired because you’ve been sleeping poorly lately. Emotions are useful; they tell you something.
- Next, think about how you feel after eating too much. Guilty? Do you resent yourself? And did that pack of cookies or bag of licorice solve anything?
- Do you know what caused you to overeat? Then it’s easier to do whatever does help next time. Sleep, get some rest or talk to someone, for example. And remember: you’re not being dumb for reaching for something ‘bad’. You’re just tired, stressed or disappointed.
- Consider what nutrition and healthy living provide. Sugar provides a short kick, but is otherwise devoid of nutrition, while vitamins and minerals have short- and long-term positive effects. You are less emotional if you have slept at least 7 hours. And a daily walk and drinking enough water contribute to feeling fit.
More tips to combat emotional eating
- Don’t go on a diet. It disrupts your body and restricting yourself causes stress. Give your body what it needs so you feel happy and strong.
- Down moments and emotions are also part of it. We all have downturns; no one is happy every day. Realizing that and knowing that everything will pass again helps.
- Stop trying to do everything perfectly. Are you low on energy after a long day at work? It’s okay if you walk for 20 minutes instead of an hour. Your healthy lifestyle is not ruined if you indulged in sweets once. Just move on the next day.
- Prioritize self-care and keep reminding yourself. Stick notes on your computer or refrigerator or put a reminder in your phone. This also motivates you to pick up where you left off when things get tough.
Emotional eating is often a deep-rooted and sometimes unconscious pattern. It helps to explore this and talk about it with someone you trust or a professional such as a psychologist or coach. Know that you are never alone and we too are here for you. Do you have questions or need to share something? Let us know. You can reach us directly here.