You may know how to eat healthily but sometimes it is a lot harder in reality. You never know what life will throw at you, and dealing with these obstacles can have an impact on your diet. Emotional eating relates to eating in times of stress, distress, anger, boredom, excitement (4) etc and triggers are the events or environmental factors that kick start your train of negative thoughts which lead to emotional eating (1,2,3). Unfortunately, emotional eating can sabotage your weight loss efforts. Learning how to deal with these situations is a key skill in weight loss and maintenance.
Many people who struggle with their weight have reported that food is a comfort for them and they eat for emotional reasons rather than feeling hungry. It has been estimated that 75% of overeating is caused by emotions. For some people, it is the end of a long week or the start of a lonely weekend, for others it is feeling stressed, anxious, angry or bored.
Food affects the brain via a variety of neurotransmitters to create a good feeling for a short duration of time. Due to this physiological effect on mood, food is an attractive form of instant relief. Chocolate for instance, raises the serotonin level (the ‘happy hormone’) in the brain and sugary foods give a temporary blood-sugar spike making you feel ‘high’. Unfortunately though, food does not improve mood in the long-term and ‘comfort’ foods tend to be high in sugar and fat therefore disrupting your weight-loss efforts leaving you with feelings of guilt and anxiety that acts as a trigger to fuel the overeating behavior.
Identifying the triggers
Emotional eating is eating as a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions. Life events and the stress of daily life such as unemployment, financial pressure, health problems, relationship conflicts, work stress, bad weather and fatigue can trigger negative emotions that can lead to emotional eating (3,4). Every person is different and different emotions and thoughts will affect you differently. If you suffer with emotional eating, have a think about how and when it started. For some it could be a means of coping or a way of rewarding yourself. For many, it could have started in childhood – situations such as been given a biscuit or chocolate to help soothe you when you were upset or being rewarded with an ice-cream for behaving properly or it could be growing up with a mother who was always on a diet, desiring foods that are ‘naughty but nice’.
Emotional eating can lead to an unhealthy cycle. Your emotions trigger you to overeat, you then feel guilty about overeating and getting off track, which depresses you and you overeat again. Here are a few situations and emotions which other people have said can trigger their eating:
- Social – eating when around other people and being encouraged by others to eat or eating to fit in e.g. having a starter or dessert because everyone else is.
- Emotional – eating in response to boredom, stress, fatigue, tension, depression, anger, anxiety or loneliness as a way to “fill the void.”
- Situational – eating because the opportunity is there e.g. smelling freshly baked products while passing a bakery or eating associated with certain activities such as eating crisps or popcorn while watching TV or going to the movies.
- Thoughts – eating as a result of negative self-worth or making excuses for eating e.g. feeling bad about your appearance or a lack of will power.
- Physiological – eating in response to physical cues e.g. increased hunger due to skipping meals or eating to cure headaches or other pain.
Identifying eating triggers is the first step as this alone will not change your eating behavior (1,2). The second step is developing alternatives to eating. This could be doing activities to distract yourself such as: reading; going for a walk; taking a bath or shower, talking to a friend, washing the car, surfing the internet; writing a letter or any other pleasurable or necessary activity until the urge to eat passes. If you feel like distractions are not helping maybe look into other techniques such as:
- Keep a food and mood diary. Write down what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, how you’re feeling when you eat and how hungry you are. Over time, you may see patterns emerge that reveal the connection between mood and food.
- Trying a stress management technique, such as yoga, meditation or relaxation.
- Be aware if your hunger is physical or emotional – if you had breakfast 2 hours ago and now feel ‘hungry’ maybe it is due to boredom rather than actually being hungry.
- Get support from family, friends or joining a weight loss support group.
- Don’t buy and keep supplies of comfort foods in your home if they’re hard for you to resist.
- Make sure you are not depriving yourself of food. Sometimes people limit calories and total intake which may increase your food cravings, especially in response to emotions. Let yourself enjoy an occasional treat and get plenty of variety in your diet.
- Choose healthy snacks such as fresh fruit and vegetables with fat-free dip or try low-fat versions of your favorite foods such as unbuttered popcorn or ‘lite’ hot chocolate – they may help with the craving.
- Make sure you are getting enough sleep – you might be craving foods and snacking to try to give yourself an energy boost.
- Our emotions are often a result of how we interpret events and circumstances. To regain emotional control, reshape your thoughts so that the negative feelings you are experiencing become positive.
Remember, we all need appreciation for our hard work. The effort you make towards a healthier lifestyle is no exception. Plan some rewards for yourself. But avoid things involving food! Choose something which really is a treat for you like a magazine, going to the cinema, going for a massage, having a bubble bath or maybe a new CD.
Remember: If you have an episode of emotional eating, forgive yourself and start fresh the next day. Try to learn from the experience and make a plan for how you can prevent it in the future. Focus on the positive changes you’re making in your eating habits and give yourself credit for making changes that’ll lead to a better lifestyle.
Tip: Physical activity relieves stress and anxiety by releasing ‘feel good’ hormones similar to those released when eating chocolate. Choosing activity over eating will make you feel good and you’ll feel pleased with yourself when you manage to take control in these situations, and not use food as your comfort!
- Foreyt, J. 1998. The role of the behavioural counselor in obesity treatment. American Journal of clinical nutrition, vol 98, no10 (suppl 2), pp. S27-S30.
- Foreyt, J; Poston, W, 1998. What is the role of cognitive-behaviour therapy in patient management. Obesity Research, vol 6 (suppl 1), pp S18-S22.
- Anne Till, 2006. New beginnings – the life course approach, In: The Ultimate Diet Solution: 2006. New Holland Publishing, pp241-273.
- Mayoclinic.com: Weight loss. Website, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/weight-loss/MH00025
- MedicineNet. Weight loss: emotional eating. Website http://www.medicinenet.com/emotional_eating/article.htm
- Weight Wise. British Dietetic Association. Website http://www.bdaweightwise.com/going/going_wrong.html