STRESS. Bad day at work? Fight with your spouse? Stuck in traffic? Stress triggers the hormone cortisol, which creates cravings for sugary, high-fat and carbohydrate-rich foods. These foods give you a burst of temporary energy and create a feeling of well-being by increasing the “feel good” neurotransmitters and chemicals in your body.
BOREDOM. Preparing and eating food gives you something to do when you’re bored. It keeps both your hands and mouth busy and temporarily distracts you from feeling purposeless and dissatisfied.
AVOIDING EMOTIONS. Eating can be a way to temporarily get rid of uncomfortable emotions such as anger, fear, sadness or shame. Concentrating on eating can temporarily numb and help you avoid your true emotions.
HABITS. Did Mom’s mac and cheese always make you feel better? Did your soccer team always go out for ice cream after winning a game? These emotionally-based associations of good feelings with certain foods survive into adulthood and become ingrained habits.
Emotional vs. Physical Hunger
Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between emotional eating and physical hunger, especially if you regularly turn to food to deal with your feelings. So what clues can you use to tell emotional and physical hunger apart?
CRAVINGS. When you’re physically hungry, any type of food that you enjoy sounds good—including healthy choices. When you are craving specific types of food—it has to be pizza or a brownie—then you are most likely eating for emotional reasons and not physical ones.
SAIETY. Saiety is the feeling of fullness we get after eating. When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you will eventually feel full. When you eat due to emotional hunger, you keep wanting more and more food until you are stuffed or physically uncomfortable.
REGRET, GUILT or SHAME. When you eat to satisfy your body’s hunger, you don’t feel guilty or ashamed because you are giving your body what it needs to survive. If you feel emotionally worse after you eat, it’s most likely because you know that you’re eating for the wrong reasons.
MINDLESSNESS. Often emotional eating is unconscious. Have you ever eaten an entire bag of potato chips while watching television? Finished a pint of ice cream without even remembering what flavor it was? Emotional eating is mindless, you eat without paying attention or even fully enjoying the tastes, textures and smells of your food.
Alternatives & Solutions to Emotional Eating
So how can you help stop emotional eating? Like any habit, it takes practice to find new ways to comfort and calm yourself. But it can be done. You simply have to re-program your brain to enjoy alternatives to emotional eating.
BE AWARE. Keep track of what you’re eating—note when, where and why. You can create a handwritten food journal or use one of the many available smart phone apps. What patterns emerge? Do you always eat after spending time with a family member who always criticizes you? Do you find yourself reaching for food when you’re zoning out alone in front of the television? Measure your hunger on a scale from 1 to 10. Are you only eating when really hungry—an eight, for example, or is your hunger level more like a three?
FIND AN ALTERNATIVE. Feeling bored? Find something to do that engages your mind. Read a book, play a crossword puzzle, do a hobby that uses your hands like knitting, playing guitar or woodworking. Anxious? Take a brisk walk, play with a pet or child, squeeze a stress ball or other physical activity. Lonely? Call a friend who makes you feel better or go to a local park and people watch. Depressed or exhausted? Take a soothing bath, treat yourself to a hot cup of tea or flavored water, take a short nap.
REMOVE TEMPTATION. Don’t keep sweets and fatty snacks around if you find them hard to resist. If they are already in your house, put them in a drawer or cupboard and out of sight. Remove that candy jar from your desk at work. Don’t go to the grocery or convenience store unless you really need something and you’re in a positive mood.
SNACK HEALTHY. If you have trouble resisting the urge to eat between meals, keep low-calorie and low-fat snacks around. Fresh fruit, vegetables, and popcorn are good alternatives that contain nutrients such as fiber to help you feel fuller longer.
DON’T BEAT YOURSELF UP. No one is perfect. If you have an episode of emotional eating, let it go and start fresh the next day. Instead of criticizing yourself over it, learn from it and plan what you can do to prevent it from happening again. Focus on the fact that you are making positive changes in your life that will lead to a healthier and happier you.