Sitting in front of the TV with a huge tub of your favourite flavour of ice cream when you’re feeling down and out. Coming home after a long, tiring day of work and heading straight to the fridge for a snack. Munching on comfort food while pulling that all-nighter before your exam. We’re all familiar with these situations and have found ourselves indulging in them at one point or another. But does that make you an emotional eater?
Normal eaters may sometimes find themselves binging when they feel happy, sad or just bored. It is common for everyone to do a little emotional eating from time to time. However, when this starts happening on the daily, or on several occasions, there is a chance that you may be an emotional eater. This leads to poor nutrition choices, an unhealthy relationship with food combined with feelings of guilt and frustration.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating takes place when you use food to deal with or mask intense emotions, negative or positive. You can find yourself reaching for something to eat when you’re stressed out, sad, in need of comfort or celebrating something special.
People often look at food as a reward or to cope with being in an uncomfortable situation. When using food to cope with negative emotions, it falls under an eating disorder which needs to be addressed. Most important to note, is that this form of emotional eating only provides a temporary escape from difficult or uncomfortable feelings. Feelings of shame, guilt and heightened physical and emotional discomfort are experienced as a result.
What causes emotional eating?
Emotional eating is commonly a result of unmet emotional and spiritual needs. It is the direct result of not being conscious of what you’re eating and why. The cause is often not the food itself, but the issue you’re tackling or covering up within by using food as an excuse.
How can you overcome emotional eating?
The first step to overcoming emotional eating is understanding the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger. Emotional hunger is sparked when a person craves something very specific to eat. Physical hunger starts with the stomach grumbling and leads to catering to the nutrients your body is asking for. It has nothing to do with your feelings.
Using a hunger scale is often an effective means of deciphering whether your hunger is emotional or physical.
0 signifies starving
1-4 are degrees of hunger
5 is neutral
6-9 are degrees of fullness
10 is uncomfortably full
This hunger scale is instrumental in separating emotions and focusing on how you physically feel at the moment. It can guide you better on how to proceed.
For example, if you hunger is physical between 0 and 5, you should focus more on nutrients to satisfy your hunger. If it’s between 5 and 10, it would be more helpful to try and identify the emotion that is triggering your hunger so you can manage it better instead of resorting to food as an outlet.
Using non-food related activities will be instrumental in coping with emotions. So, to rid yourself of this habit, you need to develop a strategy to substitute food focused releases with non-food coping skills instead. The way to do this is simple.
First, you need to identify the emotion that you’re feeling. Then form a plan. A toolbox of sorts, equipped with non-food activities that you can use when you’re feeling an uncomfortable emotion. For example, when you’re feeling bored or anxious, instead of reaching for the fridge, call a friend, listen to music, or journal your thoughts.
Delayed Eating and how it helps.
But what if you’re unable to identify what emotion you’re feeling. Using a strategy called delayed eating can help too. When you release that you’re looking for food for emotional and not physical reasons, delay eating by at least five minutes. Then increase the amount of time you delay eating on each instance. During this delay, indulge in an activity. When the time is up be mindful of the fact that you were able to do something that didn’t involve food and reward yourself for it.
But if you’re not ready to do that, don’t beat yourself up. Just try again next time.
The key to getting over emotional eating is that as time passes, your negative emotions will decrease in intensity. As the intensity continues to diminish, so is the likelihood of using food to cope with how you’re feeling at that given time. It takes time and practice to change this behaviour. Be patient and keep working on, it will be worth it in the end.