We’ve all experienced emotional eating as food provides a powerful source of comfort. But what happens when your eating habits start to cause you distress? Eating unhealthily on a regular basis can cause a variety of problems. Here, we look at how we can combat the issue of emotional eating.
What causes emotional eating?
There are multiple causes of emotional eating, including:
External pressures – A high-pressure job or juggling multiple commitments can increase your need for comfort. Foods which are full of salt, sugar or fat can provide bursts of energy which can become highly addictive in a fast-paced schedule.
A need to escape – Eating lots of comfort foods can act as a way to distract ourselves from issues we’d rather not face. Distress, shame, fear and guilt can all be avoided by gorging ourselves on food. This is also completely understandable, as some issues require lots of support to overcome.
Boredom – Food can provide a way to both literally and figuratively fill us when we feel bored or dissatisfied with our lives. It’s a welcome distraction from a lack of direction as it temporarily gives us something to do.
Old habits – When we were children, our parents may have rewarded us for good behaviour with sweets. This can lead to the “I’ve been good so I deserve this” cycle of thinking, even when we no longer need the treats in order to live well.
How do I know when I’m actually hungry?
Needing to eat to satisfy an emotional urge is different from genuine hunger. Emotional hunger pangs may occur at specific times (for example, when you’re feeling stressed or anxious) whereas physical hunger can occur at any time. Emotional hunger also tends to attack very quickly rather than building slowly like physical hunger.
Another factor to watch out for is internal justifications. If you have to justify your eating habits with anything other than genuine physical hunger then it’s likely you are eating for comfort. Here are some thoughts to look out for before you reach for the junk food:
“I can have this because I haven’t eaten that much today.”
“I’ve seen other people eat junk food, so why can’t I?”
“I know I’m not hungry but I don’t care. I just want to feel better!”
“I deserve it because I’ve had a hard day.”
When we look to justify our desire to eat with thoughts like these, we are turning our back on the problems which have caused our emotional hunger. Unfortunately, as well as this, we unleash the part of ourselves which chastises our urges with further negative thoughts.
“I’m weak-willed, that’s why I can’t stop.”
“I’ll always be this weight, I can’t change.”
“I’m a loser.”
“No matter how hard I try, I never succeed.”
The negative thoughts may then spur on a need for comfort, which is how emotional eating becomes a vicious cycle. It can also cause physical health problems such as obesity and mental health problems such as depression or anxiety.
So what do we do to stop eating for comfort?
Beginning to break the cycle of comfort eating is firstly about forgiveness. It’s not “weak” or “stupid” of you to behave this way – as previously discussed, there will likely be important reasons for why you are using food in this way. Be kind to yourself and feel reassured that you can get through this.
Here are some practical tips for reducing down your comfort eating.
Be mindful of what you eat
When you prepare food for yourself, take your time. Junk food is marketed and offered as a quick fix and it’s very easy to grab a packet of crisps or a chocolate bar without thinking about it. Be slow and careful about preparing snacks and meals – this will allow your mind to catch up with your urges and assess whether they are helpful.
Look at when your urges occur
It may be helpful to keep a food diary and to write down how you were feeling when you ate certain foods. You may start to notice patterns in your eating which correspond to your thoughts and feelings. This will make it easier to target the problems and avoid overeating whenever you can.
Adopt a healthy lifestyle
This isn’t about forcing yourself to eat healthily, but rather choosing fun and relaxing activities to distract you from wanting to eat. When you feel the urge to eat, try going for a walk, having a bath or contacting a friend for support. When you feel physically well, you’re more likely to be able to deal with uncomfortable urges when they arise.
Look into counselling
If you are suffering from persistent negative thoughts, food counselling may help you to deal with your problems. A trained counsellor or therapist can work with you to pinpoint the cause of your comfort eating and give you support and strategies to overcome your urges.