We all deal with stress and emotions in different ways. However, one common denominator is the disturbance to our regular diet and eating patterns. For some, this may mean completely being turned off food. On the other hand, it is remarkably common for people going through an emotional or stressful period in their life to lose complete restraint over what and how much they are eating. Food is then used as a coping mechanism.
To make matters worse, people who have a tendency to eat emotionally will often choose foods with a higher sugar/fat content, or foods that are generally very energy dense – even if their regular diet is quite healthy. It is rarely vegetables that people over-indulge on!
How to deal with emotional eating
Firstly, you need to differentiate between the desire to eat (driven by emotions) from whether you are actually physically hungry. Recognition of emotional eating is important, so ask yourself…
‘Am I hungry or do I just want food?’
How to differentiate between the two states
Find out about the difference between emotional and physical hunger.
Characteristics of emotional hunger:
- An urge to eat that comes on very suddenly
- Often you crave a specific food e.g. chocolate, biscuits, bread
- Eating to feel comfort and not because your stomach feels like it needs refuelling
- You need to eat the desired food right away – sometimes you can even feel anxious until you have satisfied your craving
- You can be very full but you continue to eat
- Feelings of guilt and regret are often experienced
- Commonly less nutritional food choices are made
Characteristics of physical hunger:
- Occurs gradually
- You are more willing to eat different types of foods, often healthier choices
- You can wait longer until having to eat
- You’re more content to cease eating when you are satisfied and not over-full
- You do not feel guilty after having eaten
- Often you make healthier choices
How to avoid giving in to emotional eating
Many people have acknowledged that they over-indulge but they struggle with ways to actually avoid it. The following are some tips that may help.
√ Pay more attention to how you feel. Before you eat, ask yourself how hungry you actually are. You can even rank your hunger from 1 – 10 to see if you are physically hungry or whether you simply desire more food.
Recognising and stopping the habit before it occurs can be empowering and can encourage you to keep up the good work!
√ As best you can, avoid things that trigger you to emotionally eat
√ Devise strategies to avoid emotional eating e.g. going for a walk, reading a book or doing something that you enjoy that will occupy your mind from food
√ Ask yourself if you will feel better once the food is gone
√ Find a healthier comfort food and still watch your portion sizes. Avoid the foods high in sugar, fat and kilojoules that are void of any nutrition
√ If you lapse, pick yourself back up and start again – don’t beat yourself up over a moment of weakness. No one is perfect and you have the opportunity to start afresh
√ Don’t be too restrictive with yourself – this will only encourage a lapse. You want to be able to enjoy the odd indulgence. Being realistic is important!
√ If you find that you are eating emotionally, acknowledge it and stop the behaviour. Stopping half way through a block of chocolate is better than finishing the whole block because you think you’ve already ruined your good work
√ If you really struggle with eating emotionally, it is a good idea to make an appointment with a psychologist
As time goes on, breaking the habit becomes easier. Even after only a couple of weeks. Once you have got to the point of not needing food to deal with your stress, it is important not to fall back in to old habits.
Many people get to a stage where they no longer get the cravings for chocolate etc yet they decide to have some just because it is there. If this becomes more and more regular or if you over do it, the cravings can form again quite easily. The key is to eat mindfully and not overindulge, particularly if it is something you have struggled with in the past.
Contact us for results focused nutritional advice
This article was written by our dietitian Belinda Elwin who is a Dietitians Association of Australia member and Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist.
If you have any questions about emotional eating or nutrition related issues, you can make an appointment with Belinda today. We‘ll provide you with straightforward and effective advice, targeted to your concerns.