It can be hard to overcome emotional eating, but know you're not alone. There are ways to curb your appetite and improve your overall health.
Emotional Eating: How to Break the Cycle
You’ve had a long day. You woke up too late to make breakfast, ate the donuts in the break room, skipped lunch, and before you know it, it’s 9 p.m. and you’re eating ice cream from the carton while you order a pizza.
It’s natural, and at times, may seem impossible to overcome this urge to take comfort in your favorite food when life is busy, but you can do it. Understanding why can help you take charge in these moments. So, what exactly causes you to engage in emotional eating?
Emotional eating, or unconscious eating, can express itself in binge eating, an imbalance of sugar/chemical cravings, and even a preoccupation with trying to “eat healthy,” also known as orthorexia. No matter the cause, you know that while it may temporarily make you feel better, it makes you feel worse in the long run.
But you’re not alone. Let’s dive into the phenomenon of emotional eating, the factors that contribute to these behaviors, and habits and methods recommended for controlling and overcoming these symptoms.
Causes of emotional eating: what goes on inside the body
Research shows that “stress eating” is actually caused by hormonal changes inside the body as a result of stress.
When you suffer from persistent stress (and 25% of Americans rank their stress levels at an 8+ out of 10), your adrenal glands increase the production of cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone.”
Cortisol actually increases appetite, and some medical authorities indicate it may even fuel motivation. With some motivation fueling your appetite, it can be all too easy to indulge in foods to satiate the hunger.
But the stress hormone doesn’t just stop there. Stress can influence your food preferences, making your body crave foods high in sugar and fat. Also, higher cortisol levels tells your body to store fat around your belly as a mode of protection—as an extra layer to protect your vital organs. As a result, all of those unhealthy choices made because of emotional eating have a compound effect on your waistline.
This whirlwind of emotions and chemical reactions in the body can open the door to all the negative effects of sugar, weight gain, insulin resistance, heart disease, and even diabetes.
It’s clear stress is one big cause of emotional eating, but there are other causes as well:
Unconscious eating happens when you don’t pay attention to what you’re eating. Mindlessly snacking away at whatever is in front of you while you watch TV or eating what’s left on your plate even when your full are other types of emotional eating.
Be mindful of what you’re eating. Take time to enjoy the foods you eat, the tastes, and the textures. Pay attention to what and why you’re eating. By making this a goal, you’ll be more aware of what you’re eating throughout the day.
Having a negative body image
Having a negative body image can fuel emotional eating. If you are discouraged about how your body looks it is tough to stick to any health goals you may establish. Progress happens slowly, not all at once, and we may not notice it in ourselves as it’s happening.
In the words of Theodore Roosevelt: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” There are images all around us, especially on our phones with social media, that make it easy to compare ourselves to others.
Remember that eating healthy might not make you look how you want as soon as you want, but it’ll make you feel good. You may be discouraged that you don’t see the same results as other people. Everybody is different, and every body is different, but fueling it regularly with good food is always worth it in the long run.
Letting yourself get too hungry
Skipping meals and allowing yourself to get overly hungry can make it all too easy for you to binge eat as you try to satisfy your cravings and satiate your appetite. This causes overeating or eating whatever is fast and convenient.
Make sure you don’t go too many hours without eating, schedule it in, or set alarms if you have to. Now that we know what causes it, let’s figure out how to combat it.
How to combat emotional eating, binge eating, and stress eating
In the midst of stress, it can feel like you are completely governed by emotional eating, but there are several things you can do to help avoid these behaviors. Many of these solutions double as ways to help mitigate both stress and emotional eating, so it’s worth reading on and selecting a few to employ. The more tools you have, and the more prepared you are, the less that stress and it’s negative effects can derail your progress toward optimal health.
1. Remove highly processed foods and sugar from your diet.
One way that you can help mediate the physical drivers that lead to emotional eating is by making sure to remove highly processed foods and foods high in sugar.
But be careful: sugar can hide itself in so many different foods, and in so many different names on the ingredient label that you may not even realize it. There are many ways sugar is sneaking into your food without you realizing it.
2. Practice mindful eating daily.
Also known as intuitive eating, mindful eating is a practice that can provide long-term benefits for those who struggle with binge eating or stress eating.
The goal of mindful eating is to be in tune with your body and internal hunger cues, allowing your body to signal when you should eat, without succumbing to emotions or rules.
Intuitive eating results in healthier relationships with food. Research shows intuitive eating is less likely than calorie-counting diets to cause eating disorder symptoms. Restrictive dieting has been shown to actually lead to increases in body mass index.
3. Incorporate meditation into your routine.
Meditating can help you tune into your body, your mind, and your emotions.
By practicing meditation, you can fight off stress (which triggers emotional eating) and build the internal willpower to stay in control of your thoughts.
Take time for daily meditation. If mornings are better for you, do it then. If you’re on-the-go the moment your feet hit the ground, try and squeeze in some meditation before bed!
4. Try your hand at journaling
Keeping a journal can help you tune into your emotions. Quite literally, you will see your feelings flow onto the paper, and you can go back to remind yourself, and even start to see patterns. By being more mindful and connected with how you are feeling, it can help you avoid indulging in unconscious behaviors and being reactionary to emotions.
Journaling has many benefits. Try keeping a small journal in your bag or car, so that when you feel the need to indulge in stress eating, you can pick up your pen instead. Take a few minutes—and a few deep breaths—and jot down what is stressing you and why you feel the need to eat to overcome that stressor. As a long-term stress solution, set aside some time each day to write in a journal, and stay consistent. Look back each month at some of the major self-discoveries you’ve made, or how you’ve changed your thinking.
5. Build exercise into your schedule
Exercise can work wonders for your emotional health and wellbeing. Physical activity should be considered an investment in yourself—quality “me time” that has a myriad of benefits. And the beauty of an active lifestyle that incorporates exercise is that it helps to create momentum for other positive decisions and habits.
Exercise can help curb your appetite, helping you keep your hunger in control, but also entice you to make better food choices. After putting in the effort to increase your strength, flexibility and physical fitness, you’re driven to continue that forward momentum with meals that truly fuel your body.
It’s well-documented how exercise can help you reduce and mitigate stress.
Make a commitment to exercise several times each week. Find activities that you will enjoy easily—you can always increase your activity commitment once you’ve developed this habit. Lastly, make sure that you’re not adding more stress to yourself by expecting too much from your body, or trying to measure up to some societal pressures. Do this for you, at your own pace, and what feels right for your body.
Emotional eating can be spurred on by stress and other factors, but healthy habits that manage your stress will have a dramatic, positive impact on your relationship and habits with food.
But life is full of curveballs, and you know the saying, “When it rains, it pours.” On days when life throws one too many curveballs, it's a good idea to have a plan B. If food is used as one of your stress relief mechanisms, make sure to have some healthy options in your arsenal, like these guilt-free snacks. It's okay to indulge and move on.