Emotional Eating and How to Beat It
You may be really good friends with emotional eating. For example, you get in an argument with a loved one. There was a stressful situation at work that day. You just found out your spouse wants some space. Certainly, these are all very stressful situations that cause our emotions to run high. As a result, you start eating to feel better or to provide yourself with comfort. This is what emotional eating is.
In high school, I remember one of my very best friends getting ready to move. I was a sophomore and I really didn't want her to go.
So naturally, in response to my emotions, I began emotional eating. I don't know why but I would always go for those frozen chicken nuggets, Lunchables, or, the most popular one among comfort eaters, ice cream. Maybe because we always had that on hand.
I ate to take the emotions away from losing a best friend. Did this work? Not for me. It just made me feel worse. My emotions didn't go away and she was still moving. But that didn't stop my pattern.
For a little while in college, I was going through a rough time. I was dealing with situations in softball which lead to trying to decide whether I still wanted to play or not. I was dealing with being confused about my sexuality. Not to mention, I was in a relationship at the time and I wasn't sure how to handle it. AND... I was in a situation where one of the professors didn't like me and was giving me bad grades for the first time in my life. That was a lot for me to handle all at once.
As a result, I ate my emotions. This time it was Ramen noodles in hot dog buns (what the hell, right?) and easy mac. I still to this day get grossed out that I ate Ramen noodles in hot dog buns.
Did this emotional eating making me feel better? Did it take my pain away? Were my problems gone after I was done? No. They were still there. I felt guilty, actually, for eating that way and disgusted for eating what I ate.
Why Do We Emotionally Eat?
Emotional eating is not our fault. It's in our blood to eat. It's in our biology.
We are driven by fear, food, and reproduction.
If we think we are in danger, we run away from it. Or we avoid the situation. For example, if you feel your partner is getting ready to leave you, some may avoid them. You make a mistake at work and fear that you may lose your job, you may avoid your boss, or prolong a meeting. Why do you think it's so hard to say I'm sorry when making a large mistake or look someone in the eye after hurting their feelings? It's because of fear.
Biology drives food. We are afraid of starving or our body not getting what it needs. So, we eat even when we are not hungry. For example, the media is telling us food is scarce, we eat in FEAR that it may run out.
We are driven by reproduction. We don't want our species to die out.
Honestly, I'm not sure my biology is driven by reproduction. But the people who want kids and have the desire to have them, this is why. For example, a woman smells the top of a baby's head and she gets a tingling sensation in her uterus. That's her biology telling her to reproduce.
Another reason for emotional eating is the change in our food. Drug-like foods fill our grocery stores. Processed foods, foods filled with sugar, and gluten products. All three of these foods convert to sugar in your body making you have a drug-like reaction. The sugar becomes addicting, leaving you wanting more of it. These are usually the foods we turn to for comfort.
Therefore, when our emotions are high we crave it.
Learn How to Read Your Hunger Cues
You know you better than anyone else. Emotionally eating requires that you dig deep and become aware of your hunger cues.
You have your physical signs of hunger. These include when your stomach grumbles, you have trouble focusing, or you start to feel your energy slip. These are signs of hunger. And they don't happen quickly. It's a slow process.
Pay attention to these signs. These are actual signs that you ARE hunger and that you SHOULD eat.
These are signs that we know. Likewise, signs that we are usually VERY aware of.
On the other hand, we have psychological signs. This happens quickly. This is when you want a specific kind of food and you want it NOW. It's a craving. Sometimes it happens in a response to a negative feeling. This is the sign you want to become MORE aware of. Because... this is when emotional eating happens.
For example, if you suddenly want a cookie when you get home after a stressful day, that's psychological hunger.
Fortunately, there are several great things you can do to beat psychological hunger. Instead of feeding your craving, try something else. Essentially, you will be distracting yourself from that craving. Most of the time once we distract ourselves and stop thinking about the craving, we move on.
So instead of reaching for that cookie, go for a walk, drink a glass of water, call someone, clean, play with your dog or kids. The list is endless. But do something to distract yourself and make sure it's something you enjoy and will help you take your mind off the craving.
After that, see how you feel.
Make an Eating Schedule
This one sounds tough. But it's not. It will take some time to get your schedule down. But once you do, it will be as simple as watching a movie on a Friday night.
This one has been the most helpful for me. I have a schedule of when I eat lunch, a snack, dinner, and dessert if I want it that day. For example, here is my schedule today. I am not fasting today so I will eat breakfast this time:
8:25- eat breakfast
2:00- eat lunch
7:00- eat dinner
Now on a fasting day, my schedule would look like this:
8:35- drink coffee
2:00- eat lunch
7:45- little dessert
The reason why you want to write an eating schedule down is that it takes the guesswork out of when you need to eat. The trick here is to fill in the times you are not eating with something else such as exercise or a hobby!
This is why this has worked great for me. I am no longer controlled by food. I control food. Therefore, I control when I eat. I have had so much more time for hobbies.
Not to mention, when I'm at the store or running errands I'm no longer saying I have to get home so I can eat. I don't feel the need to eat yet. I have a schedule and I am properly fueling my body. My body doesn't feel like it's starving so it's not driven by food.
It's really freeing, my friend. I strongly recommend getting into the habit of getting yourself on a schedule when it comes to food. It feels so good to be in control of this aspect of life.
Reduce Emotional Eating With HRV Training
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) training is a practice I have recently gotten into. And it has been one of the most effective practices I have added into my life. I notice the benefits of it immediately.
When we emotionally eat, it is because we are feeling stressed or we are feeling depressed. Stress makes our heart rate go up causing our body to go in flight or fight mode (aka fear). Remember our biology is driven by fear.
HRV training can help with stress and emotion. By doing this practice, you can learn to consciously control your stress response. When you train, you learn to control your heart rate. Therefore, hacking your fear and stress levels.
The device I use is called HeartMath. It is a little handheld device with a clip that goes on your ear. You look at the device and it has a meter that you have to follow with your breath. It will help you control your breathing. When the lights go up, you inhale with it. When the lights on the meter go down, you exhale with it. It starts at a normal pace, then it will start to go faster, then it will slow down.
After you use this device, you will feel a sense of calm. This helps you consciously control your breathing and helps you take control of your response to stress.
When stress levels aren't spiked up, you don't feel the need to emotionally eat. Because when stress happens, it affects our prefrontal cortex which is our decision-maker. So when our prefrontal cortex is affected, we aren't able to make the best decisions. As a result, emotional eating and poor food choices happen.
Want a little more info on HRV training? Check this post out Heart Rate Variability Training For Fear, Anxiety, and Focus
Emotional eating is in your blood. It's in our biology. So, don't be so hard on yourself. We all do it. The good news... there are ways to beat it! Learn to read your hunger cues, make an eating schedule that works for you, and practice HRV training to control your stress.
Emotional eating may not be our fault but we have control over what we do about it. Hack it and beat it by trying these three ideas!
Certified Brain Health Coach
Owner of SustainaBRAIN