We have all been there, face down in the bucket of ice cream or staring down at the bottom of an empty chip bag, riddled with guilt and wondering why we have such little self-control. The concept of emotional eating can be a difficult one to grasp. We are all familiar with the need for drive-thru on a Friday after work, or a bowl of ice cream after dinner. But when food cravings go beyond the “occasional sweet treat” we have to stop and think about how much our mood is affecting these food choices.
At it’s most basic, emotional eating is a normal occurrence for everyone that means you have an occasional sweet treat and really no harm was done. The other end of the spectrum is a lot more detrimental to an individual’s mental and physical health. There is the possibility of food becoming an uncontrollable obsession and something that you battle with on a daily basis.
How Our Emotions Drive Eating Habits
Emotional eating is one of the main reasons that so many diets fail: we don’t always eat just to meet hunger. More often times than not we eat to suppress or soothe negative emotions. These can include stress, boredom, anxiety, sadness or loneliness.
It doesn’t take a major life event to trigger emotional eating, more commonly, the causes are the hassles of daily life. Triggers for emotional eating might include such things as:
- Relationship Conflicts
- Work Stress
- Financial Pressures
- Health problems
Although some people find that their appetite reduces in the face of strong emotions, it is more common to turn to impulsive eating.
Food serves as a distraction and a replacement. The process of eating turns your focus away from the worry, dulling emotions – until you’re left without a distraction once more.
Emotional eating will only ever be a short-term fix: whatever the emotions are that are driving you to overeat, the situation will always play out the same. Emotions will return, often alongside the extra burden of guilt felt over the food you’ve consumed.
This unhealthy cycle of events is self-perpetuating; emotions trigger overeating, you feel guilty about it, and you overeat again. The key is, finding a way to break the chain.
The Real Cause of Comfort Eating: Childhood Experience
It’s a common instinct of both adults and children to self-soothe with food, but where does this instinct come from?
Like many of our adult characteristics, our tendency towards comfort eating is likely molded in our childhood years.
Most of our neural pathways form in childhood while our brain is still developing. During this time we’re taught how to behave by those closest to us – often our parents, other family members, and peers.
If your parents teach you that certain foods are treats (which many parents do ignore to encourage moderation when it comes to unhealthy foods), they could actually be teaching you damaging behavior.
Studies by researchers in Norway found that a staggering 65% of children demonstrated emotional eating to some extent.
It was also found that parents often admit to using food to comfort their children when seeing their child in emotional distress.
These factors mean that emotional eating is often a behavior learned from caregivers.
Emotional eating is not entirely down to learned behavior. Eating to soothe our emotions is not pathological – it’s human!
Emotional eating does ‘Work’ at a chemical level, so it can be viewed as a smart thing to do in some small capacity. But it’s definitely not the most effective or sustainable method of self-soothing!
We should be trying to teach the younger population a wide repertoire of emotional soothing strategies. These include emotional self-care, connection, mindfulness, meditation. Teaching these behaviors, giving options other than overeating, can play a large role in combating childhood obesity.
Solving the Problem: The Power of Habit
Emotional eating works like an addiction and could even be viewed as a form of self-harm – there’s an emotional trigger point, followed by a reaction that negatively impacts health and well-being.
As stated before, the process is often self-perpetuating and habitual, and like any habit, it’s difficult to put in place effective change.
An understanding of the habit loop can assist you in changing your bad habits into good ones. The neurological pattern governs that a habit consists of three elements: cue, routine, reward.
The cue at the start of the habit loop is the emotional trigger, that sends a signal to the brain telling it which pre-determined habit to start. The heart of the habit is your mental, emotional and physical routine – in this case, that involves overeating. The perceived reward in this pathway is the momentary emotional distraction obtained.
The cue and reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges.
A basic example of this; you come home after a hard day at work kids are screaming, you frantically make dinner, get kids ready for bed, tidy house and then finally sit down to relax. Next thing you know cravings begin MUST HAVE SUGAR NOW. The sugar is found and eaten, and a sense of calm reaches the body. Each night the same pattern happens. The mind is associating the end of the day, relaxation with that little dopamine hit that comes from something sweet to make you feel momentarily at ease.
The Golden Rule of Habit Change
Keep the initial cue, replace the routine, keep the reward.
This is a proven formula for replacing addictive habits. Here are a few ideas on what to replace your routine with:
Sit and clear your head, this can involve quiet reflection on the situation at hand or more formal meditation
With something other than food. Humans are creatures of pleasure. If you take away a pleasure always replace it with another one or you will likely return to the “bad” habit.
Exercise and activity
Gentle exercise and being around nature can help to release endorphins, soothe and settle negative moods
Tips to Stay on Track
Preventing emotions from side-lining weight loss progress can be difficult. It helps to keep yourself accountable and utilize a few of the tricks listed below.
Keep a journal
Writing down how you are feeling when you are craving certain foods can help you see patterns that emerge over time. Understanding the connection between mood and food is essential.
Tame your stress
Try a stress management technique, such a yoga or meditation. Stress raises cortisol and causes sugar and salt cravings that are hard to control.
Have a hunger reality check
If you ate a short while ago and don’t have a rumbling stomach, you’re probably not hungry. Try doing something else with your hands. I have had clients pick up knitting or crocheting and they found it helped with mindless eating.
Instead of snacking, use a substitute healthy behavior to distract yourself when you’re bored. Take a walk, listen to music, read, or call a friend.
Take away temptation
Never keep harp to resist comfort foods within easy access. If you’re feeling sad, stressed or angry – postpone your shopping trip until after you have your emotions in check.
If you have an episode of emotional eating, forgive yourself. It’s important that we learn from setbacks and are gentle with ourselves. Re-focus on your goals and focus on the positive changes you are making to your eating habits. Begin implementing some of the above tools with repetition these will become your new go-to habits instead of eating.
Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. If you have had one failed diet after the next and you struggle with emotional eating, find someone that can help you. Getting to the root of the problem is key to success. Always remember, no diet in the world can fix emotional eating habits.