When people first come to see me they often report, “I know how to eat, I just can’t get myself to do it.”
These people are often frustrated and judge themselves harshly for what they perceive to be a lack of willpower. While we may have the facts, decisions about what, when and how much to eat also involve emotions and other physiological drives.
Emotional eating is a term often used to describe eating that is influenced by emotions, both positive and negative. Feelings may influence your motivation to eat, your food choices, where, when and with whom you eat, and the speed with which you eat.
Here are some examples of what emotional eating might look like:
- Eating to soothe or reward yourself after a long day
- Eating during or following a stressful event
- Turning to food to stuff feelings of anger
- Eating to procrastinate
- Eating to numb feelings or forget your worries
- Secretive eating
- Eating quickly and mindlessly without really tasting the food
- Grazing on food when you are not particularly hungry
- Eating that feels uncontrollable or very difficult to stop
- Frequently craving and eating foods you think of as “comfort foods”
- Eating to celebrate or as the primary source of adding joy to your life
- Continuing to eat when you know you are moderately full
Many people eat in an attempt to self-soothe or to momentarily escape painful thoughts or feelings. Emotional eating is often related to feelings of inadequacy that we don’t know how to manage. When emotions become hard to handle, many people feel like they don’t have the skills to cope and eating seems like the best option available to them at the time.
I used to turn to comfort foods often as a way to manage stress. It was quick and improved my mood almost immediately and with little effort. Sounds good, right? Wrong! Think about your own experience. Does turning to food provide you with true or lasting relief? Most people tell me that the relief they experience is fleeting and is often followed by self-recriminations and guilt which often triggers more eating and thoughts like, “I blew it; I’m a failure.”
As a first step to weaken the cycle of emotional eating, just notice your emotions before and after eating. Do your best to be as nonjudgmental as possible. Take a “just the facts” approach so you can gather important information. Recall a situation in which you recently overate where you believe emotions were the primary trigger. You might want to jot down in a notebook the answers to the following questions:
- What was the circumstance? Where was I, who was I with, had something recently happened that might have prompted the urge to escape feelings through food?
- Was I more vulnerable to eating due to something in me (fatigue) or the environment (appetizing food in view or in the pantry)?
- What was I feeling and/or thinking? What sensations was I aware of in my body?
- How did the emotions or thoughts affect my eating?
- How did I feel physically, mentally and emotionally after eating?
When you begin to notice the feelings, thoughts, and other aspects of your eating experiences, you are taking a step back and getting more perspective on your triggers. When you practice gaining perspective, your behavior will become less impulsive. Over time, you will become able to say things like, “Oh look, I’m really angry and I want to go munch on cookies.” From there you will have the choice to learn a new way to cope with the anger rather than feeling controlled by it.