Are you the kind of person who turns to food when life throws you for a loop, even when you are on a diet plan? When the pressure of work becomes too much, you turn to the fridge. When the times are sad, you turn to food. When you’re ecstatic, you turn to food. And boredom does the same number on you; drives you to food.
If you answered yes to these questions, the sad truth you must acknowledge to yourself is that you are an emotional eater. But the good news is that you are not in the minority; you are definitely not alone.
So, what exactly is stress eating?
Stress eating, also known as emotional eating, is eating to meet emotional needs, rather than eating to satisfy physical hunger. In simpler terms, it means that your emotions and not your body commands when and just how much you eat, even if you are dieting. It is a coping mechanism that is used by many to make themselves feel better.
Emotional eating is one of the reasons why diets fail because diets are powerless when the dieter has no conscious control over his/her eating habits.
Health effects of emotional eating
Repetitive emotional eating can lead to a whole lot of weight-related health problems such as excessive weight gain, high blood pressure, Diabetes, fatigue and high blood pressure.
A simple self-diagnosis: Are you an emotional eater?
If you answer yes to the following questions, there is no doubt that you are an emotional eater:
When feeling stressed, do you tend to eat more?
When sad, anxious, angry, boredom do you eat to feel better?
Do you keep eating even when you are full?
Do you conveniently forget about your diet plans when you see food?
Are you the kind of person who rewards him/herself with food on accomplishment of a goal?
Do you eat even when you’re really not hungry?
Does food soothe and comfort you and make you feel safe?
Does food make you feel like you are powerless and have no control?
Do you sometimes eat without even realizing that you’re eating?
Do you sometimes find yourself eating at odd locations, such as parked in your vehicle outside your own house?
Do you eat when there is nothing else to do?
Does eating make focus less on problems you’re facing?
Before proceeding, it is vital to differentiate between physical hunger and emotional hunger. Physical hunger has to do with physical feelings of emptiness in your belly. At the extreme, this is characterized by a rumbling and general body weakness. It is usually gradual in its build up. Meanwhile, emotional hunger comes on suddenly, hitting instantly and feeling overwhelmingly urgent. When you are truly hungry almost anything you get is good for eating, but when you are emotionally hungry, you crave specific comfort foods, which you end up eating mindlessly. Before you are aware of what’s happening, you’ve demolished a whole pint of ice cream or an entire bag of chips. And you don’t feel satisfied even when your belly is full if you are eating out of emotional hunger. This often eventually leads to regret, guilt, or shame.
Why you may be stress-eating
There are quite a handful of reasons why people indulge in emotional eating. More often than not, people who stress eat, grew up associating food with feelings instead of recognizing it as a means of sustaining the human body. Children who didn’t have quite enough to eat because food was scarce, and children who were either punished by food being withheld and rewarded by receiving a bigger portion of food, often grow up to become emotional eaters.
For these people, it is not about filling the belly or maintaining a proper diet. It is all about filling the emotional void. Food thus becomes a substitute for emotional intimacy.
A medical reason
When you are chronically stressed, your body releases cortisol, a stress hormone. Cortisol triggers and heightens the cravings for sweet, salty, and fried foods. These are foods that give the human body a burst of energy as well as pleasure. So, if there is uncontrolled stress in your life, you are most likely going to turn to food to get some emotional relief.
How to break free
You too can control your emotional/stress eating, but you must first change your habits. This requires dedication and commitment. Breaking free of emotional eating can be done in 5 steps:
Identify your triggers: There are triggers that make you stress eat, and the very first step to breaking free is to identify your triggers. Is it family stress, work stress, or relationship issues? A problem recognized is a problem half solved, so identifying your trigger is getting halfway there. To find the source of your stress eating, keep a weight loss journal. Document what you eat and how you feel when you eat. Also take notice of the people you are with when you eat, and the location. Take note of the circumstances that surround your eating. These may provide clues to your triggers.
Seek healthy ways to deflate stress: Now that you have identified your triggers, you need to set up healthy systems to avoid eating in those situations, and to stick to a healthy diet. In other words, find other ways to feed your feelings. Find alternatives to food that you can turn to. If you’re depressed, you might want to call someone who never fails to make you feel better or you might want to curl up with a favorite movie. When exhausted, how about taking a bath or turning to a hot cup of tea? When bored, how about turning to an activity that you love i.e. reading, catching a good comedy show? If you are anxious, try to expend the overwhelming nervous energy by walking, dancing or exercising?
Practice mindful eating: More often than not when the urge to stress-eat hits, there is an almost unbearable tension that the willpower often bows to. Mindful eating means teaching yourself to pause between your triggers and your immediate actions. To put mindful eating into practice, remember the rule of 5. It simply means giving yourself 5 minutes before you give in to a craving. Put off eating that food for just 5 minutes. And while waiting, ask yourself what you are feeling emotionally. More often than not, exploring your feelings while you wait will mean you end up not stress eating. Should you do end up giving in to that caving, you have a better understanding of why you did it, which is a huge asset for a better outcome next time.
Accept your feelings, good and bad: Don’t obsess over or suppress your emotions. When you embrace them for what they are, you are able to deal with them and subsequently, you avoid stress eating.
Get professional help: If you have tried all that you can and nothing seems to be working, don’t hesitate to ask for professional help. A trained professional may be able to help you deal with the issues that cause you to stress-eat.