What do you call it when your feelings affect what, when and how you eat? In healthcare circles, we refer to this very common phenomenon as “emotional eating.” Over time, it can become a very destructive pattern that leads to poor nutrition and unhealthy weight gain. If you suspect that you may be prone to emotional eating, the key is to recognize the kinds of circumstances that trigger it and then to use a handful of mindfulness strategies to change your behavior in ways that protect your health.

What Causes Emotional Eating?
Studies have shown that many different feelings can trigger emotional eating—anxiety, loneliness, sadness, boredom and anger, to name a few. While these types of negative emotions can sometimes be triggered by traumatic life events such as the loss of a job, a divorce or a death in the family, they can also be a response to exhaustion or the pressures of daily life. It is also true that many people will over-indulge when they’re celebrating, especially in social settings. This is hardly surprising—after all, we learn early in life to associate food with special occasions like birthdays and holidays.

When we eat for reasons like these (that is, for reasons other than being hungry), we usually do so without thinking very much about it. At its best, emotional eating can be a “food fling”—an occasional indulgence. But at its worst, emotional eating can become a mindless, automatic activity that we use regularly for coping, distraction and avoidance. Food can become both a reward when things are going well and a consolation when they’re not. This is the kind of pattern to look out for.

The Warning Signs
Awareness is the first step. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help determine whether you’re an emotional eater:

  • Do you often eat when you’re not actually hungry?
  • Do you think specifically about what you’re going to eat and whether it’s good for you before you eat it?
  • Do you find yourself especially attracted to sugary, fatty or salty snacks?
  • Do you often eat without actually tasting the food or forget that you’ve eaten?
  • Do you often feel guilt or regret after eating between meals?

Now What?
If you suspect that you’re an emotional eater, there are several do-it-yourself behavioral interventions that you can use to break the pattern. In general, these are designed to promote mindfulness, reduce the damage caused by emotional eating or help build new habits.

  • Record your emotions and read to yourself what you’ve written before you visit the refrigerator or open the pantry door.
  • Make a list of the things in your life that are stressing you out and write down what you can do to address them productively or to think about them differently instead of using food to distract yourself or avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings.
  • Wait 15 minutes whenever you feel the urge to eat between meals so that there is time for the impulse to pass and for you to understand what’s triggering it.
  • Create a healthy snack dish containing cut up vegetables and fruit and keep it where you can get to it during the day. At the same time, make sure that your go-to unhealthy snacks are either stored in inconvenient, hard-to-reach places or aren’t in the house at all.
  • Substitute a walk around the block, 10 push-ups, 25 sit-ups or 50 jumping jacks for a trip to the refrigerator.
  • Schedule occasional “snacking date nights ” to give yourself permission to enjoy the foods you love—deliberately and in moderation.
  • Find new hobbies to help fight boredom in your downtime.

The Comfort Food Trap
When we eat emotionally, we also tend to reach for so-called “comfort foods” that usually contain large amounts of sugar, fat or salt. So it’s a nutritional double-whammy: we’re eating when we’re not really hungry AND we’re also eating calorie-dense foods that aren’t very good for us.

It turns out there are a number of physiological reasons why many of us crave things like chocolate and macaroni and cheese when we’re down. Over the past few years, scientists have found that particular types of food can indeed have a very real influence on our state of mind through mechanisms such as brain chemistry and blood sugar levels. In part two of the Mood Food Connection, we’ll explain in more detail how the foods we eat can affect the way we feel.

If you’re interested in learning more about healthy weight management techniques that help you feel and perform at your best, call or visit our office today! We’re here to help!

Read part two of “The Mood Food Connection” here.