Do you ever find yourself searching the fridge or pantry for food even though you’re not hungry?
Or craving sweet things like ice-cream and chocolate after the kids go to bed, even though you KNOW eating these things is getting in the way of your weight loss goals?
If this feels familiar, you’re doing what’s known as emotional eating – and it’s probably the reason you’re struggling to lose weight.
When I first talk to people about emotional eating, they sometimes think it’s something you do after a breakup or another traumatic experience – like Bridget Jones eating ice-cream with her head under the doona.
But actually, emotional eating can be much less obvious than this – so much so that you might not even realise you’re doing it.
The good news is there are strategies that can help you identify when you’re eating for comfort rather than hunger, and stop doing it so you can lose weight for good (without being on a never-ending diet).
In this article, we’re going to explore what emotional eating is, why we do it, and what strategies you can use to overcome it (for good!).
1. What is emotional eating?
Healthline describes emotional eating as using food to comfort and soothe negative emotions or feelings several times a week or more.
The negative feelings could be due to something serious like work stress, money worries, relationship struggles or anxiety.
Or they could be more benign feelings like boredom, procrastination or fatigue.
I like to describe emotional eating as simply any eating you do that isn’t in response to your biological hunger cues.
And while it’s very common, it can have a big impact on your weight.
So, why does emotional eating stop you losing weight (or maybe even cause you to gain weight)?
Well, it comes back to the basic principle of calories in versus calories out.
Calories is the term given to the energy that’s stored in the chemical bonds of the foods you eat.
You extract the energy from food through the process of digestion, which your body then uses to perform various essential daily functions and everyday tasks.
This is broken down as follows:
- 60% of the calories you use each day goes towards basic functions to keep your body alive (your basal metabolic rate).
- 10% is used to digest the food you eat (called the thermic effect of food).
- About 30% is used for physical activity, depending on how active you are.
When you put more calories into your body than it needs, you gain weight. When you put less energy into your body than it needs, you lose weight. And when you put into your body just the right amount of energy it needs – your weight stays the same. (Yes, it’s really that simple.)
All the diet rules out there are just designed to get this seesaw to swing in the direction of less energy in compared to energy out.
However, what most diets and meal plans don’t address is the driver (emotions) behind your eating behaviours.
Which means if you’re eating more calories than your body needs because of emotional reasons, rather than hunger, and you don’t address those reasons, you’re going to find it really hard to lose weight.
The image below shows just how delicate the balancing act is between losing, maintaining or increasing your body weight.
Each of the food portions represents 95 calories of energy. Simply consuming an extra 95 calories each day over what your body can use can cause a weight gain of 5kg per year.
This is why overeating is such a problem when you’re trying to lose weight – and why overcoming emotional eating (the key cause of overeating) is really the key to long-term weight loss success.
2. Why do we emotionally eat?
There are various ways we learn to handle the emotions that life can trigger.
Some people learn from an early age that it’s okay to express their feelings or to ask for a hug. Others aren’t so lucky and might not know how to take care of themselves in productive, nurturing ways.
There are many emotional triggers for eating, and it’s likely most people eat emotionally from time to time.
It’s important to remember that emotional eating is really normal – everyone does it! It’s only a problem when it’s a part of your everyday life, and/or you feel bad about it.
Common emotional eating triggers include:
- anxiety – using food to calm yourself
- abandonment – food is always there, it’s a reliable constant in your life
- boredom – eating as something to do or using food as excitement
- celebration – food accompanies most events
- commiseration – I deserve this because I had a hard day
- emptiness – food helps fill the void you feel
- frightened – food is comforting and soothing
- feeling lonely or unloved – using food as a friend
- inadequate – making and preparing food gives you a sense of purpose
- frustration, anger or rage – eating gives you a release
- loosening the reins – eating as an outlet from an otherwise self-imposed militaristic or perfectionistic life
- mild depression – carbohydrates can increase serotonin, the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter
- sadness – eating for comfort or console
- procrastination – I’ll do that task after I eat something
- reward – I just achieved something, now I deserve this food
- stress – food for relief
You may not even realise you’re emotionally eating, or maybe all of a sudden emotional eating catches you by surprise.
If this happens, don’t think of it as a failure or something to feel guilty about. Instead, think of it as a sign that the stress in your life at the moment is greater than the coping mechanisms you have developed.
3. How to overcome emotional eating
Despite what some people might tell you, in my experience, restricting yourself or relying on willpower alone never works as a long-term strategy for emotional eating.
So, what does?
Well, there are 3 key things I recommend to all of my clients:
1. Learn to recognise real hunger
Before you eat, stop and take a couple of deep breaths and check-in with yourself.
Are you actually physically hungry (that is, is your body giving you physical signals that it needs fuel)?
Or, are you looking to soothe an emotion or comfort yourself with food?
Recognising when you’re eating for comfort rather than hunger is the first important step to overcoming emotional eating.
2. Get to know your emotional triggers
If you’re eating for comfort, try to identify your top 2 triggers.
For example, are you bored, stressed, under pressure, exhausted or lonely?
Or could it be in response to the weather, or are the kids driving you insane?
Self-awareness is key here, and if you pay attention, you’ll start to recognise some patterns.
3. Understand what you REALLY need in these moments
If you do find yourself emotionally eating, see if you can find something other than food that will soothe or comfort you.
Some ideas include:
- taking a warm shower or bath (hot water is incredibly soothing)
- stepping outside for some fresh air
- trying some stretching
- doing some guided meditation – use an app or search for one on YouTube
- calling a family member or friend if you’re feeling lonely
- finding a chore to do if you’re bored – unpack the dishwasher, fold some washing, vacuum, reply to emails, tidy a drawer
- reading a book, doing a puzzle or drawing
Remember, overcoming your emotional eating takes practice and patience – but there’s never been a better time to start than right now!
Want to lose weight and keep it off so that you can say goodbye to dieting and hello to being the energetic hands-on mum you want to be?
What you need is a new approach that doesn’t include relying on willpower or following a restrictive diet, plus some support and accountability to help set you on the right track.
That’s where I can help!
You’re invited to join my free 3-Step Plan to End Emotional Eating Masterclass that I’m hosting on the evening of Tuesday, 11 January 2022 at 7.30 PM AEST (Bris) / 8.30 PM AEDT (Syd/Melb).
In this free live masterclass, I’ll be sharing:
- The 3 biggest reasons why you emotionally eat or can’t stop emotionally eating.
- My 3-step plan to end emotional eating that doesn’t include relying on willpower or following a restrictive diet.
It’s the exact same framework I teach my 1:1 clients in my 30-day End Emotional Eating program.
And now I’m going behind the scenes and sharing it with you too!
Click here to save your seat: The 3-Step Plan to End Emotional Eating
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