During the holidays and other stressful times of the year, we often eat too much. And then, we make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight. The average person gains about ten extra pounds during the fall months. But, how many times have you made that resolution? How many diets have you tried? For many women who want to lose weight, the ongoing quest to find the perfect diet is pointless. The reality is, no matter which foods are available, the burden of emotional eating will sabotage their efforts.
What is emotional eating?
Triggered by negative events
First, the basic idea of emotional eating is eating to suppress negative emotions. Essentially, it’s eating to feel better. But emotional hunger doesn’t just come out of nowhere. There’s always a trigger of sorts that causes you to start feeling hungry, even if it’s not clear at first. These triggers vary depending on the person and situation.
This tends to be a very straightforward cause and effect situation. Because of something in your life that caused distress, you then feel emotional hunger. For example, let’s say you have a bad day with the kids or your husband hurts your feelings. Later, you might indulge in a bunch of unhealthy food because it relaxes you and takes your mind off it.
In addition, as I mentioned above, certain times of year bring more stress than others for certain individuals. For example, the back to school routine might be stressful – or even the holidays when extended family is around.
Like an addiction
It’s not uncommon for people to feel the urge to emotionally eat without fully understanding why. This is because they’ve blocked themselves off from their emotions. So, they don’t associate the day’s events with their eating habits. But, it’s important to do a bit of self-analysis to learn about your own triggers.
You can figure out your triggers by watching patterns in your own life. Then, you can see when certain things happen and how they drive you to eat during stressful times.
This knowledge of your own triggers is crucial to fixing your emotional eating habits. Because, if you don’t understand your motivations, you can’t fix it. You have to know your enemy, so to speak.
While many people think that you can simply will away emotional hunger, that’s not quite the case. It’s not as simple as just “stopping eating” for many people, because it’s almost like an addiction. And that’s why diet after diet fails.
Emotional eating is a strong urge that they feel like they must fulfill. This is what drives them to keep on doing it, even though they know it’s bad for them. Studies show that this is because a sugar addiction is just as powerful as a cocaine addiction.
How did the emotional eating start?
So, where did this correlation come from? How do we develop those triggers? Well, from our early years, food is treated as something other than a nutrition source. Think back to when you were a child – maybe even your toddler years. Remember hearing this–“You can have dessert when you finish your dinner.” That’s one form of turning food into something other than what it’s meant to be. You also may have been taken for a treat like ice cream if you got good grades. This is another way that parents turn food into a reward. It sets the stage for rewarding ourselves later in life when we need those “feel good” endorphins during stressful times.
Another example is receiving a treat when we hurt ourselves or felt sad. For instance, if you fell off a bicycle, your mom or dad may have given you a popsicle or cookie to calm your tears. In this way, you grew up associating food as a form of solace and comfort.
You didn’t know it then, and neither did your parents, but you were being conditioned for a psychological link between eating and emotions. Even schools do this sometimes, such as handing out treats for those who followed a rule or got a certain grade.
You start to see that unhealthy foods can be both convenient and comforting, eliminating some of your stress in certain moments. You may begin to think that in order to “make it through” a tough time, you need food to be on hand.
Important role in social gatherings
Finally, food is an important part of social gatherings and happy times. Food isn’t just used for pain avoidance. Family dinners and events are filled with delicious meals, including birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving – even graduation celebrations, retirement parties and more.
We learn to associate specific foods or meals with feelings of happiness during these events, so they become woven into our lives with fondness. Later, when you encounter tumultuous times, you’ll seek out foods that may be unhealthy, simply because they take you back to a time when life was pleasant.
Emotional Eating Effects on Our Emotions
There are some emotions that are more prone to playing into an emotional eating disorder than other ones. Let’s cover what those are and how food becomes a source of comfort for each one.
Worry and anxiety
People usually want to squash anxiety right away. To constantly be in a state of worry is very uncomfortable and alarming for many people. You might be worried about money, your relationships, or career or even your health, among other things. When worry and nervousness set in, you begin looking for a distraction to keep your mind off of that concern. Food is often within reach, calling your name and offering to help keep your mind occupied.
It can be a rich source of distraction, too. You begin by thinking of what foods you’ll create. Maybe you spend more time planning and shopping for the ingredients. Then you come home and engage in a lengthy preparation process of those meal items. You get to stay distracted while cooking, and finally spend even more time eating and enjoying the meal. All of that time engaged in the topic of food pushes whatever worry you had to the side, giving you a respite from that unwanted feeling for as long as you can drag it out.
Loneliness is another emotion you may want to use food to avoid. When you feel lonely, it’s as though there’s a gaping hole in your heart and soul, leaving you feeling unwanted and worthless. For many, this is the worst kind of emotion – and one they want to avoid at all costs. So you may find solace in the form of food. It becomes a sort of companion for you, always there for you, always enjoyable and in endless supply. Even the process of going out to get the food becomes an event in your eyes, and delivers an odd form of social interaction, even if it’s only with workers at a restaurant, who are always smiling and happy and kind to you.
The problem is, food isn’t a companion. It isn’t meant to fill the missing part of your life meant to be full of friendships, camaraderie and love. It can only do so much before you need the next fix, causing you to overeat and silence your emotional turmoil.
Anger might be the emotion you feed with unhealthy or large amounts of food. Not everyone feels like they can eat when angry, but remember, anger can be anything from a slow, simmering boil to an explosion of emotions. So while you may not be able to eat emotionally in the midst of a major anger episode, the chance of you fueling your anger with food while slightly irritable is greater, and it snowballs into something formidable over time.
Sadness or grief is definitely an emotion that gets fed when we feel it. In fact, think of a grief situation like funerals – there’s always a plethora of comfort food delivered to those grieving over the loss of a loved one. This is to help them with convenience, but also to offer comfort and love during a horrible time. And this form of emotional eating doesn’t just show up with major events like the loss of a loved one. Sadness can be about anything you wish wasn’t happening, even minor things. So as the feeling begins to surface, you might push it back down with your favorite foods of choice – whether savory or sweet.
And, surprisingly, sometimes joy
Happiness and joy are also feelings that generate emotional eating. It’s a different kind of strategy, because you’re not trying to avoid a feeling, but rather highlight it with something you love – food. While this is traditional and normal for many cultures, it’s also something that can get out of control if you let it. If every moment of happiness is met with an influx of food, it might result in considerable weight gain over time.
Get started breaking the chains of emotional eating
The first thing you’ll want to do to break the chains of emotional eating is identify where you, personally use food in your life to enhance or avoid certain feelings. Think back on how you’ve used food in the past.
Or, track your habits over the coming days or weeks to point out where you’re using food as a form of comfort or joy. If you aren’t familiar with your emotional eating habits, it will be more difficult for you to alter the behaviors.
Remember, the true cause of emotional eating is that you have unresolved or ongoing conflicts in your life that are causing you to feel depressed, stressed, or uneasy. These situations vary greatly from person to person, but whatever it is, it needs to be resolved.
Once you start to identify the things that you can do to really help outside of just eating, then you start the path to recovery by doing whatever you need to do to get your emotional state stable.