Have you ever felt a bit down and sought comfort in a snack? If so, you might be emotional eating. It’s a common habit, but emotional eating can cause you to gain weight and experience adverse health problems down the line.
So, are you ready to break the emotional eating cycle? If so, we’ll take a look at what it is, what causes you to stress eat, and offer some tips to kick the habit to the curb.
So What Is Emotional Eating Anyway?
It’s not unusual to rely on food as a source of comfort when you’re anxious, stressed out, depressed, or bored. Sometimes, you may use food as a reward, since it’s lovely to occasionally treat yourself if you’re feeling low or as a reward for an achievement. The problem? When this behavior gets out of control.
When you stress eat, it can lead to future health problems. Several studies show there’s a link between stress and weight gain. When you overeat, it may lead to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, gout, high blood pressure, and a whole host of other conditions.
There are many reasons why you might find yourself in the kitchen snacking, even when you don’t feel hungry. But, if you want to learn how to eliminate emotional eating, you must uncover the source of your behavior.
The Roots of Emotional Eating
You may have many triggers that cause you to stress eat. When you’re stressed, your body releases the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Adrenaline can dampen your appetite in the short term, but cortisol increases hunger. If your cortisol levels stay high, you may find the temptation to tuck into comfort foods doesn’t disappear.
Chances are, you were given special food as a reward when your behavior was pleasing or to comfort you when you felt upset. This association can stay with you into adulthood. When you’re anxious, you crave fatty, sugary, high-calorie foods. A 2011 study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology says, when you eat these foods, it helps reduce your cortisol levels. But indulging becomes a problem when you overeat high-fat, high-sugar, calorie-dense foods because it leads to the development of unhealthy visceral fat. And there’s an association between visceral fat and heart disease, diabetes, increased risk of stroke, and Alzheimer’s.
A 2018 study from Williams et al. found women are more likely than men to engage in emotional eating, although it does affect both genders.
How Emotional Eating Differs From Physical Hunger
It can be challenging to determine the difference between emotional hunger and the physical hunger you feel when your body needs food. If you want to stop stress eating, you must learn to recognize physical desire versus emotional hunger. Here are a few things to watch out for.
- When your emotional hunger kicks in, you’re more likely to crave specific comfort foods, such as sweets, fast food, and other high fat, less healthy options. The stereotype of reaching for a tub of ice cream when you’re feeling down exists for a reason. It’s doubtful you’ve ever been overstressed and whipped up a plate of steamed broccoli!
- Genuine hunger is gradual, while emotional hunger feels instantaneous. And there’s another primary difference between bonafide hunger and emotional eating; you’ll feel satiated after you eat. When your desire for food is due to stress or other emotions, it can cause you to overeat mindlessly.
- Do you feel bad about yourself after wolfing down a pizza? Stress eating often causes guilt or shame after you’ve indulged.
- Ever been in the grips of an eating session and asked yourself, “Why can’t I stop eating?” Emotional hunger doesn’t leave you satiated. You may find yourself eating and eating to the point of feeling packed yet you still don’t feel satisfied.
- When you eat to entertain yourself, that’s another red flag. Fortunately, you can learn how to stop eating when bored.
Tips To Stop Emotional Eating
If you want to lose weight or simply improve your diet, emotional eating can be a setback to your efforts.
Here are some practical ways to manage your stress that don’t involve raiding your kitchen cabinets.
- Exercise regularly. Go for a run, take a yoga class, hit the local pool, lift weights, jump on your bike – any sort of regular exercise helps you stay fit and is also essential to your mental health. Even a brisk walk around the block is a step in the right direction.
- Practice mindfulness both in your daily life and pay special attention when you eat. Choose healthier foods, plan your meals, and don’t keep junk food in the house.
- Meditation is excellent for stress reduction.
- Reduce your junk food intake. Focus on healthy meals made from whole food ingredients – nutritious meals help you feel full longer.
- A supportive group of friends and family is a fantastic way to help you deal with stressful situations and work out problems. Healthy relationships can improve your mental health and sense of well-being, which may reduce the lure of emotional eating.
A well-balanced eating plan full of fresh ingredients, regular exercise, and a full night’s sleep are all essential elements of a healthy lifestyle. There’s no doubt stress is terrible for you. But if you learn how to manage stress, you’ll reduce your risk for disease and lead a happier, healthier, and better quality of life.
When To Seek Professional Help
If your stress eating is out of control and you feel overwhelmed, seek professional help. There are many healthcare professionals specially trained to help you develop a healthier relationship with food. It’s okay to ask for help – your doctor can give you the tools you need to break the emotional eating cycle.
Getting control over your stress eating is in your hands. You can make changes to your eating habits, get support from friends and family, or seek professional help, depending on what’s right for you. When you learn to identify and manage stressors and develop new ways to cope with life’s pressures, you can learn how to stop emotional eating.