Emotional eating is the tendency to eat in the face of negative emotions like stress, anxiety, anger, or sadness. Emotional eating is a huge barrier to weight loss by adding many unnecessary calories to the diet and creating a psychological and physiological reliance on food for emotional coping. Here are 6 things to know about emotional eating that may help you to conquer it.
1. Name that Mood. The first step in overcoming emotional eating is to get a clearer understanding of when it happens. For 1 week, when keeping your diet journal, make a note about your mood each time you eat. Give your mood a 1-10 rating of intensity (with 1 being not at all intense and 10 being extremely intense). For example, after a snack you might write down “stressed out” and give it a rating of 7. This will allow you to identify episodes of emotional eating. Figure out how often you emotionally eat, what time of day, what days of the week, and which foods you eat when in a bad mood. This will give you a lot of information about your patterns and also let you know which foods you turn to (be sure to keep these danger foods out of the house). Once you know when you are most likely to emotionally eat, you can begin to make a plan for dealing with those times, which includes the next few items.
2. Emotions are like the Sea. Feeling bad sucks. When we feel sad, angry, or anxious our gut instinct is to make it go away. Sometimes it feels like it will never go away. Have you ever had the flu and after a couple of days you can’t even remember how it felt to be healthy? You feel like you will always feel this sick, even though that’s completely ridiculous. We feel like this with emotional pain too. It feels like it will never go away and so we desperately do anything we think might make it go away. The truth is that negative emotions are like the sea. They ebb and flow like the tide. Sometimes it feels very bad and other times it pulls back and is barely noticeable, and this can all occur over a matter of minutes or hours. Even feelings of extreme overwhelm will calm down quite a bit within a half hour. When it feels really bad, it is important to remind yourself that even if you do nothing, it will subside. This will reduce your urgency to try to “medicate” the bad feelings with food (or other vices, like alcohol, tobacco, gambling, etc).
3. Ride The Storm Out. Knowing that a bad feeling will subside is important because learning to deal with the bad feeling (without eating) involves developing an ability to tolerate it. This means to just feel the emotion in its entirety. To do nothing in the moment to prevent it, just experience it. Let high tide wash over you. Sounds fun, eh? No, not fun at all, but bad feelings are made worse when you put up a fight or run from them. I used to work in a phobia treatment clinic. The therapy was called “in vivo exposure” and the theory was that if you confront the things you fear and experience the fear without doing anything to escape it, the fear will go away. I led the patients through a 3-hour protocol where they confronted their feared object, slowly but surely. I remember one man, a tall, burly farmer, who was deathly afraid of snakes. He shook, sweat, and cried throughout the treatment. It was hard to watch. I had to hold back the impulse to crack a joke, distract him, or do anything to break the tension. I was instructed specifically not to do this. He needed to power through it, to let it run its course. It was miraculous how the fear subsided. Negative emotions are like a tidal wave, you can’t scream and flail your arms or you’ll drown. You have to just take the blow, be still, float on your back, and wait for it to pass. By the end of 3 hours, he was relaxed, smiling, holding the snake, making jokes, and saying he felt fine. Patient after patient, the same thing happened. They powered through it. When you eat during a negative emotion you are distracting yourself, never allowing it to run its natural course. Next time you have an overwhelming emotion, I challenge you to go to a quiet room and just sit through it for at least 15 minutes. Don’t distract your mind, just dive in. Let the bad thoughts and bad feelings come. Notice how they subside eventually. If this sounds too difficult or overwhelming, try with the help of a therapist. By escaping from bad feelings with food (or any other vice) you never allow yourself to discover that you can tolerate bad feelings and that they will subside.
4. Don’t Empower Your Vices – By eating during a negative emotion, you are giving food a new power beyond just meeting your nutrition needs. Now food becomes a coping strategy, making your desire for it intensify. Instead of just eating when you are hungry, you will find yourself eating at the first sign of bad feelings. You begin to believe that you need food to get through the bad feelings. Worse yet, studies show that eating high-fat and/or high-sugar foods can affect activity in the parts of your brain that manage stress, which will further reinforce your reliance on eating in response to stress (Dallman et al 2011). If you feel that you can’t resist eating in response to a bad mood, consider reaching for raw fruit or vegetables since these foods are unlikely to have that effect on your brain.
5. Healthy Coping – Once you have had some practice tolerating bad feelings, you will have more confidence you can deal with them. However, this doesn’t mean that new coping skills aren’t necessary. The key is to find ways to cope with negative feelings that do not cause more problems. Eating causes more problems. So does drinking, being irritable, sleeping too much, and getting lost in TV or internet surfing for hours at a time. Exercise, talking with a supportive friend, and scheduling activities that make you feel better are a few ideas. When considering a new coping strategy, ask yourself: “Will doing this make me feel better or worse right now?” and “Will doing this make me feel better or worse tomorrow?” If you can say “better” to both questions, it is probably a healthy coping strategy. There is no sense in feeling better in the moment if it costs you tomorrow.
6. Conquering the Hard Times is the Key to Success. I have had patients who when having trouble losing weight say something along the lines of, “Well, turns out this isn’t a good time for me to be trying to lose weight, I have so much going on, things are stressful at work, and everything at home is crazy.” This is what I call a Fair Weather Loser—someone who can only lose weight and live healthy when all in their life is calm. When is that? Never. Life is chaos. The secret to weight loss success is being able to keep a healthy lifestyle even in the midst of chaos. Stress is never going away. Bad things are going to happen. If you gain weight every time something bad or stressful happens, your weight will always be up and down. Instead of using stress and hard times as reasons to wait, challenge yourself to put an extra effort into keeping your healthy lifestyle going during these times. This will give you the confidence that you can do this no matter what difficulties come your way.
“When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you till it seems as though you could not hold on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” Harriet Beecher Stowe
Dallman, MF. (2010). Stress-induced obesity and the emotional nervous system. Trends in Endocrinol Metab, 21(3), 159-165.
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