What is Emotional Eating?
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Food serves us in amazing ways. It is our source of energy and nourishment. It heals us when we are ill and we all know that a healthy diet helps us live longer. To some degree, everyone lets emotions drive the need to eat, and this is a healthy and enjoyable aspect of life. Celebrating a birthday with cake is an example of eating for emotional uplift rather than for its nutritional value. Holiday family feasts or pizza nights are other examples of how we use food pleasurably. Many of us will remember occasions when we soothed ourselves with a warm meal after a difficult day.
Consequently, eating food for reasons other than to fuel our bodies is hardly a bad thing. Food is a very natural means to seek pleasure and have fun. However, some of us have a complicated relationship with food. Problematic emotional eating occurs when the urge to eat is chronically driven by negative emotions like anxiety, stress, grief, guilt or feelings of emptiness and boredom. Here, food provides an antidote for negative feelings. Unfortunately, the derived pleasure neither lasts long nor removes the core problems that triggered the negative emotions. And therein lies the problem with emotional eating.
The Emotional Eating Cycle
The physiology of emotional eating can sometimes trap individuals in a cyclical cascade of events. Hormones and nerves regulate the digestive system with intricate signals between the brain and the gut. This produces enzymes in the digestive tract when you are hungry and stops them when you are full. In emotional eaters, the limbic system, also called the pleasure centres of the brain, hijacks this process.
When the tongue senses delicious tasting food, it activates pleasure responses in the brain. What, when and how much you eat are all influenced by the limbic system which generates cravings for specific foods. These powerful emotions draw emotional eaters in like iron to a magnet. The pleasure derived from eating becomes a mechanism to counter negative emotions. Unfortunately, these “highs” do not last long, the core problems still exist and low feelings return.
Physical Hunger or Emotional Eating?
An important distinction between physical hunger and emotional eating is that physical hunger comes on gradually, and is often tied to when you ate your last meal. Emotional hunger can come on suddenly in the form of a craving. Physical hunger will allow you to explore a variety of food, whereas, with emotional hunger, you will crave only certain foods. Also, physical hunger ends with a distinct sensation of fullness. Emotional eaters, in contrast, binge and do not feel this sensation. And finally, physical hunger hardly ever causes feelings of guilt and shame afterwards, whereas, this is a significant residue of emotional eating.
Taking Control of Emotional Eating
Emotional eaters can address their eating habits by taking a pause when hunger strikes to examine the emotions that triggered their hunger. For example, if you suddenly crave a slice of lemon cake with your coffee in the middle of the workday, could it be due to workplace stress? If so, find a way to release the tension by taking a brisk 10-minute walk outside. If boredom triggers your emotional eating, then find an activity to occupy yourself with for a short time until the cravings subside. Keeping your hands busy with knitting or colouring while watching T.V might keep you stimulated enough when you would ordinarily assuage boredom with snacks.
Keep track of what causes you stress at home or work. We often crave sugar when we are tired or stressed. Try to make adequate time for rest and relaxation, and investigate ways to comfort yourself after a difficult day. Take a warm bath, or a walk with your dog and ensure you eat a satisfying wholesome meal. Often, it takes several attempts before you can shift your mindset away from emotional eating. But don’t be hard on yourself when you slip up. Consider this a journey into self-care, where each experience gives you valuable insight to build upon.
A very important part of tackling emotional eating is to ensure your diet is fulfilling and enjoyable with adequate nutrition and calories. Restricting yourself with extreme diets, counting calories and cutting out sugar or carbs can create stronger cravings that ultimately drive binging behaviours. Do not skip meals or compensate for overeating the previous day. Truly enjoy your food and make room for treats and celebration. You can also explore new recipes and make cooking a fun experience. Consuming food and enjoying it is one of the great pleasures of being human and we should never associate it with guilt or shame. You may overeat on occasion, and that’s okay because everyone does! Give yourself love and compassion when this happens, and remember to include a healthy exercise routine in your day. These habits will go far to reduce your urge to eat emotionally or mindlessly.
Seeking Professional Help
The journey into self-discovery about triggers, tolerances and self-regulating strategies is sometimes easier done under the guidance of a trained professional. Psychotherapy is an effective way to deal with emotional eating. Therapists undergo 6 – 10 years of post-secondary education specifically focusing on the complex dynamics of human emotions. This gives them much better insight into why you feel and behave a certain way. Therapists who specialize in emotional eating will spend time assessing your situation before formulating an evidence-based treatment plan tailored for your needs. Some of these include cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction and emotional regulation techniques. They are also trained to support clients non-judgmentally, with positive language and a safe place to explore their fears.
Therapy fees are one reason why some people avoid seeking help, and we understand this, completely. Here’s how we charge for our time. We are happy to have a frank and open discussion with you about this to ensure we manage your care in the best way possible. Our services are covered by most extended benefit insurance plans. If you do not have coverage, we also offer affordable therapy sessions at discounted rates through our internship program. Often a few targeted sessions may be all you require. We never keep you in therapy for longer than you need.
Therapy is an investment in your health and happiness and it is more affordable than common belief. To accommodate varying schedules we offer online and in-person therapy sessions during office hours, evenings and weekends.