What Is Emotional Eating And How Does It Affect Weight Loss?
So, what is emotional eating? Many factors contribute to weight gain, and emotional eating is one of the main reasons for it. In fact, MedicineNet states that 75% of overeating is caused by emotional hunger
Simply put, emotional eating is the practice of consuming food in response to feelings. It is the yearning to eat something based on strong emotional triggers or factors that strongly affect our mental health.
This is especially relevant now with the COVID-19 pandemic. With pandemic-related triggers like job losses, prolonged stay-at-home mandates, and separation from loved ones, you might be coping through emotional eating without even knowing it!
It’s easy to fall into unhealthy eating habits such as emotional eating, particularly when dealing with stress. And this is not exactly a habit that you want to have, not when you’re trying to lose weight.
Now that we’ve talked about what emotional eating is, read on as we go deeper into its causes and effects. Plus, learn how to change the eating habits that lead to it.
The Relationship Between Food and Emotions
Ever tried to reach for a tub of ice cream when you’re feeling sad? Yep, we’ve all been there. Food plays an important role in our development as humans. This is why food and emotions are heavily intertwined.
Over the years, we get used to recurring emotions that we somehow associate (and sometimes heavily) with food. Like cakes for birthdays or celebrations and chocolates when sad or feeling down, minds are easily wired to correlate these foods and circumstances. This creates an emotional trigger and a resulting food consumption that can form eating patterns.
Here are some science-backed links between food and emotions:
- Eating healthy improves our overall emotional state and even mental health.
- Eating healthy is empowering. When we eat well, we are energetic and generally positive.
- A balanced diet nourishes the mind in countless ways. There are many positive psychological effects that superfoods can give us.
- Some foods cause short-term effects on our moods, such as sugar and caffeine. Taking these in large amounts causes extreme emotional shifts.
- Foods high in fat result in weight gain or poor physical condition and health problems. These then could lead to stress, lower self-esteem, or social withdrawal.
- Unhealthy eating patterns can cause bad mood swings.
- Undernourishment can worsen any kind of psychological stress.
Using food to curb emotions puts more importance on the problem. It creates a bigger issue rather than coming up with a solution.
What Does it Mean to be an Emotional Eater?
At some point in your life, you’ve probably heard the term “eating the feelings away.” This is how emotional eating and emotional hunger are rationalized in our society.
There’s nothing wrong with being a food lover. Trust me, I’m a food lover myself! I know what it’s like to want a \ certain food so bad and how you can feel “rewarded” after eating it. The problem lies when we eat in a frantic, undisciplined manner, especially when we’re stressed out.
According to the American Psychological Association, 27% of adults eat to curb stress and fight off emotions. Meanwhile, 38% of adults said that they have eaten unhealthy foods in the past month due to stress. There have also been studies linking stress eating to obesity.
It’s easy to point the finger at our food choices. But the truth is, emotional eating is rooted in our failure to control our emotions. It is a psychological effect that has physical manifestations.
For an emotional eater, the tendency is to avoid resolving problems or issues head on. Instead, they choose “comfort foods” over experiencing and facing the undesirable emotion.
Signs Of Emotional Eating
In case it’s not enough to know what emotional eating is, here are signs that you might be letting your emotions affect your eating patterns:
- Eating when you are not hungry at all
- Frequent overeating, or binge eating, to the point of discomfort
- Eating to avoid confronting a problem or a stressful situation
- Eating to make yourself feel better
- Eating as a reward
- Eating when you are bored
- A shift in eating habits when you are dealing with more stress
- Feeling shameful or embarrassed after eating
- Eating without realizing how much food you consumed
- Rationalizing emotional hunger but obsessing over weight loss solutions afterwards
If you relate to one or more of the signs listed above, you might be an emotional eater. But DON’T WORRY. Realizing that you struggle with emotional eating or “stress eating” is nothing to be ashamed of. The fact that you’re courageous enough to see it and name it is fantastic. And it’s the first step toward progressing in a positive direction.
How To Fight Off Emotional Hunger or Stress Eating?
There is nothing wrong with eating during stressful times. As long as it is in moderation and in a mindful manner.
The problem lies when it happens frequently, frantically, and without balance in mind.
It becomes an issue when stress eating is the reason for unsuccessful weight loss attempts or hidden shame. It becomes an issue when stress eating becomes the only solution for all your problems.
You can start your journey to a healthier life without the heavy burden of emotional eating. Here are some tips you can follow.
1. Know your emotional triggers.
Do you find yourself overeating when you’re too tired from work? Does it happen after a fight with your significant other? Pinpointing the emotional root of binge eating is raising your awareness and is already the beginning of recovery.
This step helps eliminate the usual food-related response if you work on setting up healthier responses to these triggers. These can include:
- Taking a walk while listening to music
- Performing meditation or breathing exercises
- Doing a select few yoga poses
2. Learn how to be comfortable with your emotions.
When the emotional triggers surface, remind yourself that “it’s okay to not be okay.” Tell yourself that this is all “temporary.” If you accept the situation instead of worrying about it, you will find that there is no need to binge eat to ease the problem.
3. Develop a healthy sleeping pattern.
Lack of sleep and overeating are related. An uncomfortable night’s sleep leads to stress. This stress is compensated by sugary food or lots of coffee the next day. A healthy sleeping pattern of at least 8 hours every night helps ward off stress eating.
4. Keep a food diary or journal.
If you feel like you’re struggling with emotional eating, keep a diary. Write down how you’re feeling, and what you’re eating afterwards. This will make you more aware of your eating habits and its connection to your thoughts and feelings. Plus, it will let you track your progress and hopefully inspire you to keep on going!
5. Know when a comfort food might not be the best choice for you.
Comfort food could be many different things. It’s usually food that are sugary, salty, high in calories, and/or processed. . Some types of comfort food can depend on where you are from. Here are some examples:
- Ice cream
- Cake and all kinds of desserts
- Hamburger and fries
- Fried Chicken and all kinds of fried food
- All kinds of chips or crisps
But not all comfort foods will take away from your goals.. Some food might seem unhealthy on the surface, but actually have good effects for us. Here are some examples.
- Dark chocolate is proven to boost our mood. It releases a variety of feel-good compounds, such as theobromine and N-acylethanolamine.
- Fatty fish, such as salmon, is rich in Omega-3 Acids that decrease levels of depression. Omega-3 acids maintain the fluidity of the brain cell membrane.
Fermented food, such as yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, kefir, and sauerkraut improve gut health. If the gut is in great condition, it will produce large amounts of Serotonin. Serotonin is the key hormone that stabilizes our mood.
6. Don’t deprive yourself.
Even when you are trying to lose weight, it is important not to deprive yourself. Answering your legitimate physical hunger helps prevent emotional eating, because it’s nearly impossible to overcome true hunger and emotional cravings at the same time!
7. Prepare healthy snacks.
If you struggle taking away snacks from your diet, don’t lose hope. Replace your usual junk food with healthier, satisfying options. You can freeze fruits and turn them into “nice cream” or grab a chocolate protein shake to curb your sweet tooth.
8. Seek help
If you feel like your emotional eating is getting out of hand, don’t be afraid to seek help. Reach out to a licensed counselor, a health coach, or to a family member. They can provide support and help you understand where the problem comes from, and suggest healthy ways to overcome your emotional eating.
No Shame in Asking for Help
When you’re trying to lose weight, or lose belly fat, emotional or stress eating is not exactly the best habit to have.
If that’s the case, seeking the help of a weight loss coach or a nutritionist can be helpful. A nutritionist can help you eliminate cravings and modify your food choices. They can also help you respond to emotional triggers.
I’m Corey, your down-to-Earth, real-life, donut-loving, “lose weight while getting away with as much as you can” weight-loss coach and fitness expert.
Tune in to my podcast to learn unexpected (and fun) ways to trim down, like this counterintuitive weight loss solution.
If you still struggle with stress eating and find yourself asking “what is emotional eating?” over and over, feel free to email me and we can discuss what might be the best option for you..