Have you ever found yourself eating an entire tub of ice cream because you felt sad? Have you ever finished a bag of cookies, crackers, or chips because you felt mad at something or someone? Have you ever felt so happy at a special occasion that you decided to have a second piece of cake, or a third?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you may have a tendency toward emotional eating. If so, you’re not alone. This type of disordered eating behavior is so common that we don’t even think of it as disordered. Of course I like to eat sweets when I’m upset about something, you may be thinking. Everyone does. This may be true, but it’s all too easy for these relatively innocent behaviors to become habitual, and to overwhelm our attempts to eat healthfully on a daily basis. After all, every day comes with its little joys and its little stresses, and if we let these joys and stresses dictate what we eat, we’ll have a hard time reaching our wellness goals.
And emotional eating doesn’t just affect the body. It can affect the mind as well. When we eat to relieve our boredom, soothe our stress, or alleviate feelings of loneliness, we’re merely putting a temporary bandage over the problem, not working to resolve it. When we’re done eating, the problem is still there—and now it’s compounded by guilt and self-admonishment. Once we realize how much junk food we’ve consumed, and how rapidly, we feel bad about ourselves. This, in turn, can make us restrict our diets too harshly, which can then trigger the desire to eat more junk food due to feelings of deprivation. And so a vicious cycle ensues.
So how can you break this vicious cycle that so many of us get into? I recommend that my clients follow these 3 simple steps to create a more stress-free relationship with food.
As you recognize your pattern of emotional eating, try not to feel alone or isolated. Eating emotionally is not at all uncommon; in fact, most of us do it. There is nothing strange or shameful in your eating habits.
When you have a minute, take out a notebook and pen and do this simple exercise. It’ll help you identify which emotions cause you to eat, and to determine what you can do to break the link between feelings and food.
Draw a vertical line down the middle of a page. On the left side of the page, write down all the things that prompt your desire to eat. At the top of the page should be “hunger,” and below it should be all the feelings that cause you to eat impulsively: anger, sadness, happiness, boredom, loneliness, stress, etc. Once this column is complete, use the right side of the page to match each trigger feeling with a corresponding healthy action, so that when the trigger feeling arises, you have a healthy action that you can turn to, instead of turning to food. This healthy action could be calling a friend, taking a walk, drinking a cup of your favorite tea, or anything else that might make you feel better and forget about your trigger feeling. Once your list is complete, keep it near at hand so when the negative emotion arises, you’ll have a resource to rely on.
If referring to this list doesn’t work every time, don’t sweat it. The more aware you are of your emotional-eating triggers, and the more practice you put into changing your behaviors, the easier it will be to transform your harmful habits into healthy ones.
Seek all the help and support you need to overcome your emotional eating. For some people, it’s very difficult to embark on this journey on their own. Some clients need the simultaneous support of both a clinical nutritionist and a cognitive behavioral therapist to break their emotional eating habits and to build a healthier relationship with food. Others require at least some proactive help from friends and family. So whatever path you take, make sure you have people to rely on. After all, social support not only helps us change our habits, but it can also make those pesky trigger feelings seem less overwhelming—and maybe not so bad after all.