Emotional eating (or stress eating) is the practice of using food to try and manage one's emotions. This occurs when we try to use food to fill some kind of emotional void. When we start to associate food with emotions, rather than the fuel and nourishment it provides to our bodies, we are at significant risk of developing emotional eating habits.
Emotional eating can be a short term or long term issue. Those who are experiencing an unusually difficult time may turn to food for comfort just during just that period of time, while other people who are experiencing long term stress may develop chronic emotional eating habits that become part of their everyday life.
It's a habit that isn't just psychologically unhealthy, it can also have an extremely damaging affect on our bodies. If you find that during times of high stress you turn to excessive or unhealthy foods, then it might be time you looked at trying to work on your stress relief practices and improve your relationship with food.
What causes emotional eating?
Emotional eating is usually a reaction to some kind of stress. It could be brought on by major life changes, relationship problems, family conflict, work stress or the worries of every day life.
It's thought that the fight or flight response brought on by stress, triggers an increased appetite which leaves us reaching for food that our bodies don't necessarily need.
How do you detect emotional eating?
When trying to figure out if you've developed emotional eating habits, the important thing to know is the differences between physical and emotional hunger.
Physical hunger has a gradual onset and is relieved by eating.
Emotional hunger is brought on all of a sudden and isn't satisfied by eating. It will likely encourage you to reach for junk food instead of a well balanced meal and you'll likely over-eat in search of fulfilment. An emotional eating session usually ends with negative emotions such as sadness or frustration, and a feeling of shame for what's just been consumed.
How can emotional eating affect you?
Emotional eating doesn't just leave us with unresolved stress and a myriad of negative emotions, it also has a significant impact on our health, particularly if we struggle with it over a long period of time.
This unhealthy relationship with food leaves us at risk for a huge range of different medical conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Unhealthy weight gain can also increase our chance of developing joint problems, respiratory disorders and cancer.
It can also exacerbate any underlying mental health conditions by lowering self-esteem and bringing on a negative body image.
What can you do?
Kicking a long term emotional eating habit takes hard work. It requires you to completely re-establish your relationship with food into a more healthy one.
Looking at the reasons why you're searching for emotional fulfilment through food is an important step in overcoming these unhealthy habits. Work on trying to identify the source of your stress and once you know that, begin to develop techniques that allow you to manage your stress in other, more productive ways.
Thinking twice before eating is a great way to minimise emotional eating. Before you reach for that food, ask yourself what kind of hunger you are trying to satisfy and if this the healthiest option for you to gain that satisfaction. If the answer is no, try going for a walk or practicing some mindfulness instead. If the answer is yes, pat yourself on the back for a job well done.
Reaching out to a trained professional for guidance or joining a support group are great ways to kick off your emotional eating recovery. Discover Strengthen Heal also offers specialised group trips that allow participants to work through a range of different eating disorders under the guidance of our qualified team. Contact us to find out more.