Let’s Explore Emotional Eating
Emotional eating is an eating behaviour that almost everyone with access to an abundance of food engages in. For those of us that do it every now and then, it doesn’t really affect our lives, but for people who engage in emotional eating regularly it can be quite distressing. So today we’re going to learn why so many of us use food as a means of dealing with emotional discomfort as well as some strategies to manage this behaviour. But let’s start with the basics!
What is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is:
- An increase in food intake in response to negative emotions
- It is a coping strategy used to feel better, or to feel less of an unpleasant emotion
Emotional eating isn’t:
- Eating for enjoyment
- Enjoying the experience of eating with family and friends OR
- Eating from a place of having an appetite
So why do we engage in Emotional Eating behaviour?
As babies and toddlers, we learn to use food as a way to deal with physical and emotional discomfort. Why? Because eating (especially treat foods) makes us feel good. When we eat foods high in sugar, salt and fat, dopamine is released in the brain stimulating our reward or pleasure centre. And we learn to use this coping strategy - eating to feel less of an unpleasant emotion - very early in life. For example, how often were you as a child given food, or do you as an adult give food to an upset child, in an attempt to soothe or calm them? In this example the food symbolises a reward for dealing with emotional discomfort - it is used as a distraction from the emotional pain. This behaviour is then reinforced as we get older.
What happens emotionally and physiologically when we engage in Emotional Eating?
The short-term effect of emotional eating is a temporary reduction of emotional discomfort. But when the pleasure experienced from eating wears off, the discomfort returns, usually along with feelings of guilt and shame. So while the goal of emotional eating is to feel better, it usually results in more emotional discomfort.
What about the long term effects?
Regular emotional eating actually changes the degree to which we experience pleasure from eating. As previously mentioned when we eat foods high in sugar, fat and salt, dopamine is released in the brain and dopamine is linked to our pleasure centre. Repeated exposure to pleasurable food however lowers the dopamine receptors in our brain’s pleasure centre making them less sensitive to dopamine. This means if we eat lots of treat foods often, we need more food to experience the same amount of pleasure.
Repeated emotional eating is also (not surprisingly) linked with weight gain over time because the eating isn’t in response to genuine hunger and because the food choices in these situations are usually energy dense and nutrient poor.
Managing Emotional Eating
A few simple strategies to manage emotional eating behaviour are:
- If you’ve acknowledged that you’re reaching for food in response to an unpleasant emotion, try to sit with that emotion and allow yourself to experience it. Emotions are meant to come and go and simply feeling the feeling will help you work through it
- If you’re reaching for food outside of a meal or snack time, take a moment to listen to your body. Ask yourself how hungry you are, maybe rate this on a scale of 1 to 10. If you aren’t hungry ask yourself how you’ll feel after eating the food
- Replace the habit of ‘eating’ to make yourself feel better with something else that you get pleasure from, something that is aligned with your goals like your favourite form of exercise, or something as simple as reading a book or having a bath
If you think the issue contributing to your emotional eating behaviour is complex and maybe a little overwhelming, break it down into smaller, more manageable steps:
- Spend some time thinking about what the overarching issue is - maybe it’s a lack of purpose, for example you’re in a job you don’t enjoy?
- Then decide what the overall goal is - to find a new job.
- Are there any barriers? - maybe you’re lacking a certain skill set or experience?
- Think about some strategies to solve the problem - you might need to upskill or do some work experience.
- Then decide on a solution - be proactive, take the steps you need to make this change.
To summarise… When it comes to emotional eating it’s really important to:
- Firstly, acknowledge that emotional eating is not ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’, it is learnt behaviour and therefore can be changed
- Understand that food won’t solve the underlying problem, and is only a temporary fix
- And finally realise that regular emotional eating may be a signal that something else in your life needs addressing
Reflect on a recent emotional eating experience (if you’ve had one).
Then write down:
- What triggered the behaviour
- 3 steps you can take to manage that emotional experience in the future
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