I love me a good mixed bag of candy – who doesn’t?
I used to go to the Candy Time at the mall and fill up a giant bag of all my favorites. For dessert each night, I’d open the bag, carefully select one or two pieces, savor every bite, and go to bed satisfied.
I’m not a big sweet tooth, to be honest. I rarely actually crave sugar. One or two pieces of candy or chocolate takes the edge off an occasional night time sweet tooth and after that, candy tastes kind of revolting to me. I only need and want a small amount.
So, one bag would last me a long time – months, even. A ludicrous upfront investment in a bag of candy worked out to be a quite economical dessert in the long run.
Until my job was a clusterfuck, I was fighting with my boyfriend at the time, or was under some other kind of stress. In which case, I came home, immediately stuffed my hand into that jumbo bag, and devoured literally over a pound of candy before I even looked down and realized what I’d done.
It’s like the satiety switch in my stomach got deactivated, and suddenly I could dump an entire bag in there. Sometimes, it wasn’t candy. Sometimes, it was donuts, biscuits, cheeseburgers, a family block of chocolate, an entire charcuterie board, or a bag of chips. The drug was different, but the dose was the same.
Can you relate?
If you struggle with emotional eating, if you can’t break the attachment to eating as a coping mechanism for dealing with uncomfortable emotions, I’m here to help.
I know there’s another side, and it doesn’t have to be your story forever. I was able to break the cycle, and so can you.
These are my best tips for understanding why you do it, being aware of your triggers, breaking the cycle, and finding new ways to cope with stress.
What is stress eating, or emotional eating?
Emotional eating, or stress eating, is habitually using food as a primary coping mechanism for dealing with stress, sadness, or other uncomfortable emotions.
Anyone with this habit knows the immense and instant comfort that comes with eating your feelings – until after the fact, of course, when you suddenly feel 10 times more awful than you did before.
This is because when all that remains of your McDonalds is empty burger wrappers, the problem and emotion that caused your “emotional hunger” is still there. And this time, it's brought a friend: the whole new problem of a dreadful bellyache.
And yet this habit is a tough nut to break! You can’t understand WHY you go straight for the Cheetohs when your boss is being an asshole, even when you categorically know you’ll feel awful afterward. Cue feeling furious with yourself, helpless, and even more out of control than before.
What causes people to emotionally eat?
We all eat for reasons outside of hunger, and it’s not a bad thing. Much of our culture, connection, tradition, and pleasures are connected to food.
Remember sharing an epic Christmas feast with your big extended family? Can you imagine going to a movie and NOT sinking your fingers into a buttery, salty box of popcorn?
What’s a birthday party without a pretty birthday cake? Remember when you got a good report card and your parents took you to McDonalds as a special treat?
We’re hardwired to link food to connection, pleasure, and reward and as such, food paves the highway to pleasure receptors in our brain. Now, this isn’t something to freak out over.
In fact, I don’t believe in depriving yourself of life’s pleasures, including popcorn at the movies, cake at a birthday, or mum’s trifle at Christmas.
Eating ritualistically, sharing celebratory meals, or rewarding yourself with a little treat is fine. Eating emotionally sometimes is also okay.
The problem comes when your life feels like a shit show, you feel lonely, stressed, sad, bored, or angry and your first impulse is to raid your fridge instead of dealing with your emotions.
You begin a cycle during which you simultaneously learn to mask or repress an emotion by using food as a coping crutch. Being uncomfortable with our emotions, and unable to self regulate them, leads to reliance on external substances to do the job.
Some people use sex, drugs, or alcohol – anything that can temporarily disrupt the negative emotion through the just as temporary change in biology it creates.
For emotional eaters, we try to fill that void with food. It feels like a way of getting temporary control over an uncontrollable situation.
But no matter how intensely you feel to the contrary, the answer to your problem isn’t at the bottom of that Ben & Jerry’s.
No amount of food will heal or resolve an uncomfortable emotion, or magically zap the cause of your stress into oblivion. The emotions that caused the eating in the first place will still be there.
You look down at your bloated, painful belly and realize that instead of treating yourself with food, you’ve punished yourself with it.
You feel even worse. Now on top of your existing problem, you feel powerless over food and even more out of control.
Most importantly, know that it’s okay if you emotionally eat sometimes
We all eat for emotional reasons. Since we were born, we’ve attached food to comfort. It’s no wonder, then, that we crave fatty and sugary foods when we need comfort, as fat and sugar makes up breast milk.
Contrary to diet culture myth, there is nothing wrong with eating for reasons other than hunger. Eating for reasons other than hunger sometimes is part of “normal eating” - even emotional eating. And overeating doesn’t necessarily equate to “emotional eating”.
Sometimes, we can overeat for other reasons without it being a symptom of problematic emotional eating. Sometimes, we can emotionally eat and not struggle with emotional eating as a problematic pattern.
Diet culture wants us to believe that certain foods are off limits, that we shouldn’t give into our cravings, and that the sky will cave in if we eat a whole bag of chips to ourselves. Not so.
The truth is that food is part of life’s pleasures and enjoying food at any time is okay. This article is not intended to tell you to stop emotionally eating, but rather intended to help you if you rely on food as a primary coping mechanism to numb out from your emotions.
Practising self compassion and kindness is the first step to de-escalating food anxiety. One affirmation I find especially helpful is: ‘I emotionally eat sometimes, and it is okay. I trust my body to tell me what it needs.’
Identify triggers for emotional eating
The most powerful way to break a pattern is to bring awareness to it. Once you’re aware of a pattern, it’s impossible to run it the same way.
Understanding your current relationship to food, and understanding your triggers for eating other than when hungry, is the first step to healing. Keeping a journal is an especially helpful way to clarify your emotional eating triggers. Write factually, with zero judgment, as if you were a doctor documenting a patient.
EXERCISE: Write the event that happened, the emotion you felt, the way you behaved in response, and how you felt afterward. Over time, you will notice a pattern. Once you notice and understand the pattern, you will be better able to intervene.
If you want extra guidance, I’ve created a list of journal prompts to help you understand your emotional eating patterns. It’s available free in the Library. Pop your details into the form below to sign up to the mailing list and access it.
Understand the difference between TRUE hunger and emotional hunger
What makes emotional hunger one tricky mofo to deal with is how sneaky sneaky it is – it’s terribly good at deceiving you into thinking it’s genuine hunger. I used to justify an emotional eating sesh with “but I really WAS hungry!”
The more entrenched the pattern becomes, the harder it gets to remember the difference between REAL hunger and emotional hunger. We stop listening to our bodies and start listening to our fear.
Here’s how to know whether your emotions are running the show:
Do you feel suddenly ravenous? Were you just going about your day, dealing with shit going down, when all of a sudden, you felt compelled to eat urgently? That’s a good sign your hunger cues are emotional. Physical hunger comes on gradually, and is typically subtle (unless, you know, you haven’t eaten for a long time).
Do you finish your plate and still feel like you could eat a horse? With physical hunger, you will typically feel satisfied after eating a standard portion. With emotional hunger, you don’t even pause to register satiety until it feels like your overfull belly is begging you to stop.
Do you feel hungry in your belly or in your head? This sounds like a ridiculous question at first blush, but think about it. When you are physically hungry, your belly growls, and your stomach feels those telltale pangs. But emotional hunger begins in your mind with a thought – a thought about a particular flavor, texture, or go-to comfort food.
Practice emotional awareness
Once you’ve identified that perhaps that hungry sensation is emotional, take a moment to check in with yourself to find out what’s going on.
What emotion are you REALLY feeling right now?
Where is this emotion coming from?
On a scale of 1-10, how strongly do you feel this emotion?
How does the emotion feel in your physical body?
Being aware of the emotion helps to process it, deal with it, and move past it faster.
Know that this too will pass. No emotion or situation is permanent and better times are just around the corner.
It can feel scary at first to accept an emotion that feels unpleasant, especially if we haven’t learned how to face them head-on. This is why we might feel tempted to avoid or disguise them with food.
Identifying the emotion and acknowledging it might feel like you’re allowing the floodgates to open. Not so, my friend! What you resist, persists.
When we don’t obsess over, frantically run from, or try to squish down our emotions, they will get weaker and disappear relatively quickly.
There are no good or bad emotions, only what we make them mean. A helpful affirmation I use for identifying and helping me process my emotions is “I am feeling [emotion] right now and it is okay.”
Create a go-to menu of stress relievers (that don’t involve food)
By now you’re aware that often we try to emotionally regulate with food if we don’t know how to do so otherwise. If we never learned how to process, work through, and healthily release upsetting emotions, we often turn to numbing them instead.
Your brain has actual, physical neural pathways wired into it linking food to reward and pleasure. You feel stressed and ask your brain to change your state immediately.
Your brain looks over the data and says, “Well, our data suggest the fastest route from stress to pleasure is via comfort food”. Now suddenly you’re craving ice cream.
But you can teach your brain to link pleasure and stress relief to healthy positive things that don’t involve food. Meditating, getting out into nature, journaling, hugging your pet, listening to music, or calling a trusted friend is healthy and positive stress relievers that do the same job.
Are you feeling lonely or isolated? Call or FaceTime a friend or family member, cuddle your pet, or look through photos of past get-togethers.
Are you feeling turbocharged with anxiety? Have a dance party, go for a run or brisk walk, and move that adrenaline through your body.
Is your body sore and tired? Try taking a nap, giving yourself a foot massage, soaking in a bubble bath with muscle soak, drinking some peppermint tea, getting an early night, or cozying up on the couch with your favorite fluffy blanket.
Are you eating for something to do? Take up that hobby you always wanted to try, spend some time cleaning or decluttering, or try this list of 100 fun things to do indoors.
EXERCISE: Create a happiness menu – a list of healthy activities that de-escalate your emotions when you’re feeling sad, bored, stressed, or angry. These will bring your emotions to a level where you can process and release them in a healthy way, without the exacerbating guilt spiral at the end.
What activities always help you feel grounded, happy, calm, and focused?
Who are your cheerleaders i.e. your squad who always energizes you, picks you up, and cheers for you?
Are there any places that help you feel calm? For me, I crave the ocean when I am stressed or sad. It calms me down right away.
If you need more ideas, you can check out the free Happiness Menu I created in the Library, full of uplifting activities for feeling good.
Create a self-care routine
A regular self-care routine is vital for helping me to manage my stress levels. It’s my go-to weekly reset ritual that helps me refocus, get centered, and show myself some love and comfort – sans an entire bag of candy.
Perhaps you have a morning ritual that helps you start the day on the right foot or an evening routine that helps you wind down and relax each night. Maybe you have a Self Care Sunday routine, treat yourself to a massage each fortnight, or carve out 15 minutes a day for yoga.
Building an emotional support framework into your life can reduce or even remove the need to rely on food as an emotional crutch.
Here are my favorite suggestions:
Get plenty of good quality sleep: Not only does quality sleep moderate appetite and cravings, but more importantly, it regulates stress and cortisol. Who doesn’t feel like a different person after a good night’s sleep?
Move your body daily: Find a variety of ways to move your body that feels good to you. Do some form of movement every day, even if only for 10 minutes. Exercise is an incredibly effective stress reliever and mood booster.
Make time to decompress at the end of every day: After dinner, I like to go to bed early, snuggle in under the covers, read, maybe watch a bit of sneaky telly, and take time to decompress.
Develop a positive relationship to cravings
Despite what diet culture would have you believe, indulging a craving isn’t wrong at all. You’re better to eat what you want and feel satiated than to eat a million other things instead and still be unsatisfied.
But chronic emotional eating is a strange blend of eating for comfort and yet deriving no enjoyment from the experience. It happens on autopilot.
You eat mindlessly, like something in you takes over. It’s almost like going into a trance and waking up to discover you’ve eaten an entire pizza and a bag of M&Ms.
In some ways, despite how much you’ve eaten, the craving goes unsatisfied, or feels spoiled somehow. Fortunately, there is a way to enjoy and satiate a craving.
But how to maintain the delicate balance when you’re stressed, so that you don’t feel terrible afterward? Try this.
STEP ONE: HIT THE PAUSE BUTTON FOR 15 MINUTES
If you’re not hungry and all of a sudden you need a Snickers bar, give yourself full permission to have it – in 15 minutes. Sometimes, if we pause a craving it will go away on its own. Sometimes, it doesn’t and grows ever stronger.
During that time, check in with yourself and make space for the emotion first. Journal, cry, run, meditate, or call a friend.
The idea is not to suppress the craving, but to rather learn the process of dealing with your emotion first, and then approaching your craving from a place of relative calmness and neutrality.
STEP TWO: INDULGE YOUR CRAVING MINDFULLY
When you mindlessly eat, you eat faster. You're also usually distracted from the process of eating, tasting, enjoying, and digesting your food.
Not only do you miss savoring the delicious flavors of what you’re eating, and the satisfaction it brings to your craving, but you’re also not paying conscious attention to your body’s satiety cues.
Slowing down the process, feeling calm as you consume, and indulging mindfully is not only more enjoyable, but also more satisfying, and you won’t feel overfull afterward.
Sit down with your food distraction-free. Take a few moments to look at it, feel your mouth water as you breathe in the smell of it. Take deep breaths as you do this.
Give thanks for your food: to your god, to the Universe, to the farmers who grew it, to the cooks who made it, to the supermarket staff who stocked it, or its ingredients.
Eat with a knife and fork (or spoon, as appropriate) wherever doable – even for pizza and burgers. It may look strange, but it helps you to take smaller bites that you can savor.
Fully put down your cutlery between each bite as you savor the food in your mouth. Notice the flavor and texture of the food in your mouth. Notice how each bite feels in your belly.
Are you starting to feel satisfied? If so, pause a little longer. You might feel full quite quickly. By eating mindfully, not only is each bite an immersive experience, your brain and belly have time to register fullness, so you’re less likely to overeat. Emotional eating used to be a large part of my food story. The more I have developed an empowered relationship with myself, and learned how to love and listen to my body, the less I attach heightened emotion to food.
What tip from this article do you feel will help you most? Let’s continue the conversation in the comments below.
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