Is Emotional Eating Sabotaging Your Weight Loss Efforts?
Find out how emotional eating is disrupting your weight loss journey. Also, learn how to overcome the barriers to sustainable weight loss.
“Why you eat can be more important than what you eat.”
Ever thought about it?
The amount of food you eat, your attitude towards it, how well balanced the food is, and your emotional state when you eat it all are equally important. For many, eating is not just about satisfying physical hunger, it’s much beyond that. People often turn to food for comfort, satisfy impulsive cravings, reward themselves, and even get rid of boredom. Sadly, most food they reach for is often unhealthy and junk.
Impulsive eating habits can derail your weight loss effort—WORST, it can tie you down in an unhealthy cycle of “mood-food-guilt-mood.” It is usually observed the emotion that drives you to impulsive eating also contributes to another negative emotion—GUILT. The guilt and the bad feeling trigger further rows of emotional eating, and before you realize it, you get trapped in a vicious cycle.
The good news is that you can break this cycle. You can take steps to gain control of your eating habits and overall health. Before that, you need to understand:
- What is emotional eating?
- How to identify it?
- How to overcome it?
What is emotional eating?
Impulsive eating or uncontrolled hunger pangs triggered by emotions is termed emotional eating.
Negative emotions lead to a feeling of emptiness or avoidance. Comfort food creates a momentarily feeling of fullness, which our brain loves. The negative emotions can be anything from stress, sorrow, boredom, distress, anger, or exhaustion. For emotional eaters, eating is the primary coping mechanism to negative emotions.
How your mood and stress are related to eating?
The relationship between FOOD and MOOD has a long history. The hormones unleashed by stress and the effects of high-calorie sugary food can force people to overeat. The negative emotions initially shut down our appetite. However, when the stress prolongs, the body release cortisol that increases your appetite. High-calorie food consisting of sugar and fat has a feedback effect that reduces your stress and makes you feel better for some time.
However, apart from providing instant comfort, emotional eating doesn’t fix your emotional problems. On the contrary, it makes you feel worse. The prolonged practice sabotages your weight-loss efforts and ultimate fitness goals.
According to a Harvard mental health letter, persistent stress can also affect the food choices people make. The letter also mentions that physical or emotional stress increases the intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both. The happy hormones released because of stress eating relieves the stress briefly. It is not necessary that only major life events trigger emotional eating. The simple hassles of daily life can be a trigger too.
Emotional eating affects both men and women, though it is observed to be more common in females. Researchers believe it could be because of the distinct nature of both genders to cope with stress. Men usually turn to smoking and drinking while women turn to food when they are stressed.
Are you an emotional eater?
The urge to eat more frequently than usual or craving for specific junk food can all be signs of emotional or stress-related eating. To check whether you are an emotional eater or not, you can ask yourself these questions.
- Do you eat more when you are stressed?
- Do you browse for food and food videos in your free time?
- Do you eat to feel better?
- Do you eat until you stuff yourself?
- Do you think you can’t control binge eating at night?
- Do you eat out of boredom?
- Do you think you get hungry soon after meals?
- Does food make you feel safe?
- Do you experience signs of emotional connection with food?
- Do you feel guilty or ashamed after an episode of binge eating?
If you are experiencing any of the above conditions, you can be eating your feelings. So, take time to analyze your eating patterns and take corrective steps to regain back control.
Remedies: Breaking the cycle
The first step towards healthy eating habits is to educate yourself about normal eating vs. emotional overeating. Several self-help strategies could address both your emotional and physical relationships with food. A simple act of saying “no” to unhealthy food and diverting your attention to other constructive activities can have a long-term effect in dealing with emotional eating.
For breaking free from emotional eating and lose weight, try these tips:
Separate physical hunger cues from emotional cues
Understand whether your hunger is physical or emotional. Learn to separate the two and respond to hunger mindfully. If you had a balanced meal just sometimes back and don’t have a rumbling stomach, then probably you are not physically hungry. Pay close attention to hunger signals to prevent eating in response to real hunger and eating in response to an urge. It can be difficult to differentiate the two initially, but you can understand better with regular practice. Give some time for the craving to pass. Wait till it’s time for your meal or till you truly feel hungry.
Keep track of food
Thanks to technology, you have several apps to track food. The apps can help you log what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat. Over the period, you can understand the food pattern you are following. It might even reveal when your mood took over, and you indulged in unhealthy snacks or overeating. Keeping the track also helps you to develop a sustainable and healthy diet that nourishes you.
Each individual has a different activity level and nutrition requirement. Some aim to lose weight, while some aim to gain muscle. Some are vegetarians, while some follow a vegan or keto diet. To avoid binge eating, you need to create a schedule that’s suits your dietary preferences and daily schedules. Eating regularly at scheduled intervals can help curb the hunger pangs caused by emotional triggers. Also, incorporate healthy snacks into your schedule, which not only gives the much-needed energy but stops random eating. Generally, people follow 3 main meals and 2 mini-meals diets. The real hunger usually kicks in after 3 hours of your last main meal, so plan a small snack in between, making you feel full till your next main meal.
Stay away from temptations
Emotional eaters are not good with controlling themselves around high-calorie food. Stay away from hard to resist comfort foods. Avoid the grocery store lane that stocks your favorite chips and chocolates. You can also postpone your trips to restaurants or stores if you are feeling overwhelmed or agitated. Let the feeling fade away, and then plan your shopping trip.
Work on managing your stress
Can’t stress enough, dealing with your stress and emotion is the first step towards stop overeating. There are multiple effective ways to deal with stress. Some ways to cope with stress are exercising, mindful meditation, inculcating hobbies, learning new things, taking small breaks, and slowing down. Anything that helps you relax and unwind can be included in your daily schedule to shift your food mindset. To begin with, create a list of things to do instead of overeating.
Develop healthy habits
When you are relaxed, physically and mentally strong, and well-rested, you are always ready to face the world. However, even small hiccups may push you towards binge eating if you are in reverse mind space. A healthy lifestyle helps you streamline your life and further influences better lifestyle choices. Daily exercises, proper sleep, and positive social connections are powerful ways to build a healthy life for yourself.
Tune into healthy snacking
Eat only when hungry can be difficult initially. Always keep healthy snacks like fresh fruits, nuts, and other refreshing munchies with you. These small meals keep the hunger in check and nourish your body with good fats.
It’s not easy to deal with emotional eating. You are most likely to lose way without a good support system in place. Your support network can be your friends, family, or anyone who encourages your efforts. Surround yourself with a positive set of people who cares about your well-being, who cheers at your achievements, share ideas for healthier meals, be your emotional anchor in times of need. May be you can end up having a workout or fitness buddy.
Living a balanced life consist of balancing your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. The same applies to your food and eating patterns. Any imbalance in food and eating can impact your health adversely. Emotional eating, though caused by an imbalance in your mental space, hits your physical state’s balance and may make you lethargic and overweight. To find overall equilibrium, you need to improve areas of life that cause the most stress and unhappy emotions. You may also need to train your brain to devour healthier food options over junk eatables.
Learn to forgive yourself
The guilt that follows the episode of emotional eating can be depressing. However, you need to stop punishing yourself and learn to forgive yourself. Every day is a new day, and you can always start afresh. Learn from your experience and make a plan to take corrective actions in the future. Focus your energy towards bringing the positive changes that ultimately bring better changes in your lifestyle. Push yourself to find solutions and not sobbing over failures. Only you can find your strength and use it to build your emotional might.
When to seek professional help?
For years researchers are studying if food addiction is real. Is it possible for someone to be addicted to a specific type of food, primarily made of refined products like sugar, salt, fat, white flour, etc.? It is still debatable whether food has any addictive value. However, the emotions and behavior it influences are real. You need to take the necessary steps to prevent yourself from getting into an addiction stage.
When self-help ways don’t help much and your emotional eating goes beyond the limit, it’s time to seek professional help. Consider seeking help from a mental health professional as over-eating triggered by stress and emotion are more mental than physical problems. The right therapist can guide you in the right direction.
The bottom line
Food is the primary source of nourishment. It is important to have a healthier relationship with your food. While indulging in comfort food occasionally is completely normal, but overeating can take a toll on your physical and mental well-being. Eating mindfully and following the tips shared above can help you focus on every morsel you eat. This way, you enjoy your meal more and curb overeating.