How many times have you tried to lose weight by eating well and exercising but then something happens in your life - be it with work or school, or a fight with someone, and without thinking you reach for that tub of ice cream or packet of cookies or junk food thinking it will comfort you? But instead it makes you feel worse and you feel like you have ruined your new diet/exercise program. Then you think ‘well I have already ruined it…I may as well eat more??’. Does this sound familiar?
This occurs more often than you think. Many people eat emotionally - even if you don’t see it (as they wouldn’t do it in front of others), or can’t believe that someone would do it, or because someone always ‘appears’ to eat so well. I myself did this too, especially in my early 20’s but because I exercised heaps (and probably had a good metabolism) you would never have guessed. But in times of stress, I would always reach for food - mostly ice cream as it was easier than dealing with everything else going on around me.
If we were to look and see where everyone would fit on a scale of emotional eating, we would most likely see everyone on the scale. To some degree, everyone eats emotionally. It is just that there are different degrees of emotional eating. On one side, we have people who will eat a piece of chocolate and they would be satisfied and it would make them feel better, and on the other end of the spectrum a person would need to eat a lot of food and still not be able to satisfy their emotions.
Emotional eating can be one of the missing pieces of the puzzle when people are trying to lose weight and is often not looked at. When people are looking to get healthy and fit they are focused on their physical health - they exercise and eat well but so often results are not seen due to people eating emotionally. The issue here has nothing to do with food. Rather, food is being used to hide emotions so they don’t have to deal with them. Because let’s face it, it is easier to eat a whole packet of biscuits or chips rather than deal with a situation we don’t want to. Eating is used as an escape, as a coping mechanism, a punishment, or due to guilt. It can happen at any age in our life. Food is a symptom of the problem or issue, it is not the cause. Here we need to address the underlying causes of emotional eating.
So what does it mean to be an emotional eater?
An emotional eater is one that eats their emotions, literally. You cannot judge someone as an emotional eater just by looking at them. We all come in different shapes and sizes. We all have different lifestyles, have different bodies, eat different things and move differently. An emotional eater can be underweight, normal weight or overweight. You cannot say that just because someone is obese is an emotional eater as there could a million reasons why they are overweight.
What types of foods do emotional eaters choose?
The types of foods most commonly eaten are those which provide or appear to provide some comfort and for many people, this is mostly starchy, carby types of foods. You would rarely see someone binge on veggies as it won’t give the same feeling of comfort to the person. Typically, emotional eaters often eat late at night and often eat a large amount of food in one sitting. Often food becomes an addiction.
When people eat emotionally, they often feel like they have a loss of control over food and it happens frequently. It can also impact their social lives where they don’t want to eat around others or they cancel going out with friends. There is also the associated health risk with emotional eating such as weight gain, obesity, diabetes, inflammation, digestive issues. The biological effects also come into play, e.g. withdrawals when they try to give up sugar such as headaches, angry, jittery. Other symptoms such as depression and anxiousness can also arise.
So what happens when we overeat?
The brain has a reward system. It gets pleasure from eating certain foods and gets stressed when we are without these foods. Often people feel like they can’t stop the behaviour. Some types of foods increase your tolerance so you need and want more of those foods. For example, when we eat sugar, the body craves more sugar. Studies in mice showed a desire for more sugar and when sugar was deprived they experienced symptoms including cravings, teeth chattering, anxiety, shaking, depression. There were neurochemical changes in the brain which are commonly seen when drugs are taken. Sugar has been shown to react in the brain the same as cocaine does as it activates the same receptors in the brain. The same effects have also been shown when people stop eating sugar and have withdrawals, the same as if giving up a drug.
So just eat “in moderation”….easy right?
Sometimes you hear a health expert say ‘just eat in moderation’ but what does this actually mean? How much is ‘in moderation’? and what does this mean for someone who eats emotionally? There is no clear or defined definition of ‘moderation’. My idea of eating in ‘moderation’ would be different to yours.
It maybe be easy for a person to eat ‘in moderation’ and have say one biscuit but when you say ‘eat in moderation’ to a person who eats emotionally…what does this mean? How can they even do this when food is their addiction? ‘Eating in moderation’ does not work especially with someone who eats emotionally.
Common traits of an emotional eater….
Below are some common traits seen in emotional eaters:
People pleaser – someone who always says ‘yes’, who is looking for validation, who tries to please others and often puts themselves last and doesn’t give themselves enough love. They often feel resentful and turn to food to comfort them.
Extra sensitive – more emotional, wear their heart on their sleeve.
Racing mind – can’t concentrate on one thing. They overthink everything and so turn to food to stop the mind chatter.
Below are 7 steps to end emotional eating:
Connect to the community:
Often people feel isolated and alone, and believe they are the only ones going through this, when the exact opposite is true. We are meant to be part of a tribe. We are not meant to live alone and not socialise. We need support from people to lift us up and make us the best version of ourselves. Surround yourself with people who can do this. Rather than bringing you down to their level, find people who have healthy lifestyles, eat well, people we want to be associated with. Often the people we hang out with are the ones we most likely have similar traits with. Be conscious of who you spend your time with.
Look after yourself first. If you don’t look after yourself first, how can you have enough energy to look after anyone else? Take the time everyday to meditate, pray, write a journal, go for a walk, ground yourself. Make changes in your life to create more peace and less stress.
Eat whole unprocessed foods:
Eat 3 meals a day with no snacks in between. Focus on what is in your meals – a combination of protein, fats and carbs. Your meal should be made up of wholefoods and you should be satiated (not stuffed) after you finish. Eat mindfully. Do not snack between meals and do not eat infront of the tv or on the run. If you are going to eat, sit down at the table, give a blessing over your food to thank Mother Nature and Father Earth for providing everything you are about to eat. Allow yourself to feel hunger between meals. Too often we have forgotten what this feels like as we are always eating. To feel hungry is not a bad thing. We need to feel things. Starting off feeling the hunger will make us more intune with our body and when we will start to feel our emotions, know that this is OK.
Learn to communicate with others - even though it may be hard:
With emotional eating, often we ‘eat our words’. We need to learn how to communicate with others and not be scared or worried about how people will react. You are the one who needs to live with you. You need to be happy and live by your beliefs. Be clear on the things you accept and the things you don’t. Speak and live your truth. Emotional eating instead of communicating keeps things all bottled up inside us and will later manifest into physical ailments. Know that it is ok to disagree with others, that it is ok to be truthful, that it is ok to speak your mind. Let your voice be heard. Do not be afraid!!
Be aware of how you live and the decisions you make. Do not do things you have always done just because someone told you too if you don’t agree with them. Become conscious through meditation and mindfulness. Don’t go into that trance of eating and then come out the other end thinking ‘what just happened?’
Find out the cause - what is making you eat emotionally:
This is the big one, the hardest one which is often hidden as it takes a lot of effort and courage to identify the cause of the emotional eating. There is often an underlying hidden reason in our subconscious that is making us eat our emotions. Identifying this is a huge game changer and will help to stop you eating uncontrollably to deal with your emotions. Often talking to a professional can help.
Have courage and faith:
Finding the courage to identify the cause is another big one. Sometimes it is easy to continue dealing (or not dealing) with problems and issues in our life as this is what we have always done. But ask yourself ‘how is this serving you?’ Are you actually dealing with the issues at hand or are you blocking them away, hoping they will disappear or sort themselves out (which never works. Often they grow and manifest into something bigger). When we find the courage to deal with what is causing us to emotionally eat, it is here that the HEALING occurs. Take it one day at a time, even if it is a small step….it is still one step forward. And don’t become disillusioned if you start making changes but then one day you lose control and find it happens again. There is always tomorrow, another day to try again.
Losing weight and achieving your goals isn’t only about diet and exercise. These are only one part of the puzzle. Our emotional body also needs to be worked on and this is often the hardest of all of them. But know this, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, there are people around you to support you, and you are worthy of achieving your goals. See professional help if needed help dealing with complex issues.
For more information on emotional eating, please send me a message or comment below.