What is emotional eating?
Eating as an emotional escape or stress eating is when you eat to escape the negative feelings you are experiencing, in the hope that the food will make you feel better. Sometimes it is a conscious decision.
But, more often, it automatic to a confusing and negative emotion that you have trouble identifying. You may not know what is bothering you, but you are pretty sure that food is the only thing that will cure your discomfort.
Is it about emotional or physical appetite?
Eating as an emotional or stress escape usually comes on suddenly. You start to feel stressed or tense and bang! You have a craving for nachos. On the other hand, physical appetite tends to appear gradually. You begin to feel hungry but can wait to eat, which gives you some time to choose wisely and satisfy your appetite with something healthy.
Stress eating usually triggers a craving for sugar, fat, high-calorie foods and is often very specific. It’s not just chocolate that makes you eat, but a slice of Fred’s Diner’s three-layer chocolate cake on Sixth Street. However, when you are physically hungry, food generally sounds good to you. You are willing to consider several options that satisfy your physical appetite, which means that you are more likely to make a better decision.
Once you have satisfied your physical appetite and the stomach is full at ease, it is a sign that you have eaten enough and stop eating. But when emotions are the engine, it’s easy to ignore what your stomach is telling you and you end up eating a lot more to feel better.
Eating out of stress can lift your spirits momentarily, but then just as quickly feelings of shame and guilt appear. When you finish a meal that has satisfied your physical appetite, you generally don’t feel guilty.
Tips for treating stress eating behaviors
Keep a food diary – A food diary can help you see what is causing you to eat stress. When you feel the urge to eat, take note of how hungry you are on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = I pass out from hunger; 10 = I am so full I have to loosen my clothes). Then write down how you feel at that moment.
Admit your feelings – You know that emotions are what triggers you to eat out of stress, so why not accept them? Sometimes it’s okay to feel angry, scared, lonely, or bored. Feelings can be unpleasant but they are not dangerous and you will not always need to ‘repair’ them.
Work on your adaptation skills – Every time you eat as a reaction to stress, it is a reminder that you cannot control your emotions. When stress hits you, try asking yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen if I don’t eat? Practice tolerating your emotions or finding other ways to cope with your stress.
Forget your bad habits – Those who eat because of their emotions continually reinforce the idea that the best way to deal with negative emotions is with food.
Wait until it passes – Stress eaters often fear that if they don’t satisfy their cravings, the craving will get worse. However, when they practice delaying tactics, they are often surprised that the craving simply goes away. Instead of immediately giving in to the craving, make a promise to yourself that you’ll wait a few minutes and let the craving go away.
Be good to yourself and give yourself time to deal with stress eating. If you find that these tactics don’t work for you, ask your healthcare provider if support groups or therapy might help you.