With commercials and advertisements constantly telling us to eat, eat, and eat some more, many of us feel hungry all of our waking hours. Yet, what often follows food advertisements is an onslaught of more advertisements about diet and weight loss.
We are constantly being told through media images that we must eat to enjoy life, to be cool, to hang out, BUT we must be fit, muscular, and thin while we do it. These mixed messages often leave us in a state of confusion. You add the fact that food is tied to so many of our identities and cultural memories, and eating can often become a blanket of comfort, a tool to deal with pain, and an escape from anxiety.
In this post, I will share information on the causes of emotional eating through my own experiences and those of Marriage and Family Therapist, Yaritza Zayas and Lori Brannen-Graham, a Personal Trainer and Holistic Nutritionist.
Defining Emotional Eating
Yartiza defines emotional eating as, “The use of food (any food) to cope with a feeling state that is overwhelming. This does include feelings that are categorized as “good” or “happy” (i.e. pride, excitement, etc) not limited to “negative” feelings (i.e. sad, upset, anger, etc).”
Lori states, “Emotional eating can be defined as using food to either comfort oneself in times of stress or ‘self-medicating’ through food.”
According to webmd.com, “Eating to feed a feeling, and not a growling stomach, is emotional eating.”
Unpacking the Definition
In other words, we all experience emotional eating.
Emotional eating is not a problem that is only experienced by people who are characterized as over-weight. It is, also, not a problem that is only experienced by women.
Having a celebratory drink or slice of cake after running a marathon or getting a job promotion is a form of emotional eating; as is the stereotypical image of a girl downing a pint of ice-cream and a box of chocolate after a break-up.
Emotional eating can also be seen in fitness models and bodybuilders eating weekly “cheat meals” to deal with feelings of deprivation after a week of strict calorie-counting.
Many people eat when they are bored; this, too, is a form of emotional eating.
When Emotional Eating Becomes a Concern
Celebratory eating is, generally speaking, not a problem if it is not excessive.
The concern with emotional eating rises when it becomes a cycle that an individual cannot break him/herself out of or an individual feels like s/he has little to no control in stopping.
If you eat, and then experience feelings of guilt, anger, or frustration, it is a good idea to ask yourself why you just ate. Were you hungry or did other emotions spark your desire to eat?
In our interview, Yaritza and I discussed food as an addiction. Like any drug addiction, food can serve to mediate anxieties, fears, feelings of worthlessness, and can make you feel good. It has been well-documented that sugar has addictive properties akin to cocaine.
Emotional eating can also be form of self-sabotage and an immediate outlet to cope with unwanted feelings. Survivors of physical and sexual abuse are known to resort to emotional eating as a way to make themselves what they perceive to be physically unattractive or as a way to cope with feelings of emptiness or pain.
So, if every time you are sad, anxious, or angry, you run to the refrigerator, you are probably an emotional eater.
Causes of Emotional Eating
Emotional eating can start at a very young age, such as when children receive food as a reward for good behavior. In my conversation with Yaritza, we discussed the prevalence of this behavior in the Latino community. While treats as rewards, in of themselves, are not a problem, they create a connection between good feelings and food, which can last a lifetime.
Here is a free-list of other factors that cause and/or contribute to emotional eating:
- a break-up
- lack of impulse control
- wanting comfort
- inability of coping with and handling difficult emotional states
- feelings of deprivation
- eating below caloric requirements
- psychological difficulties or mental illness
- having an eating disorder
Each of these factors can work together to create an environment conducive of emotional eating.
Lori shares her difficulties with emotional eating when she was a bodybuilder a few years ago.
“I had developed ritualistic eating habits and patterns that consequently led to some health issues and the feelings associated with emotional eating. I would restrict myself all week knowing that I had a planned ‘cheat’ on the weekend. During the week it’s all I could think about….I dreamt of chocolate. It was always the same disappointment each time, though. I would spend the following day lethargic and cranky, promising myself to not binge until the following weekend. I led this lifestyle for so long it just became normal to me.”
While Lori struggled with feelings of self-deprivation and extreme calorie-counting to maintain a competition-ready physique, Yartiza shared her emotional triggers.
“I have battled with overeating and my trigger was anger. I have a quick temper and to avoid getting violent or to calm the anger feelings I’d overindulge to get so stuffed that I couldn’t move and essentially become helpless and a non-threat.”
I have also struggled with emotional eating as a way to mediate anxiety, stress, and even as a way to stake claim over my body. Perhaps, the last part was more triggered by anger. In a previous post, I shared my struggles with having a positive view of my body. I discussed some of the difficulties that arose from constant name calling, and my mother policing everything that I ate. At times, I would eat just to defy her.
Anxious and stress-related eating began when I was in college. I had to work multiple part-time jobs while going to college full-time and maintaining a high GPA. During mid-terms and final exams, I would sit down with a giant bag of chips, a large container of salsa, and a jug of purple soda. All of the junk food would provide me with a sugar rush that would keep me awake long enough to study and finish papers. However, I would feel the damaging effects of eating so much and so unhealthy for days after these events, especially when I would binge eat to stay awake for 3-4 days straight.
Dangers of Emotional Eating
Emotional eating, for many, is a coping mechanism to deal with difficult times, but it can actually cause further difficulties.
Certified Personal Trainer & Registered Holistic Nutritionist, Lori explains, “There are many dangers associated with emotional eating, including (but not limited to) many psychological troubles such as self-loathing, guilt, frustration, disappointment, shame, and/or feelings of failure. These feelings can perpetuate stress and keep the cycle on-going. Emotional eating can be habit forming and long term can cause metabolic damage. It can also lead to yo-yo dieting (to compensate for an emotional food binge) and lead to major body weight fluctuations. “
Family Therapist, Yaritza asserts that emotional eating can lead to “lifestyle diseases like obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, etc. [and it can be] linked to other addictive behaviors (not limited to high risk behaviors like drug use, for example).”
Another danger of emotional eating is that individuals might not learn other ways to cope with difficult emotions or times. It is important to have healthy ways of coping with life’s difficulties and celebrating good times without turning to food.
Tips on How to Stop
Now, that we have an understanding of the factors that lead to emotional eating and the potential dangers, here are 8 tips shared by Lori, Yaritza, and I on how to overcome emotional eating.
1. Practice Mindful Eating
“Use hunger as your guide and eat until you are comfortably full. Practicing mindful eating can bring your focus and awareness to the food directly in front of you. If mindful eating becomes a habit it will become harder to revert back to emotional eating,” advises Lori.
2. Stay Hydrated
In our phone interview, Yaritza explained to me that our body signals are the same for thirst and hunger. Many times people confuse the two sensations. If you have eaten in the past hour or so, and, all of the sudden, you are very hungry, drink some water. If it satiates your desire to eat, then you were thirsty, not hungry. Staying hydrated also helps you to feel fuller longer. Most people require their weigh divided by 2 in ounces of water per day. For example, I weight 129 lbs, so I would need at least 65 oz of water a day.
3. Recognize Your Triggers
It is important to figure out what triggers your desire to eat or over-eat when you are not hungry. Once you figure out what is causing you to eat when you are not hungry, then you can begin to stop.
Lori states, “When you are in a moment of wanting to soothe yourself with food, find something else to do. Replace that habit with something new.”
4. Keep a Journal
It is good to keep a journal of your feelings and a log of your food. By keeping track of your feelings, you can begin to identify the emotions that trigger binging, explained Yaritza. Keeping a food log makes you accountable to what you are putting into your body. Keeping a journal has helped me a lot in my own battle against emotional eating.
Yaritza and Lori are very physically active women. They exercise almost every day and both commented on the importance of exercise as a tool to cope with stress, anxiety, and other emotions that lead to emotional eating. Exercise, also, releases feel good hormones into your bloodstream, which can curb negative emotions which may trigger food cravings.
6. Eat Enough
It might seem ironic to suggest that you eat more food when you are struggling with emotional eating, but I found that feelings of deprivation are a major factor in emotional eating. Make sure to eat high quality, healthy food, and keep healthy snacks around you. If you are not eating enough to sustain your body and activity level, you will definitely feel unwell, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
7. Switch Out Sweet Treats for Healthier Ones
When I find myself wanting to eat because I feel stressed or anxious, it is hard for me to find junk food in my household. I really avoid it like the plague, because I know that the momentary feeling of goodness and satisfaction will soon give way to my stomach hurting and feelings of regrets and anger towards myself.
So, instead of feeding my emotions cupcakes and cookies, all I can find in my refrigerator are carrots, hummus, and fruits and vegetables. While this does not directly solve the problem of emotional eating, it serves as a baby-step in the process.
8. Seek Professional Help
It is always a good idea to speak to a therapist or psychologist when you are an emotional eater. Therapy can provide you with a tool-kit in order to better manage your triggers.
If you have any more questions on this post or any of my previous posts, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about emotional eating and how to cope, click the links below.