Author: Nav Sharma, Registered Dietitian, NutriProCan Co-Owner
Ahhh emotional eating – the bane of our existence, the one thing that consistently interferes with our weight and health goals!
What exactly are we talking about? Here is one common emotional eating example (of many) we hear frequently from our clients.
It’s 9 pm on a Wednesday. The day is over and your kids are in bed. Reflecting back on your day, there were a few nearly impossible deadlines you had to meet by 4pm, your boss was having a bad day and to top it off both kids are at home online learning.
You feel like you’ve been running full speed all day long and it’s finally time for you to make up for the chaos. Your intention was to read after dinner, but instead, your next steps include, turning on Netflix, grabbing your daughter’s Kinder egg that was sitting in the cupboard as well as your favourite family-size bag of chips you were saving for the weekend and without even thinking, you start munching away. After all, you deserve it, right?
The first few bites gave you the satisfaction you needed to balance the crazy day you just had but you can’t stop there. So you keep going and after a little while, you realize the chocolate is gone and you’re ¾ of the way through the bag even though you weren’t even hungry. You quickly put away the rest of the bag and head up to bed. Then, the guilt sets in… Sound familiar? I can guarantee you’re not alone!
Keep reading to learn more about emotional eating including:
- what emotional eating is
- why emotional eating is an issue
- why we choose food to soothe us
- how to identify signs of emotional eating
- tips to help us overcome emotional eating
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating is a term many of us are familiar with, but perhaps we haven’t thought about it’s true meaning. Simply put, it signifies eating for reasons other than actual hunger such as feeling stressed, sad, bored, lonely or even happy. Have you ever overindulged in a special treat to celebrate an accomplishment? That’s happy eating and rewarding or celebrating with eating is also an example of emotional eating.
Now, before we dig deeper, I want to clarify that, as humans, we all emotionally eat to an extent. Even the healthiest folks dabble in some extras once in a while (me included!). In fact, celebrating with food is often part of one’s culture or heritage.
Emotional eating only becomes a problem when it interferes and/or competes with making healthy food choices or reaching your nutrition goals. For example, unintentionally eating an entire box of PC Decadent Chocolate Chip cookies (mmm I’m literally drooling…) because you were stressed instead of having a balanced meal, is emotional eating. Intentionally eating a small piece of chocolate after a healthy dinner or planning a pizza night are not examples of emotional eating. Yes, if eaten in moderation and along with healthy meals and snacks, you can have your (small piece of) cake and be healthy too.
What causes emotional eating?
Here are 11 reasons for emotional eating we’ve heard recently from our clients:
- A recent performance review didn’t go that well
- A favourite sports team didn’t make the playoffs (the Raptors this year for me…. 😔)
- Having a hard time getting along with your partner or child
- Feeling unappreciated
- Not feeling good about yourself
- Boredom and you’re not sure what else to do
- Feeling lonely
- Lack of any downtime to just breathe
- Feeling like you deserve a certain food/snack after a difficult task
- Celebrating a special occasion like a birthday or an accomplishment at work
- Seeing friends after a long time
So why do we choose food?
If you’ve ever felt down (we all have!), you’re probably aware of those negative emotions that start to pop up in our minds and lead to feelings of emptiness, defeat and/or discomfort. When we feel this way, our body’s natural instinct is to make ourselves feel better.
In comes the superhero…
Food becomes a way to fill the void and create false feelings of comfort and/or fullness/wholeness. (Note: these feelings are temporary!). The taste of food and/or the action of eating can also act as a distraction so that you can forget, for a moment, what it is that’s bothering you. Lastly, it doesn’t take much effort to eat food (since we already need it to survive anyway) unlike going for a walk or calling a friend. Simply put, food is readily available and becomes an easy way to cope, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right way to cope.
For many of us, using food to cope may even be a learned strategy. As a child, perhaps you were taken out for ice cream to celebrate a report card, or offered cookies and milk after an upsetting day at school.
Oh and let’s not forget the power of food marketing/advertising to crank up your cravings!
Why is Emotional Eating Even an Issue?
This seems to be the age-old question among those of us who find so much joy in eating. What’s the problem with turning to your favourite slice of apple pie and savouring every bite of it when you’re feeling stressed? In the words of Sheryl Crow: If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad… right?
Here are 3 reasons why emotional eating could be working against you:
- By eating to make yourself feel better, the original reason why you’re emotionally eating is never uncovered. Additionally, eating instead of addressing the emotion does not lead to long term emotional relief. As a result, the issue remains unaddressed and the potential of the issue to reoccur remains high.
- If the issue isn’t addressed, a pattern will form. Every time that issue arises, you’ll reach for the same types of food, creating a habit that may be difficult to break later on.
- Finally, let’s not forget the physical implications. Emotional situations can last for long periods of time and the things we usually reach for aren’t exactly low in calories. This can cause unwanted weight gain or health concerns such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease or cholesterol issues that can lead to more emotional eating. This is the emotional eating trap of feeling an unpleasant emotion, eating as a cover, feeling better while eating, but then soon after feeling regret, remorse, failure and guilt, leading to more emotional eating as a crutch to deal with those emotions. The cycle continues.
The best way to overcome stressful situations is by dealing with it head on. If you decide to deal with it by eating, your true feelings will be disguised which will make it difficult to resolve the issue at hand.
7 Signs of Emotional Eating
Now, identifying emotional eating may seem obvious to some of us based on the definition above but for those of you who aren’t quite sure, there are a few details to look out for and remember, many of these are followed by a strong sense of guilt:
- A CHANGE IN YOUR EATING HABITS OR FOOD CHOICES when you’re going through a (more than usual) stressful period in your life. Eating ice cream every night as a response to working on a stressful project at work, ordering takeout more often while grieving a loss or baking/consuming more baked goods to cope with feeling isolated during the lockdown are a few examples.
- EATING WHEN YOU ARE NOT ACTUALLY HUNGRY. Environmental triggers become an important factor here. Buying your favourite treats from your local bulk store and storing them front and centre in your pantry is a surefire way of tricking your taste buds into eating even when you’re not actually hungry… especially when you’re feeling stressed or bored. Cravings are another reason why people may eat if they aren’t hungry. Scrolling through Instagram and seeing a picture of a dessert that instantly makes your mouth water may lead to satisfying that craving even if you’ve already had a full meal. You may feel especially vulnerable to ‘giving in’ to your cravings when your emotions are heightened!
- CONTINUING TO EAT WHEN YOU ARE FEELING FULL/SATISFIED.Going back for seconds, thirds or even fourths because you’re enjoying your food or the moment is a very common example of emotional eating that many of us have experienced at some point. Feeling out of control around food is also a major issue many people face when they are struggling with emotional eating. Going to a buffet can enhance this even more…
- EATING TO AVOID THINKING ABOUT A STRESSFUL SITUATION. Many students are familiar with excessive snacking and eating as a way of avoiding/delaying studying for exams or writing that long essay. I’ve also heard clients tell me that they ate an entire pizza because of an important upcoming meeting with their boss that was provoking a lot of anxiety (eg. performance review).
- EATING TO CONSOLE YOUR FEELINGS OR COMFORT YOURSELF. Making your way through an entire DQ cake because you’re feeling down about not achieving your health goals by a certain date or the classic case of diving headfirst into pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Caramel Cookie Dough flavour ice cream while watching Titanic right after a breakup (hmm, sounds like I’ve done this before 😒…) are just a few examples of using food to make you feel better.
- USING FOOD TO REWARD YOURSELF. Some clients have told me that they’ve ‘bribed’ themselves into being active or making healthy food choices by promising themselves a food reward afterwards. While this isn’t the worst thing they could do if it happens once in a while, it becomes a problem if you reward yourself with a Mocha Cookie Crumble Frappuccino (590 cal!) from Starbucks after every 40 minute brisk walk (which likely burns significantly less than that!). You might also want to consider this: Did your parents ever reward good behavior with ice cream, take you out for pizza when your grades were good, or let you have something sweet when you were feeling sad? As mentioned above, these habits can often carry over into adulthood.
- REJOICING FOOD WHILE SOCIALIZING. Some of us are social by nature and thrive off of the company of others. Getting together with other people for a meal is a great way to relieve stress, but it can also lead to overeating/drinking. It’s easy to overindulge simply because the food/dessert is there or because everyone else is eating. You may also overeat/drink in social situations out of nervousness or perhaps your family or circle of friends encourages you to overeat, and it’s easier to go along with the group. Alcohol consumption is another factor that can hinder your self control around food and can lead to overeating (plus an awful hangover!).
8 Tips on How to Overcome Emotional Eating
Now that we’ve covered some of the main topics around emotional eating, here are some tips to help us overcome this complicated concern. We use these strategies with clients, but keep in mind some may apply to you more than others.
- KEEP A JOURNAL. One of the best ways to identify certain patterns behind your emotional eating is to keep track with a food and mood diary. It can be a traditional journal or you can use the ‘notes’ section in your phone. Every time you overeat or feel the need to reach for a treat, take a second to figure out what triggered the urge and write it down. Once you do this for a little while and review your entries, you’ll usually find an event (upsetting or happy) that kicked off the emotional eating cycle. The key is to write it all down in your food and mood diary: what you ate (or wanted to eat), what happened to upset or trigger you, how you felt before you ate, what you felt as you were eating, and how you felt afterward. This activity will definitely help you stay mindful of your habits!
- MANAGE YOUR STRESS. It doesn’t take a whole lot of reflection on emotional eating habits to know that stress is one of the main reasons why people emotionally eat, but addressing stress eating may require some advice and practice. One of my favourite ways to manage stress the moment it hits (instead of grabbing a chocolate bar) is deep breathing and here’s how to do it properly. Sit in a comfortable position, gently put one hand on your chest and the other just below your ribs, close your eyes, take a deep breath in through your nose for 5 seconds (your belly should push your hand out), then breathe out slowly through your lips for 5 seconds (lips should be pursed as though you are blowing out of a straw), repeat 3-10 times. Other, long term, stress management techniques include physical activity such as yoga or walking and sleeping soundly.
- UNDERSTAND YOUR HUNGER CUES. There are three main types of hunger we all should be aware of. Once you become familiar with what type of hunger you’re experiencing, it will be easier to change your behaviours surrounding food.
|Type of hunger||Factors|
|Stomach hunger||Physical need for food. Hours have passed since you late ate. Stomach is growling. Eating to nourish your body, so that your body can perform daily functions and maintain your energy levels.|
|Mouth hunger||Craving something with a certain taste, texture or smell (something outside of what you’re craving won’t cut it)|
|Heart hunger||Eating in response to your emotions.|
Can also refer to a learned behaviour around food (eg. eating dessert after dinner)
In general, we should be eating for our stomach (physical) hunger most of the time to give our bodies the nutrients they need for energy and optimal health. However, if you have stomach hunger that isn’t addressed (i.e. you skipped breakfast and grabbed a latte for lunch), avoiding emotional hunger when it hits (e.g. after your 3 pm weekly meeting) becomes nearly impossible. This is because you have both a physical and emotional drive to eat and when physical hunger isn’t addressed, emotional hunger kicks in. Keep physical hunger at bay by having regular, balanced meals and snacks so that if emotional or mouth hunger does hit, you stand a better chance of addressing it with some of our other tips.
- KEEP YOUR CRAVINGS OUT OF SIGHT. Try clearing out your environment (e.g. home, workspace, car, pantry, secret hiding spots, etc) of any trigger foods you may reach for particularly during emotional moments. If your favourite go-to sweet treats aren’t easily accessible during those vulnerable moments, there’s a chance you’ll be able to address the habit and eventually break it. If you live with a family that enjoys indulging, ask your partner/a family member to keep those items out of sight or if it’s just you and the kids, try purchasing things your kids may like but you’re not very fond of. For those who will be getting back to social gatherers, don’t hangout by the appetizer table!
- FIND WAYS TO DISTRACT YOURSELF. If you don’t have ways to manage your actions during emotional times in a way that doesn’t involve food, you won’t be able to control your eating habits for very long. Focusing on eating healthy only works if you have conscious control over your eating habits. It doesn’t work as well when emotions hijack the process, demanding an immediate payoff with food. In order to stop emotional eating, you have to find other ways to initially distract (and eventually fulfill) yourself emotionally. Although understanding the cycle of emotional eating and identifying your triggers is a really good first step, it’s not enough to make a long term change. You need alternatives to food that you can turn to during these moments. Some distractions that have worked really well for our clients are taking a walk, cleaning a room in your house that will take a bit of time, work on a 1000 piece puzzle, play a game on your phone (maybe not Candy Crush…), call a friend or start scrolling through some celebrity gossip/sports news (my fav!). The key here is that they do have to be things you somewhat enjoy (otherwise eating will win out). Have a list of go-tos ready to glance at!
- EAT SOMETHING BEFORE YOU HEAD OUT. If social eating is a concern, you’re not alone! Mindful eating may be easier to accomplish at home even during stressful times but it can be tough to do when you’re distracted by talking to friends and family. The key is to feel in control and address stomach hunger before you go. Some of our clients have had success with eating a healthy and filling meal before an event so that they can make logical food choices (which is more likely on a full stomach!). Some other tricks include:
- Eat whatever options are being presented but only eat 80% of what you’d normally have at a meal (not until you’re close to exploding).
- Don’t linger near the food table.
- Start up a conversation (it’s rude to eat when engaging in a conversation 😊 ).
- If you’re at a standing event, try putting one hand in your pocket while the other holds a glass of water. You can’t eat what you can’t pick up!
- Drink lots of water. Filling up on water is a great way to distract yourself from eating.
- Plan ahead and make this event your night to eat freely without any guilt!
- BE KIND TO YOURSELF. As we know, the journey to conquering emotional eating can be challenging. While we will experience wins along the way, setbacks are inevitable and during those setbacks, our thoughts can really influence our direction. Negative thoughts based on feelings of failure can send us in a loop that can influence more emotional eating to comfort ourselves. This, of course, can lead to guilt and continued patterns. For this reason, it becomes extremely important to be kind to yourself and continue to remember that setbacks are a part of the journey but shouldn’t hold you back from achieving your goals. Keep the bigger picture in mind and try again. Eventually, you’ll get there!
- BUILD IN ACCOUNTABILITY. Change is hard, especially at the beginning but even along the way. It takes an extremely strong mindset to hold yourself accountable to your actions, in particular when you’re trying to navigate through a force like emotional eating. For the rest of us, it can be easy to give up knowing that our determination can waiver, not because we don’t want to achieve our goals, but because we don’t know how to keep ourselves on track. This is where having an accountability buddy becomes very important – someone who you can be honest with and someone who will consistently be on top of your goals. In certain cases, a partner or best friend can help you or you can reach out to your friendly and non-judgemental NutriProCan registered dietitians for proper guidance alongside regular accountability through our science-based Emotional Eating program (I just wanted to put that out there 😊). Whatever accountability method you choose, make sure it’s working for you!
Are you interested in getting support and learning more?