Using food for reasons other than satisfying your hunger is a normal part of life. In almost every culture, food is used to show hospitality or to comfort the grieving. It becomes a problem when food is used to control the emotions and deal with your feelings of powerlessness. This is called Emotional Eating, the
practice of consuming large amounts of food in response to feelings instead of hunger.
Stress, depression, loneliness and poor self-esteem can all result in overeating and unwanted weight gain. At an early age, we learn that food can bring comfort and as a result, we often turn to food to heal emotional wounds. This habit eventually becomes a hindrance to our learning of skills that can effectively resolve emotional distress.
One of the biggest problems that the Emotional Eater faces is the constant feeling of hunger. Experts believe that these “feelings” of hunger directly correlate to and overlap with moments of emotional pain. “My boyfriend and I got into a huge argument and he walked out…so I ate the box of ice cream in the fridge” Linda*, a chronic emotional eater says. “What could I do? He left. There was nothing else to do.”
By choosing food, the Emotional Eater completely surrenders their ability to solve problems and deal with their lives in a mature and empowered way. There is a subconscious belief that other people are constantly interfering with your attempts to fulfill your life’s purpose. This is where the “comfort” or junk food comes in.
“Many people eat when what they really need is nurturing. They’re lonely and food becomes their companion” says one expert on the subject. “It’s important that an emotional eater become self-aware of their emotions and their reactions to those emotions.”
Identifying the emotional or situational traits is key to gaining control. When you start paying attention to your feelings of hunger, you may discover that much of what you labeled as hunger is actually something else. Dr. Doreen Virtue, Ph.D. in her book Constant Craving: What Your Cravings Mean and How to Overcome Them, lists eight traits of emotional hunger.
The Traits of Emotional Hunger
- Sudden onset – one minute, you’re not even thinking about food, the next minute you’re starving
- For a specific food – no substitute will do, you need that particular food
- Is above the neck – begins in the mind and mouth
- Urgency – There is a desire to instantly ease emotional pain with food
- Paired with an upsetting emotion – Your boss yelled at you or your child is in trouble at school so you must eat
- Automatic or absent-minded eating – you may not notice that you’ve just eaten a whole bag of cookies
- Does not stop eating in response to fullness – you stuff yourself to deaden the troubling emotions
- Feels guilty about eating – you eat to feel better and then end up berating yourself for eating
The Emotional Eater must become intimately aware of his/her emotional eating triggers as well. The best way to do this is to maintain a journal recording how you feel before, during, and after you eat. A journal is the best way to pinpoint patterns in your emotional eating habits.
Identifying Emotional Eating Triggers
- Emotional – Eating in response to depression, boredom, anxiety, etc.
- Thoughts – Eating as a result of negative self-worth or other low self-esteem issues
- Social – Eating to fit in; eating when around other people or in social circles
- Situational – Associating eating with particular activities like reading or watching TV
- Physiological – Eating excessively due to skipped meals or to cure headaches or other physical pain
The next step in conquering the emotional eating habit is developing alternatives.
Emotional Eating Alternatives
- Listen to music or read a book
- Go for a walk
- Take a bubble bath
- Do deep breathing exercises
- Play a board game
- Talk to a friend
- Do housework, laundry or yard work
- Wash the car
- Write a letter
As you identify and learn to incorporate more appropriate alternatives you will begin to curb your excessive and emotional eating habits. By starting from the surface in acknowledging the issue, moving to identifying the traits and triggers and finally by finding other ways to deal with the emotions, you will be able to prove to yourself that you can manage uncomfortable emotions without resorting to “comfort” food. No longer will you be feeding your feelings of powerlessness, you will become accountable and more in control than ever before.
Sources: Dr. Roger Gould, MD, Prevention; Doreen Virtue, Ph.D., Constant Craving: What Your Food Carvings Mean and How to Overcome Them; MediceNet.com