Emotional Eating

Why you comfort eat and how to stop

So you arrive home late after a long stressful day at work and decide to treat yourself to a pizza. You’re bored, there’s nothing on the TV, so you eat a packet of crisps. You’re lonely, fed up or annoyed about something but you don’t reach for the apple sitting in the fruit bowl, oh no, you munch your way through a packet of biscuits instead, sound familiar?

This isn’t a problem if it happens just occasionally but what happens when our emotions start to take over our eating?

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is eating as a way to suppress or soothe emotions (often negative), such as stress, anger, boredom, sadness or loneliness. However, emotional eating can also be linked to positive feelings too such as romance, reward and celebration.

Why is it a problem?

Emotional eating can seriously sabotage your weight loss efforts because it’s a vicious cycle – your emotions trigger you to overeat, you beat yourself up for pigging out, you feel bad, and you overeat again.

How common is it?

Research suggests that 75% of overeating is caused by emotions. As a nutritionist who deals with weight loss clients every day, I’ve come to realise that identifying the psychological and emotional factors behind your eating habits really is vital in order to have lasting success.

For many people who struggle with weight, being given dietary advice is simply not enough, which is why I sought to enhance my skills as a nutritionist by completing a Diploma in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I have found that using simple CBT coaching techniques as part of my consultation process to be extremely effective in helping my clients reach their goals. Below are 5 CBT strategies to help overcome emotional eating.

5 steps to overcome emotional eating

1) Learn how to differentiate between hunger, desire and cravings. Many of us have difficulty distinguishing between true hunger, a desire to eat and a craving. But it’s vital that you now how to differentiate between them, so here’s how:

If you haven’t eaten for hours, your stomach feels empty and is rumbling, that’s hunger.

If you’ve just eaten a full meal but you fancy having seconds, that’s a desire.

If you have a sudden and strong urge to eat something specific that’s a craving.

2) Identify your emotional triggers Keep a food and mood diary. Try writing down everything you eat & drink for a week and jot down what you were feeling before you ate it. This will help you to identify whether particular feelings, circumstances, people or events act as triggers. Try to pinpoint what it is you need and aren’t getting. It may be mental stimulation, companionship, love, or even just a hug.

3) Think before you act The next time you have a strong urge to eat something you shouldnt, take a moment to stop and acknowledge what’s going on before you act. Sometimes it helps to label the feeling i.e. ‘This feeling is just a craving, it’s strong and uncomfortable but it’s not an emergency and it will pass’. In fact, cravings reach their peak after 20 minutes at which point they lose their power and start to pass.

4) Find a distraction Do you remember a time when a natural distraction interrupted your craving and later you were glad you hadn’t eaten? Maybe a friend called or you’re child demanded attention. By the time you had finished with what you had to do, your craving had weakened and passed! Next time you experience a craving, place your focus on a distracting activity – phone a friend, go for a walk, play with your child, do a chore, write an e-mail etc. You’ll be surprised how quickly the craving will subside.

5) Challenge your own excuses We all have a number of ‘permission giving’ thoughts that allow us to justify eating the wrong foods. These thoughts often start with the phrase, ‘I know I shouldn’t eat this, but it’s ok because……’ They end with any number of excuses such as…….. ‘I’m stressed; it’s just a little piece; I’ll make up for it tomorrow, it’d be rude not to, I’m celebrating; it will go to waste; I deserve it…..’

Try coming up with some helpful responses to your own excuses, write them down and refer to them when temptation strikes. Here’s an example

Unhelpful Excuse: ‘’I deserve to have this piece of cake’

Helpful Response: “I may deserve this piece of cake but I deserve to be slim more and I can’t have it both ways.”

The longer you use these new thinking skills, the more automatic they’ll become. Like most things in life, practise makes perfect!

So how do you know if you are you an emotional eater? Take the quiz below to find out!

How often do you eat the wrong foods or overeat when……

1) You’re feeling down or browned off

a) Often                        b) Rarely

2) You’re trying to postpone doing something you don’t feel like doing

a) Often                        b) Rarely

3) You’re tired and need a pick me up

a) Often                        b) Rarely

4) You feel stressed or frustrated

a) Often                        b) Rarely

5) You’re bored and can’t think of anything better to do

a) Often                        b) Rarely

6) To reward yourself

a) Often                        b) Rarely

7) How often to you eat past the point of just feeling mildly full?

a) Often                        b) Rarely

8) How often do you experience a sudden urge for a specific food
a) Often                        b) Rarely

9) How often do you go out of your way to satisfy a particular food craving
a) Often                       b) Rarely

10) How often do you feel secretive or guilty in relation to what and how much you ate

a) Often                        b) Rarely

Mostly a’s
If you answered mostly a’s then emotional eating is an issue for you and it’s probably sabotaging your weight loss efforts. But the good news is that you can take steps to regain control over your eating habits.

Mostly b’s
Your eating patterns have little to do with emotional eating. Even if you experience occasional episodes of overeating, this is quite natural.