Emotional eating is defined as the act of turning to food to cope or cover up stress, to comfort ourselves, or as a reward.
When you think of emotional eating, most of us assume it’s something we do when we’re sad or bored – which is true. But we also want to recognize how we can look to food for comfort during periods of anxiety or celebration. All sorts of emotions that we try to cover up, or ones we don’t know what to do with.
Regardless of the emotion, you are emotionally hungry for a feeling that food is never going to satisfy.
I (Kristin) tend to emotionally eat when I’m stressed out. And when I’m stressed, I don’t want to cook. Now, we’re at home we can’t just run out and get food whenever we want or need. So I’ll end up snacking and snacking instead. Or I’ll try to figure out what to cook…meanwhile reaching into a bag of chips. I get really indecisive when I’m stressed and end up not eating a real meal because of all the snacking I did while trying to decide.
As you can see, it’s a vicious cycle. And it’s a multifaceted issue because you’re participating in self-sabotage in terms of your goals, but the most problematic part is that you’re not dealing with your feelings. You need to identify what they are, allow yourself to feel them, and then move on. Otherwise, they hold all of this power over you – hence, the emotional eating that you don’t want to be doing.
Everyone who knows me as an athlete knows that I’m good at pushing through. I will push through anything so hard that I hurt myself frequently, mostly because it’s my personality to go all-out. I don’t know how to hold back. The same thing is true if I’m working. I struggle with pausing and asking myself what I’m feeling and stop trying to push through the resistance. So if this is you, I get it.
But you’re never going to get past your emotional eating if you’re not learning how to deal with a specific situation you need to deal with, or if that’s just your coping mechanism for everything in life. We have to learn to be okay with feeling uncomfortable sitting in our emotions.
Signs & Symptoms of Emotional Eating
Once we start to look at emotional eating for what it is and begin to identify your triggers. Here are some common signs of emotional eating:
- Changing your eating habits when stress comes up in your life.
- Eating when you are not hungry or continuing to eat after you’re full.
- Eating to avoid dealing with certain situations that make you uncomfortable.
- Eating to soothe emotions.
- Seeing food as a reward for doing something good.
Overcoming Emotional Eating
Keeping a diary of your eating habits and how you were feeling before and while you eat can help you identify your trigger (covering up emotions, boredom, childhood habits, or loneliness). Then, we need to address those triggers.
Having a list of activities to do when you start to feel those triggers arise can help you have a plan of action rather than resorting to emotional eating. We have to learn how to manage our emotions in a way that doesn’t involve food.
One of the biggest things for me that helped me overcome emotional eating is realizing that having emotions isn’t bad. They aren’t evil, and they don’t have to control or break you. It’s normal to have them.
The more you practice allowing them to be, the less power they have over you over time. It’s the same thing with food – there’s no good and bad food – if you give it names and moral value, it has more power over you than it should.
Sometimes we’re surprised by emotions, or we feel afraid or ashamed of it. But what we need to do is know how you’re feeling is okay, it’s valid, and allow it to pass. If it doesn’t go away, we need to investigate ways to help you move on from them.
One way to do this is to speak your emotions out loud. The more you hide your feelings, the more they become a burden on you. When we do this, they eventually come out unfavorably: lashing out at loved ones, not being present in your life, and yes – emotional eating. This is why counseling can be beneficial as a safe place to talk things out while also getting the help you need to work through those emotions.
Is emotional eating something you struggle with? How have you worked through it?
*Note: If you feel you are struggling with emotional eating to a level that you cannot work through it yourself, it’s okay. Please consider reaching out to a doctor or mental health professional who can help you.