Do you start eating well every day only to end with…well not so well? Do you find yourself promising to start fresh again tomorrow only to once again get stuck in the cycle of emotional eating? You may have gotten stuck in a binge-deprivation cycle or you may struggle with emotional eating.
Let me reassure you, there is nothing wrong with your self-control or will-power. I’ll explain for you why we emotionally eat and what we can do to manage it.
Why we eat
Let’s look at the myriad of reasons why we eat. Hunger is just one of many reasons.
Hunger is a biological drive to eat. When our blood sugar drops and our stomach is empty, our hunger hormones respond to this, we get physical discomfort and increased thoughts of food. This is our body telling us it needs fuel.
Eating is a very social activity for us humans. Joining in on birthdays and festivities gives us a sense of belonging. Because of this we may eat more than usual at Christmas time for example or share in some birthday cake when we are not truly hungry.
We learn that food meets our emotional needs early in life. Since birth, food has been a source of comfort and nurturance. Eating nutritious food is a way that we care for ourselves. When we have an unmet self-care need such as lack or sleep or too much stress, we may end up turning to food as the solution.
Our environment also dictates when and what we eat. Twelve o’clock may signal to us that its lunch time. That magnum ad may also motivate us to reach for some ice cream.
When is emotional eating a problem?
It is normal to emotionally eat sometimes. Emotional eating becomes an issue however when we use it as a major coping mechanism without actually meeting our true needs.
Why do we still do it?
- Comfort eating is not as much of a self-destructive behaviour as you may think. In the absence of knowing how to cope with thoughts or feelings, you are practising self-care by attempting to soothe or comfort yourself.
- Eating may also be an effort to distract from an uncomfortable feeling when we don’t know how else to manage. Emotional eating can happen when we don’t have enough awareness of our emotions. Eating then becomes a somewhat unconscious behaviour to rid a niggling ‘unease’.
- You may have lost touch with your body’s true hunger and fullness cues. This can happen when we are taught over time to ignore our body’s signals. An example of this happening is when we go on a strict weight loss meal plan or when we were told to finish everything on our plate as a child. Without connection with your body’s hunger cues, we begin to rely more heavily on our other eating cues (emotional, environmental etc.) and we become more sensitive to these. You may struggle to distinguish between emotional vs physical hunger.
So what can be done?
1. Practice hunger and fullness.
Tuning in to your body’s signals is a skill. Over time, you may have lost this skill, but it can be re-learned. Try using a hunger scale from 0-10 (0 is starving, 5 is neutral and 10 is stuffed to the brim). Check in with yourself using this scale before and after meals (and whenever you can). Cues for hunger might be an emptiness or grumbling in the stomach, headache or irritability. Fullness cues could be when food stops tasting as good, when thoughts of food lessen, or a fullness in the belly.
Remember that fullness and satisfaction are different. You may be satisfied after eating your favourite meal at a 6 on the hunger scale whereas a less-than-appealing meal may still be unsatisfying despite sitting at a 9 on the hunger scale.
2. Check in with your feelings
Ask yourself ‘What need is food meeting for me in this moment?’, ‘What am I feeling?’ Remember your thoughts and feelings are not facts, they are simply your thoughts and feelings. Although uncomfortable, they can’t hurt you. Try separating yourself from an upsetting thought or feeling by using the phase ‘I’m having the thought that….’ or ‘I’m having the feeling that…’
Try coming up with a list of potential self-care activities which would meet your need. Do you need rest? To call a friend? To go for a walk? To paint? To journal?
Remember its still OK to choose to eat.
It’s tough to tackle emotional eating without support. If you need help with emotional eating, compulsive eating or bingeing, Flourish Nutrition specialises in helping people improve their relationship with food. Contact us here.