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Managing emotional eating

School Of Nutrition Posted Jan 20, 2014 Future Fit Training

It is completely normal to celebrate with certain foods when you are happy, to comfort yourself when you are sad or to soothe yourself by devouring something delicious when you are stressed. We all eat for pleasure, so emotional eating is inevitable.

Managing emotional eating

Emotional eatingIn fact, experts estimate that 75% of overeating is caused by emotions, so dealing with emotions appropriately is significant.

When emotional eating becomes a regular negative influence on your health, mood, body image and relationship with food, it is essential to learn other ways to comfort yourself without food. This is particularly important for people trying to lose weight, as emotional eating can be detrimental to long-term weight loss. More often than not, the body doesn’t need the calories consumed through emotional eating. If this happens too often the extra calories get stored as fat, which will ultimately cause weight gain and may present associated health risks.

Many of us learn through culture, parenting and experience that food can bring emotional comfort in the short-term. As a result, we often turn to food to cope with emotional problems we encounter in our daily lives such as depression, boredom, loneliness and anxiety. Comfort eating becomes a habit preventing us from learning skills that can effectively resolve our emotional distress. The aim is to break this habit and learn other ways of coping with emotions. There are two main steps to managing emotional eating:

  1. Identify what triggers emotional eating
  2. Break that habit using strategies that help manage emotions

Identifying triggers

It’s important to recognise the triggers that lead to comfort eating in order to break the cycle of reaching for food every time you feel bored, frustrated or sad. By identifying these triggers we can substitute more appropriate techniques to manage our emotional problems and take food and weight gain out of the equation.

Situations and emotions that trigger us to eat fall into five main categories:

  • Social - feeling pressured to eat when around other people, whether it’s at work, with friends or family
  • Emotional - eating as a way to ‘fill the void’ associated with boredom, stress, tension, depression, anger, anxiety or loneliness
  • Situational - eating because the opportunity is there such as at the cinema
  • Psychological thoughts - eating as a result of negative self-worth or making excuses for eating
  • Physiological - eating in response to physical cues. For example, increased hunger due to skipping meals or eating to alleviate headaches or other pain

We can learn more about these triggers by keeping a food diary. Record what and when you eat as well as what stressors, thoughts or emotions you identify as you eat. You should begin to identify patterns to your excessive eating fairly quickly.

Break the habit by using strategies that help manage emotions

Break the habit by taking one step at a time. Overcoming emotional eating is about changing habits, so set small achievable goals to help change your behaviour. This takes time and commitment.

Some strategies that may help you overcome immediate desires for food include:

  • Delay eating an unplanned snack- cravings usually only last 10-15 minutes. The temptation to give in to a craving becomes less frequent and progressively weaker when you outlast the urge
  • Distract yourself from the urge to eat - remember that your mind is playing tricks with you. It doesn’t really want food. It wants emotional comfort. Find other ways of comforting yourself that will help take your mind off food such as:
      • reading a good book or magazine
      • listening to music
      • taking a hot bath 
      • going for a walk or jog
      • deep-breathing exercises
      • playing cards or a board game
      • chatting to a friend
      • doing housework
      • washing the ca
  • Consider the food that you do eat:
      • remember that moderation is the key! Allow yourself to have ‘treat’ foods - just don’t over-indulge
      • you can’t eat what you don’t have! Consider carefully the foods that you buy
      • substitute healthier alternatives to replace junk food
      • gradually reduce portion size
      • eat snacks from a bowl instead of the package
  • Get help if you need it - emotional eating can signal more serious emotional or mental health issues such as depression. If you feel your habit is beyond your control, seek the advice of a qualified healthcare provider. For more support, visit the following website http://www.b-eat.co.uk/



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