“I’ve just been eating a lot more comfort food these past few months”
“All the stress has gotten to me and I am not eating very well”
“I get bored at home and the next thing I know I am in the pantry with a bag of popcorn”
Sound familiar? You are not alone. Emotional eating and craving comforting foods that tend to be high in sugar, fats, simple carbohydrates, salt, or all of the above is common in times of high stress and uncertainty. Eating foods like french fries, pizza, ice cream, or potato chips gives us pleasure and temporarily relieves the pain. The problem lies in the resulting crash and excess of calories that leads to weight gain – Quarantine 15 anyone?
Using food as comfort or to stop feeling bad every once in awhile isn’t a problem on it’s own. But just because it is normal to look to these foods in tough times doesn’t mean you have to succumb to the cravings all the time. Read on to learn about why we look to these foods and how you can break the chain of eating too many of them.
Emotional Eating: Emotional eating is when food is used to make ourselves feel better. We turn to food to fill our needs instead of our stomach. However, not only does this type of eating NOT fix emotional problems, it usually makes the problem worse by adding the guilt for overeating. Even if eating the unhealthy food feels good in the moment, the feelings that triggered the eating are still there.
Comfort foods makes us feel good: Eating simple carbs (think white bread, pizza, french fries, etc), fat, or sugar activates the reward system in our brain. We feel pleasure when we eat foods that taste good, albeit temporarily.
The nostalgia and need to belong: We associate certain foods with big life events and time spent with friends and family. When we are lonely or away from what is normal day-to-day life, people tend to look to comforting foods as a reminder of good times shared with others.
We “reward” ourselves with a treat: From an early age, food is often used as a reward; to celebrate good behavior or a big occasion. Usually these foods are sugary, full of fat, or both. Think pizza after a sports competition and ice cream after getting good grades. As adults, many of us are wired to think we “deserve” a treat after a a long day or accomplishing a goal which usually means we turn to the same sort of unhealthy foods used as “rewards” we were accustomed to getting as kids.
Ready to Break the Chain of Emotional Eating? Here’s How:
Action Step One: Identify Emotional Eating Triggers
The first thing to address is to identify which situations, feelings, or places make you turn to comfort food. Common causes of emotional eating are stress, boredom or loneliness, childhood habits, or social influences. When you feel the urge to reach for comfort food, take a few minutes to backtrack the events of the day and write them down. Include what you ate (or wanted to eat), what happened previously in the day, how you felt before you ate, and how you felt afterwards. Over time, patterns will emerge and you can start to identify better ways to cope with these emotions.
Action Step Two: Discover Other Ways to Manage Emotions
The goal here is to learn how to regulate emotions without the use of food. What other ways can you get emotional fulfillment WITHOUT turning to a bag of chips? Here are a few ideas:
- If you are feeling lonely or sad, call or video chat with a friend or family member
- Feeling anxious? Take a walk or do a quick 5 minute workout
- If you are tired (either emotionally or physically), take a few minutes to meditate or get in a quick power nap.
- If boredom is the issue, read a good book, get outside, play with the kids or a pet, or clean out that junk drawer or closet that has been neglected for way too long.
Regulating your emotions without food won’t happen over night; it takes lots of practice. The key is to have a system and get into the habit of turning to something OTHER than food in these circumstances.
Action Step Three: Pause for a Check In
If you feel yourself getting stressed or feeling down and are about to mindlessly reach for something not so great to eat, take a moment to make a better decision. Eat a piece or fruit or drink a big glass of water. Wait a bit and see if you can get your mind off the unhealthy food. When you DO make the conscious decision to enjoy a treat everyone once in awhile, eat mindfully and savor every bite. HERE is a quick read on how to practice mindful eating.
Action Step Four: Support Yourself with Healthy Habits
The best line of defense to curb emotional eating is to create healthy lifestyle habits that include eating minimally processed whole foods, moving every single day, sleeping 7-9 hours a night, and making rest and recovery part of your normal routine. When you are physically and mentally strong and well rested, it’s easier to handle the curveballs life is bound to throw at you. Of course, this is easier said than done and it takes TIME. Real, sustainable change happens gradually over the course of 2-3 months. Focus on making small changes to your daily routines and habits to include better nutrition, more exercise, and plenty of sleep.
Want some help kicking the habit of emotional eating? We help our nutrition clients with this process from start to finish so they can feel in control of cravings and live healthy lives.