We’ve all had bad days, and I don’t know too many people who haven’t found themselves on the couch with a tub of ice cream or a bag of potato chips to make it all better. Emotional eating is a common issue many Americans face — something like 82% in fact. As a coach who supports people on their journey to better health, one of the most frequently asked questions I get is, “How do I deal with emotional eating?” Feeling emotionally vulnerable or powerless can cause us to fall back on all sorts of self-defeating habits. And that’s exactly what emotional eating is: a HABIT. Even when we know that stuffing down our feelings with each bite will only grant temporary relief, and will likely make us feel worse in the long run, many people still choose to do it anyway. Suffice to say, our emotions have a strong affect on our decisions and perceptions.
The first step to kicking the habit: Awareness
Recognize when you feel inclined to emotionally eat and Stop. Challenge. Choose. to better evaluate how and why you are reacting to a situation. You might find that your perception has been colored by your emotions, which could mean that the choice you’re about to make it not based on your current reality or the goals you have laid out for yourself.
Ask yourself, “Am I really hungry or am I just responding to something else that’s happening?” As I mentioned, over 75% of people overeat due to emotions. Emotions can trigger the need for comfort or escape from our troubles. They can take over the logical mind and give us an excuse to eat large portions of high calorie/high fat foods. It’s purely our conditioning.
Step two to combat emotional eating: Know your Triggers
These would be the things that “set you off.” Maybe you find that being around a certain person or relationship often brings anxiety and triggers a need to eat. Maybe you eat to avoid feeling sad. Maybe your self-esteem is feeling a little low and eating helps you forget. Maybe you’re simply bored and eating fills a gap.
Here are some common reasons why we emotionally eat, and some tips on how to reclaim the control and empower yourself to healthier habits!
Social Situations — Eating in excess to fit in or because others are doing it.
Emotional — This would include the traditional feelings that frequently lead to overeating, such as: sadness, depression, anger, frustration, stress, loneliness or boredom.
Situational — Eating because the opportunity presents itself. Your co-worker brought in donuts and they just happen to be in the break room.
Thoughts — Giving yourself a reason to indulge or feeling the need to overeat due to negative self-talk.
Physiological — This can happen if you skip meals throughout the day and do not eat enough. Your body is hungry but doesn’t know when to stop so you “eat until you hate yourself” as Rick would say.
Replacement — Food can act as a distraction or temporary replacement for thoughts and activities that we are dreading or don’t want to deal with. Eating becomes the escape.
Ways to meet your triggers:
Remove yourself from the situation — If you’ve had an altercation or find yourself in an unhealthy situation, remove yourself from it. Take some time apart to calm down and regain clarity. Give yourself time to process your emotions. If you’ve been in a confrontation, make a list of what you want to say and revisit the conversation when you’re more calm.
Take 10 deep breaths — Some negative emotions and situations are impossible to avoid. Stress, for instance, is a part of life. Sometimes we just have to find better ways to cope with situations as we find ourselves in them. Taking a pause to breathe deeply and consciously can do wonders for both the body and mind. It sends oxygen to the brain, which lowers blood pressure (and feelings of anger or frustration) so that we can meet the moment with calm and clarity.
Move — As in physically move your body. Whether it’s switching your position, moving to a different room, or getting up for exercise — moving from your current position can do wonders for our perspective. Increased movement, such as a walk or playing catch, boosts the body’s happy hormones and naturally helps you feel better.
Listen to music — Finding healthier alternatives to “get out of your head” (i.e. avoiding negative self-talk or ruminating over something that upset you) is key. Music can be a wonderful antidote for feeling sad or lonely. Find a song that fills you up and makes you smile, or a song that relaxes you and brings you to a peaceful place. Get lost in the vibrations of joy and love. Make yourself a playlist so that you can easily turn to it when you feel triggered.
Play — Commune with your pet, or child, or a friend. Take time to feel connected to others and embrace their support and friendship. Pets are especially great at providing unconditional love and healing.
Write — Maybe it’s for you or maybe it’s to a friend or family member. Whether it’s something you decide to share or not, expressing feelings through the written word helps get it off our chest. Stuffing the face is just like stuffing emotions in a bottle. Writing can be a very productive way to express and help process emotions.
Develop a new hobby — Maybe it’s reading or playing a game. Maybe it’s picking up a new activity, like learning a new language, how to cook, or how to make jewelry. Maybe it’s finally taking that Zumba class or getting to that DIY project you’ve been putting off forever. Find something that interests you and do a little investigating. Nurture your creativity and cater to your passions. You never know where it could lead!
Improve your time-management skills — Often, one of the biggest contributors to everyday stress can be time-management. Not feeling like we have enough of it, or simply not using it wisely. If better time-management requires getting organized or planning healthy meals throughout the week, do whatever you have to do to create space in your home and your life. Learn where there’s room for improvement so that you don’t make the same mistakes, and so that you can find freedom in the everyday!
Know that with this arsenal of tools, growth and the creation of new, healthier habits takes time, patience, and a bit of vigilance. So don’t feel too discouraged if you’re not successful 100% of the time. Accept that we all make mistakes and continue on your forward path by tracking your progress and setting realistic, sustainable goals for long-term growth. Most importantly, know that you’re not alone!