How to Get to the Root of Emotional Eating
Do you consider yourself an emotional eater? You’re not alone.
As a dietitian and health coach, I’ve listened to hundreds of women share their struggles with emotional eating. Plus, I know a thing or two about emotional eating from personal experience…hello peanut butter pretzels and chocolate.
This post is for normalizing emotional eating and helping you get to the root of your food triggers.
What is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is eating in response to feelings, not biological hunger.
This includes eating due to stress, boredom, happiness, celebration, sadness, anger, etc. It is a natural part of the human experience to have a wide range of emotions.
However, when emotions are too overwhelming, we look for mechanisms to “numb out” or “turn off” the emotion.
Some people numb with food. Others binge-watch TV shows, bury themselves in work, or online shop to soothe themselves. What’s your go-to?
The problem with numbing emotions is that we can’t selectively numb the “bad” ones and heighten the “good” ones. Brene Brown says it best:
We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions. -Brene Brown
The Continuum of Emotional Eating
Emotional eating is not bad in itself. However, it becomes a slippery slope when food is the only coping mechanism for difficult emotions. Additionally, there are varying degrees of emotional eating.
Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch explain this as “The Continuum of Emotional Eating” in the book, Intuitive Eating.
The left side represents the mildest form of emotional eating, while the right represents the most severe form.
There are varying ways that people use food in response to emotions. Many of us can identify with eating for pleasure and comfort. For example, eating cake on your birthday or soup on a sick day. Letting ourselves enjoy and appreciate food is important for feeling satisfied!
Navigating emotional eating is not about taking the pleasure out of eating. It’s about bringing awareness to our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Prompts to Get to the Root of Emotional Eating
Awareness is your superpower to get to the root of emotional eating. When you notice yourself eating for reasons other than hunger, use these prompts to activate your awareness:
- What am I feeling right now?
- Where can I locate that feeling in my body?
- What do I need right now?
- How can I compassionately face this feeling?
- How can I seek nurturance for what I feel in a non-food way?
- In what ways is using food to cope serving me?
- In what ways is using food to cope harming me?
Your response to these prompts will help you get to the root of the emotion and respond versus react. Remember, you are 100% able to soothe emotions using food. However, over time, you might find that you can use non-food ways to cope with emotions, too.
When It’s Not About Emotions
Increased food cravings can be due to many factors, not just emotions. In fact, a number of my clients categorize themselves as “emotional eaters”, but after deep questioning, we determine that they’re actually struggling with dieting, lack of sleep, or inadequate nourishment.
A Response to Diet Mentality
Diets intentionally reduce caloric needs below baseline. Restrictions are placed around what, when, and how much to eat. In this context, dieting is a form of starvation. The human body is hardwired to fight starvation at the cellular level. When the body is undernourished, it sends signals to the brain to eat more. Even the mere perception of forbidden foods is enough to trigger “loss of control” around food. In this example, restriction fuels the episode of overeating.
Lack of Sleep
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. If you notice that you’re hungrier or have increased food cravings after a poor night’s sleep, there’s evidence behind this! Sleep deprivation alters appetite-regulating hormones (1). Essentially, the appetite-inducing hormone (ghrelin) is increased in sleep-deprived individuals, while the hormone that suppresses appetite (leptin) is lowered. What is one change that you can make this week to prioritize better sleep?
Do you eat at least 3 meals a day? What about adequate snacks between meals? If you answered no, you could be letting your body get to a state of primal hunger. Waiting to eat until ravenous triggers the primal drive to overeat. Hunger signals are not meant to be overridden. Ideally, we want to eat before we get to a state of “hangry” to promote a harmonious experience around mealtime. For more information visit: How To Honor Your Hunger on the Everglow Blog.
To navigate emotional eating with ease and support, schedule a free discovery call today. Learn how the Everglow Method can assist you in making the transition from frustrated dieter to food freedom rockstar!