Understanding emotional eating

Food is more than fuel. Food is an essential piece of our life; we grow up with smells and dishes that will stay in our memory forever. In addition, we associate different foods with our culture, the people we love, and the crucial moments in our life. But similar to alcohol or drugs, food can also become a coping mechanism to avoid uncomfortable feelings and emotions.

A study by University College London found the home environment was the leading cause of emotional eating. And this was due to parental behaviours, including giving upset children their favourite food to soothe them.

In this article, we will find out the causes and solutions for emotional eating.

Let’s get started!

It all started in your childhood

Emotional eating can start in early childhood; this doesn’t mean that parents should blame children’s eating issues. This only means that our behaviour around food could be due to parental behaviours. During childhood, food is often used as a price for children’s good behaviour and more often for coping with children’s emotions or avoiding children’s misbehaviour.

We are all familiar with phrases such as if you are a good boy, mommy will take you to Mc Donalds, don’t be sad, let’s get some ice cream, or if you stop crying, you can have your favourite candy and sentences such as if you don’t stop yelling you won’t get dessert. Sounds familiar?

When this parental behaviour becomes normal, children learn to associate food with coping with uncomfortable feelings instead of understanding them. The problem, of course, is not the candy or the ice cream but the inability to find more positive strategies to regulate children’s and parents’ emotions instead of using food. One way to do this is by teaching coping and mindfulness (self-calming) skills to disrupt the link between stressful experiences and maladaptive health behaviour.

Even though this behaviour is not inherited via a gene, the pattern of using food to soothe children as a reward or to control behaviour could be passed down from one generation to another.

The link between emotional eating and trauma

The link between emotional eating and trauma can be uncovered in several life circumstances. Usually, trauma victims will engage in emotional eating when triggered by negative emotions directly related to past trauma. In essence, this means that trauma victims often eat to escape and numb their negative feelings. Emotional abuse, for example, can lead to low self-esteem, self-critique, and issues with body image, which at the same time can lead to an eating disorder.

Kids who grow up in stressful environments such as extreme poverty, violence, trauma or experiencing material deprivation tend to have higher stress levels. In addition, these kids were observed to eat more in the absence of hunger and have a strong tendency to overeat emotionally.

Children who experienced any trauma or abuse are more likely to develop psychological issues, including body image and eating disorders.

Stress eater?

Even though research shows that people who experienced emotional, physical, or sexual abuse in childhood are twice as likely to have a food addiction in adulthood as those who were not abused. With the right combination of stress, lack of sleep, pressure and chaos, most of us will be prone to stress eat; new parents are the best example. Anything from work stress to financial worries, health issues, to relationship struggles could be the root cause of your emotional eating.

Ongoing stress causes physiological changes that lead to increased hunger and increased cravings for high fat and sugary foods. Stress can shut down appetite in the short term, but it’s a different story if stress persists.

Research suggests a gender difference in stress-coping behaviour, with women being more likely to turn to food and men to alcohol or smoking.

How to stop emotional eating?

I believe it is crucial to understand why you are eating. I know the most obvious answer will be because I am hungry, right? But how do you know if it is emotional or physical hunger? The table below may help you understand and recognize the difference.

Emotional hunger vs physical hunger

Physical hungerEmotional hunger
It develops slowly over time.It comes suddenly or abruptly.
You want a variety of food groups.You crave only some foods.
You feel the sensation of fullness and take it as a cue to stop eating.You may binge on food and not feel a sensation of fullness.
You have no negative feelings about eating.You feel guilt or shame about eating.

Emotional hunger very often feels like physical hunger. Therefore, you must pay attention to how you feel after and before eating. Very often, the most powerful food cravings hit when you’re at your weakest point emotionally, which may lead you to use food for comfort instead of dealing with the real problem. Even though emotional eating is a way to suppress stress and difficult emotions such as sadness, anger and loneliness, feeling bored could also trigger emotional eating.

Learning to cope with stress

Stress is a significant contributor to emotional eating; that’s why it is crucial to learn techniques to deal with stress constructively and healthily. This could mean journaling, finding social support with a family member or a closer friend, meditating or doing exercises such as yoga or anything that helps you move that bad energy from your body.

Some people find relief in walking while listening to a podcast or their favourite music and others find meditation to be the best way to find peace of mind. You can find much free guided meditation and breathing exercises online. This youtube channel is one of my favourites, and you can also find it on Spotify.

Keep a food diary

This will help you identify your triggers, and over time you will be able to recognize your pathers. For example, writing what you eat and how you feel before and after can be a powerful tool to help you discover the connection between your emotions and the food you choose to eat when having different emotions. But I know that writing can be challenging, so start small, get a journal and let your feelings come out to slowly build the habit of sitting with yourself in silence before and after eating.

Keep healthy food at home

Not having comfort and triggering foods at home is crucial because you will automatically reach for the sugary foods when you are emotional. So keeping them out of reach will help you break the cycle. Also, it is a good idea to avoid grocery shopping when you are hungry or emotional or upset.

Eat a healthy diet

Eat good amounts of healthy and nutritious foods is essential; So make sure that your diet is balanced and full of nutrients to fuel your body. One way to achieve this is by ensuring that you eat a good amount of protein and healthy fats in every meal. Also, avoid eating carbohydrates alone since this will make you more hungry. And don’t deprive yourself; eat different foods, have a treat occasionally and make sure that you eat enough. When you eat balanced meals during the day, you are less likely to eat out of boredom or any negative emotion.

Be kind to yourself

Learning to forgive and understand yourself after an episode is crucial. Instead of using negative self-talk and feeling shame or angry with yourself, try to learn from it. Give yourself some love and compassion, what is done is done, and tomorrow is a new day.

I know this is hard to achieve, especially if you are so used to treating yourself verbally, mentally and physically unkindly, but I promise you the efforts are 100% worth it. With practice and patience, you will get used to taking care of yourself. Some positive and healthy ideas are going for a walk, calling a friend, exercising or taking a calming bath instead of staying alone. Find what works for you and do it!

Asking for help

Even when we understand what’s going on, many of us still need help breaking the cycle of emotional eating. Therapy was a huge part of my eating disorder recovery. I strongly recommend you ask for professional help if you realize that your eating patterns are out of control. Therapists can help you deal with your feelings, and nutritionists can help you identify your eating patterns and get you on track with a better diet. The main work will always be with yourself, nobody can do the work for you, but a professional can guide you and give you tools to make your journey lighter.

Bottom line

Some of the greatest and happiest moments of most people’s lives involve food. So having a healthy relationship with food and your body is crucial to enjoying the priceless moments of your life. From family dinners to your kids’ birthday parties, food is always there. If you find yourself eating emotionally and using food to cope with your emotions or stress, it is time to make a change. Asking for professional help and implementing the tips mentioned above are great places to start.





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