From feasting on high days and holidays to gorging or restricting food during tricky times, what we eat is closely connected with our emotions. For some people, this can cause a difficult relationship with food.
Our food choices are often influenced by our mood. We sometimes eat more when we’re feeling good, as a celebration or reward and also if we’re feeling sad, angry, or low in mood in an attempt to make ourselves feel better, But does it actually do that? We actually end up feeling worse after emotional eating, because the negative feelings remain afterwards.
Emotional eating is a natural, powerful way to find temporary relief from many of life’s challenges. It’s an adaptive response from the brain and body, not one that’s down to a lack of willpower or discipline. Identifying if you’re an emotional eater can be the first step to overcoming this. Learning what situations or emotions trigger this behaviour and why and when it happens for you will help you take back control. Do you recognise any of these?
Are you aware of what you’re eating and why? When you’ve finished your meal do you continue to nibble at leftovers? Do you mindlessly graze on snacks, such as crisps or biscuits because they’re in front of you? Once you’ve dished up dinner, try moving the leftovers out of sight rather than leaving them in sight while you eat.
Choosing food to release tension and give pleasure
At the end of a long and busy day, a big bowl of ice cream or a bar of chocolate can be very effective at temporarily soothing our exhausted, hard-working selves. Why?
Eating high sugars/fat foods stimulates a feel-good pathway in our brain. When we associate an activity, such as eating, with pleasure it encourages us to do it again and a habit emerges. Habits aren’t easy to break but finding something other than food to make us feel good can help. Maybe a chat with a friend, a long walk or a soak in the bath could make you feel good.
Coping with difficult feelings
Society teaches us to avoid things that make us feel sad, unhappy or miserable. Eating is often a way to distract ourselves from these difficult feelings. Try to be mindful of situations that trigger this behaviour and look at other ways to process the feelings. Accept the feeling you’re experiencing, name it and reflect on its impermanence – like all feelings, it will pass.
Feeling uncomfortable with how you look
Negative feelings about our appearance rarely inspire us to make positive changes. Try regular exercise and practice self-care to improve your sense of worth and self-esteem. These feelings are difficult to overcome, to make progress with this you may need to seek advice and support through a counsellor or doctor.
Listening to your body
If you let yourself get too hungry or too tired, it can leave you vulnerable to emotional eating. When we’re hungry and tired our body sends signals to our brain to eat. These feelings leave us less able to fight off urges or cravings and make sensible food choices.
What events/situations/people/circumstances trigger uncomfortable feelings that make you turn to food for comfort? Keeping a food and mood diary can help us identify these factors. Jot down all food and drinks that you have throughout the day, including the time you had them and the portion size. It may also be helpful to include the following in your diary.
- How were you feeling before, during, and after eating or drinking each meal or snack?
- Where were you when you ate? Were you at home, in the office, out with friends?
- Were there any events which led to how you were feeling before or during eating?
- Who were you with when you had that meal or snack?
- What were you doing while eating (e.g. watching TV, at work, eating on your own or with family/friends)
- How did you feel 1 – 2 hours after eating?
Keeping a diary for a week can highlight patterns between your feelings and your food choices. Identifying why and when emotional eating happens can help us recognise our triggers. With understanding and insight, we can learn to regain control of our relationship with food.