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What is Emotional Eating and How to Stop It?

Women eating sweets

The occasional food craving is normal behavior for many people. But when these cravings become something more, they could suggest larger underlying problems. This is where the term emotional eating enters the conversation. Emotional eating is not intentionally harmful as it satisfies a person’s immediate emotional impulses. However, as a regular pattern of emotional eating forms, it can create various health problems.

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating often happens when someone wants to soothe or suppress negative feelings like stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness or even loneliness. Individuals often gravitate towards emotional eating as a way to calm down, cheer up, or compensate for stressful events. Additionally, major life events such as changes in relationships, work, finances, or health may trigger emotional eating. Experiencing negative feelings can lead to feelings of emptiness or an emotional void, and food is believed to be a way to fill the void or a temporary fullness.

For some people that are in emotional distress, eating patterns may become impulsive and could become binge eating behavior.  A key difference between emotional eating and binge eating involves the amount of food that is consumed. Emotional eating may involve consuming moderate to large amounts of food and may be the only symptom for someone. Binge eating is a serious mental illness that is characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large amounts of food, and a sense of a loss of control over eating behaviors. Individuals with binge eating disorder may eat quickly, feel guilty or depressed after overeating, and will often eat alone due to the embarrassment about the amount of food they consume. To be diagnosed with binge eating disorder, the binges must occur on average of once per week over three months.

Ways to control emotional eating?

Some influences tend to encourage emotional eating, however, there are things you can do to help shift the behavior.

Food as the main pleasure.

People experience a real soothing effect when they eat certain foods like ice cream, potato chips or cookie dough. Consumption of certain comfort foods delivers a burst of short-term pleasure. Salty and sweet foods such as these can be addictive, so not eating them when the urge strikes is a challenge. It only takes about five minutes for our body to switch gears, so exploring other (non-destructive) behaviors can help to soothe emotions. Taking a short walk, sitting outside, practicing deep breathing exercises, or listening to your favorite music can calm the body and bring the body back to a place of pleasure.

Not aware of the behavior.

Sometimes people are not aware that they are eating; this is sometimes referred to as “unconscious eating”. In these cases, individuals seem to almost operate as if they are in a trance. In many ways, this behavior may resemble binge eating. Mindlessly eating or grazing while watching television or movies can easily encourage this behavior. To help curb this behavior, become mindful of what and when you are eating. Take note of when you are physically hungry versus emotionally hungry.  Physical hunger is gradual and can be postponed. It also can be satisfied with many different foods and eating these foods doesn’t cause a sense of guilt or shame. When someone is  emotionally hungry, there is an urgent need to eat a specific food, often something sugary or salty.  Emotional eating causes someone to eat more than they normally would and leads to additional negative feelings.

Difficulty coping with negative feelings.

It is human nature to avoid thoughts and experiences that make a person feel bad, and sometimes the only way some people can avoid negative feelings is to engage in self-destructive eating behaviors. In the short-term, this behavior can distract a person from feeling negative thoughts, but it is not a healthy long-term solution. Ideally, individuals should learn to let themselves experience negative or difficult feelings. It is important to try to pinpoint what is creating additional stress and negative emotions. Often negative feelings come from a triggering event, such as a heavy workload, financial crisis, or changes in personal relationships. The key purpose of emotions is to help you identify problems, so necessary changes can be made. Once you have narrowed the cause of the negative feelings, cut down the triggers to help them occur less frequently.

Negative body image.

People hating their own physical body and possessing an overall negative body image is a critical factor for triggering emotional eating. A downward spiral of negativity and shame makes it challenging for people to implement long-lasting healthy eating changes. Negative body image can be a key risk factor for an eating disorder. Recognizing the value of our body can help to replace negative thoughts and emotions with positive ones. As individuals begin accepting their bodies, they can successfully stop self-destructive emotional eating behaviors – and this is tough to do alone.

When should an individual seek professional help?

Emotional eating helps people focus on eating a “comfort food” that provides momentary relief, versus dealing with a serious problem or painful situation. Sometimes people try but have no success in breaking the emotional eating cycle, which can lead to deeper emotional and physical issues. Remember you are not alone.  An experienced mental health professional can help to  understand the root cause of emotional eating. At Toledo Center for Eating Disorders, we provide treatment options for both male and female adolescents and adults. Our team of professionals utilizes evidence-based interventions that help individuals understand what is causing their eating disorder and develop coping skills to help them successfully recovery.  If you would like more information on our program, please call us today or complete our contact formOur admissions team can walk you through the assessment process and help you make the best decision for your treatment options.

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