Picture this: You hit the snooze button one too many times, had a last minute project thrown at you at work, and then sat in an hour of frustrating evening traffic.
Finally home, you breathe a sigh of relief, head into the kitchen, and decide you deserve a snack after the day you’ve had. Maybe you reach for a few crackers, then a bit of chocolate.
Before you know it, you’ve munched your way through the entire kitchen without eating a proper meal. You’re stuffed, ashamed, and wondering what the heck just happened?!
It’s called emotional eating, which is eating for any other reason besides actual physical hunger, fuel or nourishment.
3 Trademarks of Emotional Eating
- Binging – usually on high-sugar and carbohydrate-rich comfort foods (i.e. junk food). How many people do you know who reach for carrots or broccoli when they’re upset?
- Mindlessly eating – you’re not aware of what or how much you’re eating or how those foods are making your body feel. You’re usually mentally checked out while eating them.
- Eating to numb, soothe, please, relax, or reward self, i.e. “I had a bad day and deserve it” kind of thinking. Eating during these times provides temporary relief, but often leaves you feeling worse than where you started.
I’ve had my own experiences with emotional eating. When I first started my business, I’d reward myself after a long day’s work by walking to my favourite coffee shop for a peanut butter cookie. Pretty soon one cookie turned into two, and before long I’d skip the walk and drive there to get my evening treat.
What started out as a fun habit and a little treat for myself soon became the highlight of my evening, and I’d be moody if I didn’t get to reward myself with my favourite cookie. Sometimes I’d even want to skip dinner and just have cookies instead. That’s when I knew I had to take a step back and reevaluate this habit.
Looking back, it wasn’t so much about the cookie as it was a chance for me to check out and relax. When I set better boundaries around my time and allowed myself to designate my evenings to personal time I stopped feeling like I needed to mark “my time” with a treat and the habit was easy to break.
The trouble with emotional eating is it overrides your body’s natural hunger cycle and can promote things like:
- weight gain
- an increase in your risk for inflammation and chronic disease
- create an unhealthy relationship between you and food
- lead to more dangerous types of disordered eating
What Triggers Emotional Eating?
Even though it’s called “emotional eating” because people often reach for food to cope with their feelings, there are a lot of other non-hunger reasons that can prompt you to eat.
Some common non-hunger reasons include:
- Uncomfortable emotions, like anger, guilt, fear, and sadness
- Need to feel pleasure and/or comfort
Six Tips to Help You Get a Handle on Emotional Eating
If any of those scenarios sound familiar, know that you’re not alone. Emotional eating affects a lot of people at one point in their lives.
Here are six great tips to stop emotional eating in its tracks:
1. Have a non-food outlet to process uncomfortable feelings
- Try journaling, exercising, or talking to a trusted friend or coach
2. Manage stress
- Exercise, meditation, deep breathing, getting enough sleep, and not taking on more than you can realistically handle can help decrease stress levels.
3. Recognize boredom
- Call a friend, take a walk, pick up a book, or tackle a DIY project or hobby you’ll enjoy when you know boredom is likely to strike.
4. Practice self-care
- Set aside time to take care of your needs. Tune in to your body to notice if you need to rest, move, stretch, or have some fun, then follow your body’s lead.
5. Practice mindful eating
- Avoid distractions at meals. Your focus should be on the food in front of you.
- Eat slowly, chew, and savour each bite. This helps give your body time to receive the signal from your brain when it’s full.
- Stop eating when you feel full.
6. Eat a balanced diet
- The majority of your diet should be nutrient-dense whole foods.
- Allow for occasional treats and indulgences so you don’t feel deprived.
- Include protein, fibre, and healthy fat at each meal to promote satiety.
BONUS: Reward yourself with something other than food. Often we use food as the focal point for celebrations, but this can be problematic if you’re prone to emotional eating. Instead focus on a fun activity, connecting with someone you care about, or doing something you enjoy, which will take the focus off food.
These energy balls feel like an indulgent snack, but are made from whole food ingredients and contain a bit of protein, healthy fat, and fibre to help you feel satisfied.
Chocolate Chip Almond Butter Energy Balls
1 cup natural almond butter (or other natural nut butter)
½ cup coconut flour
½ cup ground flax seeds
¼ cup hemp hearts
½ cup dark chocolate chips
¼ cup maple syrup
Pinch of sea salt
How to prepare
1. Combine all ingredients in a medium mixing bowl, stirring until smooth. If mixture is too thick, add 1 Tbsp. of water at a time to help the mixture come together.
2. Scoop 1 tablespoon of the mixture and use your hands to roll into a ball. Repeat with remaining mixture.
3. Store energy balls in an airtight container in refrigerator up to 1 week.
Study: Current Diabetes Reports, 2018 — Causes of Emotional Eating and Matched Treatment of Obesity
Study: Journal of Health Psychology, 2015 — Boredom proneness and emotion regulation predict emotional eating
Healthline: Mindful Eating 101 – A Beginner’s Guide