Stress eating or emotional eating are terms used interchangeably. Both refer to the same pattern of eating where people use food as a coping mechanism to be able to deal with stressful situations.
We all use emotional eating at one time or another in our lives. It becomes a problem when emotional eating is the go-to coping mechanism for difficult feelings, as opposed to building the tools to deal with the emotions that are coming up.
Emotional Connection to Food
Our relationship with food is emotional at its core. Access to food is part of our survival. When we were young we emotionally bonded with our mothers who were our primary source of food.
Food is also a big part of our cultures and families. It makes sense that we feel nostalgic about food from our childhood, family recipes, or meals we have on certain holidays.
Not all food decisions are driven by positive emotions. If you’ve ever been through a significant break up (or suffered a loss) you know that your appetite is affected. This shows up in different ways. One day you might feel overwhelmed with emotion and not want to eat. The next you might be drawn to comfort food.
Negative emotions often create a feeling of emptiness or an emotional void. Often we turn to food as a way to fill that void and create a feeling of fullness so we can temporarily feel whole.
The danger here is that the physical fullness can’t fully replace the emotional void, which is why you might never quite feel satisfied when you’re eating out of emotion.
One way to get past stress eating is to determine whether your hunger is being driven emotionally or from real physical sensations of hunger.
Emotional Hunger vs Physical Hunger
Emotional hunger can be powerful. It’s easy to mistake it for physical hunger if you don’t know what to pay attention to. Here are some ways you can tell the two apart:
Emotional hunger happens suddenly. It comes on quickly and feels urgent. Whereas physical hunger comes on gradually and doesn’t feel urgent (unless you haven’t eaten in a long time).
Emotional hunger isn’t located in the stomach. It comes from your head and is more of an anxious thought or craving than a growling belly or a sensation in your stomach. One way to notice this is if you’re focused on specific textures, tastes, and smells as opposed to how hungry you feel.
Emotional hunger focuses on specific foods. You pass by a billboard for a fast food restaurant and suddenly have a craving. Or you scroll past a dessert picture on social media and suddenly you want to leave your house to go get chocolate. These are emotional cravings because they come on fast and specific. Physical hunger usually isn’t for anything specific, and your desire will be for real food as opposed to sweets and treats.
Emotional hunger isn’t fulfilled, even once you’re full. When you keep eating past the point of being full, or you keep wanting to snack even after you’ve eaten these are signs that the hunger you’re responding to is emotional. Physical hunger doesn’t need to be stuffed to feel satisfied. You’ll get the sensation that you’re stomach is full and feel like you’ve had enough.
Emotional hunger often happens mindlessly. You sit down with a bag of chips and before you know it, it’s gone. Mindless eating is a sign that you’re trying to numb your emotions. When you eat to fulfill physical hunger, you’re more aware and intentional with what you’re doing.
Emotional hunger often leads to “eaters remorse.” When you feel guilty, ashamed, or regret after eating it’s a sign that you weren’t eating for nutritional reasons. When you eat to satisfy physical hunger, you’re unlikely to feel guilty or ashamed because you’re giving your body what it needs.
Reasons Behind Stress Eating
Stress eating is a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions that you otherwise don’t know how to deal with. Common emotions that lead to stress eating are: overwhelm, anger, fear, boredom, sadness, and loneliness.
These emotions can be triggered by major life events or brought on by the hassles of daily life. The emotions are just the trigger. The challenge is to respond in a different way.
The physical changes that go along with stress can also cause a person to overeat. Initially, stress will decrease your appetite but over time, high cortisol levels will increase your appetite which can lead to overeating. Elevated cortisol levels will also increase cravings for high-sugar and high-fat foods which the body uses more of when it’s under duress.
Tips to Stop Emotionally Eating
The approach you use will depend on the reason for your emotional cravings. Here are some approaches to help you stop emotional eating:
- Identify the feeling and respond to what it’s asking for. Our emotions are signs from the body that there’s a need to be filled. For example, if you’re lonely call a friend, if you’re angry write out your feelings or talk to someone so you feel heard. Learning to respond in these ways will help you deal with your feelings, as opposed to stuffing them down with food.
- Take a time-out before giving in to a craving. When a craving strikes take 10 minutes to see if it will dissipate. Distract yourself by having a shower, cleaning the house, or going for a walk to take your mind off the craving. It might disappear or become less urgent.
- Slow down. Eat mindfully. Being present with your food and paying attention to the flavour, texture, and sensation of the food in your mouth will help you slow down and enjoy the experience as opposed to mindlessly eating. A simple way to avoid shame after eating is to eat slowly and mindfully and be present in the process. When you respect your body in this way you’ll have a healthier outcome.
- Adopt healthy stress management habits. Dealing with stress is a lifestyle approach. Ensure you’re getting proper rest, drinking enough water, relaxing regularly, and making time for fun and personal connection are good strategies to keep your stress levels down so you don’t end up with emotional cravings.
- Be gentle with yourself. Learn from your setbacks. There’s no expectation for you to get it right every time. Learning to pay attention to your body and respond to your needs in a loving way is a process. Take it one day at a time.
- Accept your emotions. Often difficult emotions are met with our own judgment or shame. The more you can accept and allow yourself to feel your emotions, the easier it will be to move through them without responding with food.
Want help with emotional eating?
For some of us, dealing with emotions can feel confronting. It can feel like a daunting task to overcome emotional eating without tools or support. If you find yourself turning to food as a coping mechanism, it might help to have support in changing your habits.
In the Eats & Asana program, we touch on mindful eating, making healthy food choices, and understanding cravings so you can break the cycle of emotional eating.
You’ll also discover tools to manage stress and deal with emotions so you’ll be less inclined toward stress eating in the first place.
Book your Body Love Breakthrough Call to learn more about the Eats & Asana program and how it can help you create a healthier relationship with your body and food.