Stress & Anxiety | Written by: Valerie Sizelove

How to Stop Emotional Eating

Do you know that feeling, the really good one you get when you bite into your favorite chocolate-drizzled cheesecake or mom’s homemade yeast rolls?

That’s dopamine flooding your brain as a reward for your taking that decadent bite. It makes you feel good and also makes you want to consume more of that rewarding food in hopes that the feeling won’t go away.

What is Emotional Eating?

Some of us are more sensitive to that dopamine rush as a result of eating than others, and this can be a result of a number of things.

Biology, the way you were raised and your environment can all play a role in how your emotions are connected to your food. And that’s where we get emotional eating, the tendency to eat in order to avoid or comfort negative emotions.

Types of Emotional Eating

Food Addiction

Eating sugar, flour and grains can activate the brain’s reward system, releasing dopamine in the brain the same way as drugs and alcohol affect the brains of addicts. It causes a temporary “high” that will eventually fade, and the eater will return to eat more and achieve that high again.

Food addiction negatively affects brain signals, reinforcing unhealthy connections between emotions and food. This includes brain signals that regulate judgment, stress management and memory functions.

Unconscious Eating

You’ve eaten enough food to feel full, but you continue picking at the food you have left, not paying attention to what you’re doing.

This is called unconscious eating because you are so wrapped up in your emotions (or other distractions) that you aren’t even conscious of your compulsive eating behavior.

Unconscious eating can lead to weight gain because your body takes in more calories than it needs.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED)

This mental illness is characterized by a more extreme form of binge eating, which is often related to emotions.

People dealing with BED will eat abnormally large quantities of food in short periods of time, often becoming uncomfortably full. This health disorder can cause a number of health problems, even leading to death.

Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder (UFED)

This can be any number of eating disorders with emotional triggers. If a disorder seriously affects the life of a patient but doesn’t fit into a DSM-5 psychological diagnosis, their eating issue can be called a UFED by doctors.

The Harm in Eating When Your Body Isn’t Hungry

If any of the above conditions sound like you, see your doctor right away so you can develop a personal healthcare plan to stop emotional eating. Emotional eating can affect the body negatively in a number of ways, including:

  • Weight gain and body image: When you eat more food than your body requires as a result of emotional eating, you will probably gain weight because of extra calories consumed. Not only can this harm your self-image, but weight gain can lead to a whole other host of health issues.
  • Cardiovascular stress: Extra weight gain isn’t good for your heart. Because emotional eating can make you become overweight, your heart and blood vessels can suffer extra pressure from extra weight. This causes blood pressure to rise and the heart to work harder to pump blood throughout the body. It also means that there is more tissue that your blood must be pumped through.
  • Gastrointestinal discomfort and disease: To put it simply, if you eat an entire tub of ice cream in one sitting, you might be spending some time in the bathroom later on. The types of foods we like to eat when emotional (i.e. sugar, carbs, fats) can really mess up our stomachs.

Tips to Avoid Emotional Eating

So, now that you know all about emotional eating, why it happens and why it’s not good for your health, lets talk about ways to decrease emotional eating.

It’s important to remember that your doctor’s treatment plan is number one if you have a disorder, but these tips can help you make better eating choices in support of that plan.

Whether you suffer from binge eating disorder or tend to overindulge once in awhile when you’re sad, everyone can take some useful tips from this list.

1. Find Better Ways to Relieve Stress

One of the biggest reasons people overeat is because they’re trying to resolve stress within their lives. One of the hormones released during stressful situations, cortisol, increases your body’s desire to eat.

While this hormone’s purpose is to boost your motivation, it seems that when it comes to eating, it might make you a bit too motivated.

See if there are any ways you can reduce stress in your life. Is there someone you could ask for help? Do you need to cut toxic people or activities from your life? Try some new stress-relief activities, such as journaling, meditation and deep breathing to lower you stress levels without using food.

2. Seek Therapy

Some of us need a little extra help when it comes to caring for our emotional eating problem. It’s likely that your problem could be partially resolved through talk therapy.

You won’t know until you go. Don’t be afraid to ask for help with your emotional eating. The issues presented by this disorder are serious and can be difficult to battle on your own.

3. Keep a Food-mood Diary

Start tracking your emotional eating habits in a special diary. Select a planner or notebook dedicated just to tracking your eating habits and your moods when eating.

List what you eat throughout the day, how much you eat and how you feel when eating. Over time, you might be able to notice patterns linking your eating habits to your moods.

A journal like this can be an excellent tool to share with your doctor or therapist.

4. Remain Mindful While You're Eating

Sometimes, it can be as simple as paying better attention to our bodies. When we are overwhelmed with stress or emotions, we might not realize that we are overeating or snacking on too much junk.

By making a conscious effort to be mindful when we eat, we can better monitor our habits. For example, focus on the taste and the texture of foods you eat. Be mindful of portion sizes that you serve yourself.

Pay attention to how full you are. Enjoy not just the eating, but the whole experience, too—the smell, the atmosphere, the people you’re with.

5. Let Yourself Experience Difficult Feelings

It’s easier said than done, I know. But sometimes, what we most want to avoid is exactly what we need to experience. By masking emotions with food, we find escapes from our problems instead of solving them.

By giving in and allowing ourselves to experience tough emotions, we can start to work through them and learn life lessons as a result.

6. See a Doctor

Sometimes, the problem is bigger than you and your therapist. You may be experiencing a chemical imbalance that requires medication. In that case, your emotional eating might be an attempt at balancing that chemical problem.  

Or, if you’ve been emotionally eating for your whole life and are starting to experience uncomfortable symptoms due to weight gain, it might be time to get checked out. Visit your healthcare provider as soon as possible to get your health assessed and to come up with a successful treatment program for any health issues due to emotional eating.

Battle Your Emotional Eating

The next time you’re feeling emotional and reach for that chocolate, ask yourself whether you’re really hungry or not. Could you be using sugary food as a band-aid for larger emotional problems? 

There are many ways to deal with our emotions; it doesn’t have to be through overeating and the destruction of our health. Hopefully, these tips will give you some ideas on combating your emotional eating habit, of course, along with the healthcare plan laid out by your doctor or therapist.

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