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Is Emotional Eating Running Your Diet?

There is no doubt that food is something all humans partake in for many reasons. It can be a part of a social event, it can be religiously centered, or it can even be a response to an emotional situation. Some of these reasons can fit into a healthy lifestyle. However, emotionally eating to cope with negative emotions has not been found to be beneficial to the human body.

What is Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating implies that an individual will turn to food during an intense feeling of emotion, which then leads to an unnecessary intake of calories. During emotional eating, the consumption of food has nothing to do with physiological hunger. Rather, it is used as a method of coping, distraction, or comfort when having to do with negative emotions.

There has been plenty of research indicating emotional eating is closely related to greater amounts of body fat, obesity, and higher intakes of salty and/or sugar-packed foods. Most research has identified the feelings tied to emotional eating as depression, anxiety, or stress. Others have identified emotional eating as being linked to boredom and/or loneliness.

How Can We Prevent Emotional Eating?

I recommend shifting from emotional eating to intuitive eating. Intuitive eating suggests relying on what the body’s physiology is asking for rather than what emotions are asking for. For example, cleaning the plate is not necessarily the best idea for somebody that was full halfway through their meal. However, if the person next to them has cleaned their plate and still feels hungry, a second plate of food may be right for them. Learning to listen to the body’s hunger cues and separating those cues from boredom, habit, and the act of coping with emotions is very difficult- but it can be done!

Moving from Emotional Eating to Intuitive Eating

Here a few practical steps to get you started on intuitive eating:

  1. When you are on the way to grab a snack, ask yourself what the reason is. Is it because your body is hungry and needs the nutrition? Is it out of habit? Is it because you’re bored, sad, or lonely? Asking questions like this can save you a surprising amount of calories throughout the day.
  2. If you are eating out of negative emotions (like sadness, loneliness, or boredom), consider spending your time in a different way. Exercising can release endorphins which counter-act negative emotions. Catching up with a friend or family member can help solve the loneliness. Or, starting a project can keep your hands busy with something productive and fun, rather than keeping them busy with unnecessary calories.
  3. Move away from eating at a specific time of day. If you normally eat at 12:30pm on the dot but you’re hungry at 11:30am, don’t wait – eat!
  4. Do NOT tell yourself you can NOT eat something. Now, this is a tricky one. We grow up learning which foods are ‘good’ and ‘bad’. However, this only creates a forbidden fruit effect on the foods considered ‘bad’. First of all, no food is ‘bad’ (all foods fit!). Second, we are humans and we want what we cannot have. When we restrict a certain food from our diet, we are actually more likely to eat that food, plus extra! Allowing yourself to have all foods fit in your diet will take away the forbidden fruit phenomena. You might even find that resisting foods high in fat, calories, and sugar is easier than it ever has been. Why? Because you know you can have them whenever you want! This tip is difficult to master, but once you figure it out, the results are incredible (I am speaking from experience).
  5. Make peace with who you are. Being at war with your body image can cause your diet to spiral out of control. Choosing to be grateful for the body you inhabit and fueling it with the nutrition it needs can completely change your experience with food and yourself for the better!

If you're looking for more on this concept, I recommend Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.

In summary, making peace with your body, food, and emotions can help solve the challenge of emotional eating. Kindness to others is oftentimes considered and practiced, but kindness to yourself is rarely practiced. Be kind to yourself, try not to label foods as ‘bad’, and try new things to kick those negative emotions. The freedom you will feel is worth it, trust me.

CHI Health Food and Nutrition Services Team
CHI Health Food and Nutrition Services Team

These blogs are written by members of the CHI Health Nutrition Services team.

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