What’s Eating You?
By Carey Shore, MS, RD, LD
Wellness Coach and Registered Dietitian
Methodist Health System
When we face a difficult problem, stress, or boredom, many of us turn to food. Food cravings can hit us when we’re at our weakest emotional points. If food is your comfort zone, you may struggle with your weight. The good news is that if you’re prone to stress eating, there are steps that you can take to get back on track.
The mood-food-weight cycle
Emotional eating is eating as a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, like stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness, grief, and loneliness. Major life events or even the hassles of daily life can trigger negative emotions that lead to emotional eating and disrupt your weight-loss efforts.
Some of these triggers include:
- Relationship conflicts
- Work stressors
- Financial pressures
- Health problems
- Major life changes
Although some people eat less in the face of strong emotions, others turn to impulsive or binge eating, quickly consuming whatever’s convenient. In fact, your emotions can become so tied to your eating habits that you automatically reach for a treat when you're angry or stressed.
Food also serves as a distraction. If you’re worried about an upcoming event or stewing over a conflict, you may focus on eating comfort food instead of dealing with the painful situation.
Whatever emotions drive you to overeat, the end result is the same. The effect is temporary, the emotions return, and then you bear the additional burden of guilt about setting back your weight-loss goal. This can lead to an unhealthy cycle — your emotions trigger you to overeat, you beat yourself up for getting off your weight-loss track, you feel bad and overeat again.
Getting back on track
When negative emotions threaten to trigger emotional eating, you can take steps to control cravings. Try these tips:
- Keep a food diary. Write down what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, how you're feeling when you eat, and how hungry you are. Over time, you might see patterns that reveal the connection between mood and food.
- Tame your stress. If stress contributes to your emotional eating, try a stress-management technique, such as yoga, meditation, or deep breathing.
- Have a hunger reality check. Is your hunger physical or emotional? If you ate just a few hours ago and don't have a rumbling stomach, you're probably not hungry. Give the craving time to pass.
- Get support. You’re more likely to give in to emotional eating if you lack a good support network. Lean on family and friends or consider joining a support group.
- Fight boredom. Instead of snacking when you’re not hungry, distract yourself and substitute a healthier behavior. Take a walk, watch a movie, play with your pet, listen to music, read, surf the internet, or call a friend.
- Take away temptation. Don’t keep hard-to-resist comfort foods in your home. And if you feel angry or blue, postpone your trip to the grocery store until you have your emotions in check.
- Don’t deprive yourself. When trying to lose weight, you might limit calories too much, eat the same foods repeatedly, and banish treats. This only serves to increase your food cravings, especially in response to emotions. Eat satisfying amounts of healthier foods, enjoy an occasional treat, and get plenty of variety to help curb cravings.
- Snack healthy. If you feel the urge to eat between meals, choose a healthy snack, such as fresh fruit, vegetables with low-fat dip, nuts, or unbuttered popcorn. Or try lower calorie versions of your favorite foods to see if they satisfy your craving.
- Learn from setbacks. If you have an episode of emotional eating, forgive yourself and start fresh the next day. Try to learn from the experience, and make a plan for how you can prevent it in the future. Focus on the positive changes you're making in your eating habits, and give yourself credit for making changes that'll lead to better health.
When to see a professional
If you’ve tried self-help options but you still can’t control emotional eating, consider therapy with a mental health professional. It can help you understand why you eat emotionally and teach you coping skills. Therapy can also help you discover whether you have an eating disorder connected to emotional eating. There’s help for that, so don’t lose hope.
If you’re looking for an organization that is committed to the health and well-being of all its employees, take a look at Methodist Health System. Visit us at Jobs.MethodistHealthSystem.org.
© Methodist Health System