If you’ve experienced coming home from a stressful day at work and turning to food as a way to cope, you are not alone. For some, certain foods can evoke a sense of comfort, but when your body is getting mixed messages, such as being fed when it’s not physically hungry, this can lead to a pattern that can thwart your healthy eating intentions and weight loss goals. If you identify with this scenario, chances are you’ve experienced emotional eating, also known as emotional hunger—eating for other reasons than physical hunger.
Emotional eating isn’t really about food. It is a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, including anger, anxiety, boredom, fear, loneliness, and sadness.1 Daily stresses may lead to emotional eating, but so can major life events, so self-awareness is very important during any stressful scenario, whether it be spilling a carton of milk all over the kitchen floor or dropping your child off at college.
Is Emotional Eating Harmful?
As you can imagine, using food as a coping mechanism long-term is not a healthy strategy to manage stress and other negative emotions; it doesn’t address the real emotional need and it can lead to unwanted extra calories, as it can be almost automatic to gravitate toward the quick, high-calorie foods when in distress.2 These types of foods usually lack nutritional value, and it can be easy to consume a significant number of calories in a short period of time. Repeating this type of behavior often may lead to weight gain which could increase the risk of other serious health problems, such as diabetes, fatigue, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.3
How to Identify Emotional Eating
You may not realize you’re an emotional eater, but there are clues to help you figure out whether you may be turning to food for comfort. One of the signs of emotional eating is eating until you’re uncomfortably full.4 Although overeating happens sometimes, doing this regularly may suggest that you are eating for a reason other than hunger.
Another indication of emotional eating is if you’re not sure why you’re gaining weight.4 While it can be easy to assume that you need to hit the gym more often—you should also consider your emotional state and whether it’s affecting the way you eat.
Tips to Identify Emotional Eating
If you think you may tend to eat due to emotion rather than hunger, there are alternative, healthy ways to help manage your feelings. And please talk to your healthcare professional if you are experiencing eating issues that you think are tied to your emotions and you or your loved ones have concerns.
Monitor Your Thoughts & Feelings
Start by actively paying more attention to your thoughts and feelings. If you’re tempted to reach for a pint of ice cream whenever you’re feeling stressed or anxious, take a minute to internalize your true feelings. Is it hunger that is making you reach for the food, or is something else bothering you? Try listing out your feelings and emotions on paper. A lack of awareness may contribute to emotional eating5, but understanding your feelings and thoughts may help you learn how to cope with them. Keeping a food journal may also help you spot patterns in your mood and eating habits.
Once you identify how you’re feeling and what situations may trigger stress, you can try and change your response. If the stressor is something you are having trouble alleviating and you think it’s impacting your health and well-being, please see a trained health professional who can help support.
Take A Pause
It may also help to pause when you feel the urge to eat during a stressful or emotional situation. During this time, you can check in with your feelings and body to determine if you’re hungry or whether you’re tempted to eat for another reason.
If you find that you’re eating in response to stress, try to incorporate stress management techniques like yoga or meditation. If boredom is the cause, distract yourself with something healthier. A few ideas include watching a movie, taking a walk, or calling a friend.
No matter the cause, it can be helpful to remove temptation from your pantry. Swap chips for crunchy veggies in your fridge, replace ice cream with fresh berries for a sweet treat.
Although it may seem like a difficult task, you can work to edit your emotional eating habits. You may experience setbacks on your journey, but don’t give up—learn from them and focus on the positive changes you’re making in your life!
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Elisa is a content marketing manager for Jenny Craig with over ten years of experience working in the health and fitness industry. She loves sharing her passion for living a balanced and healthy lifestyle. A San Diego native and an endurance sports enthusiast, you can usually find her swimming, biking along the coast highway or running by the beach in her free time. Elisa holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from California State University Chico.
Favorite healthy snack: mozzarella string cheese with a Pink Lady apple.
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