With so much food at our fingertips, many of us enjoy a treat or two from time to time. But at what point are we crossing the boundary of normal, occasional indulgences into emotional eating territory?
Here are five signs that you may be an emotional eater:
Have you ever stood devastated in your kitchen and wondered how on Earth you ate all that food? This type of mindless eating is usually associated with losing a sense of control and taste awareness. It is only once the plate’s demolished that we are shocked back to reality with the stunned realisation of how much we’ve consumed – and how sick we feel!
(FYI: This lonely experience is common after work, as the human appetite typically peaks at 8 pm and the stressors of the day have begun to wear you down.)
Poor Body Image
Researchers have identified that poor body image often leads to dieting and unhealthy restrictive eating practices. This statement is also intuitively true; if you are unhappy with your body weight, it is likely to impact upon your eating behaviours. This may lead to one extreme of restrictive dieting or another extreme of emotional overeating.
Ironically, focussing on weight loss can actually lead to overeating. Our beautiful bodies are programmed to perceive dieting as a genuine scarcity of food in our environment - as would have often been the case for our ancestral Hunter Gatherers. Our mind can subsequently obsess about eating as a psychological mechanism to make us seek out food. Whilst this kept our ancestors alive in periods of food scarcity, today it can cultivate an emotional relationship with food.
If you have an emotional relationship with food, research shows that you are more likely to swing between episodes of food restriction and overeating. This has several repercussions for our digestive system and can lead to ongoing issues with bloating.
After all, our digestive system is regulated by constant communication between the nerves in our stomach and brain. If we miss our normal mealtime, the nerves in the stomach and bowels can become hypersensitive. When we finally eat again, these ‘agitated’ nerves can interfere with digestion and produce bloating.
Anxiety can create emotional eating patterns for several reasons. Firstly, eating certain foods (particularly high sugar, high-fat varieties) triggers the release of ‘feel good’ hormones in the brain. This serves as a short-term antidote to unpleasant feelings.
Remember also that there is genuine, scientifically recognised link between our mind and gut. If we eat under emotional duress, the large nerves that connect our stomach and brain can become hyper-stimulated and interfere with digestion. This exacerbates the bloating mentioned in Sign #3.
In a modern culture that idolises thin body image, many people confuse their self-worth with their body size.
Ironically, low self-esteem from body dissatisfaction can lead to food obsessions that hinder dieting goals. Depriving ourselves of food to lose weight creates an ‘all or nothing’ attitude towards eating and perception of foods as being morally ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The human psyche rebels against restriction and can prompt us to crave those forbidden ‘bad’ foods.
If the above points resonate with you, here are some helpful hints to deal with emotional eating:
Keep A Food/Emotion Diary
Record your daily food intake in conjunction with your moods around mealtimes. Over time, pay attention to emerging trends. For example, you may find that you’re more likely to overeat at night after a stressful day at work. This highlights the need to resolve your work stress as an underlying trigger of emotional eating.
Designate A Peaceful Space For Eating
Many people find that they have several common places where they emotionally eat. Therefore, you can remove the trigger-by-association that your brain has with emotionally eating in a particular environment.
Create one or two peaceful places in your home where you can eat mindfully. Commit to eating exclusively in these spaces and remove distractions during meal times. Take a few deep breaths, focus your attention entirely on the meal and tune into when your body is feeling full.
Use A Mindful Eating App & SLOW DOWN
Just as mindlessness goes hand in hand with emotional eating, it is extremely difficult to overeat if we practice mindfulness at mealtimes. There are some great Mindful Eating Apps that can assist you with this - some are as simple as providing a silent cue to prompt you to take slower mouthfuls.
Eating slowly and savouring each moment is also important for satiety. It takes almost half an hour for your stomach to feedback to your brain that you are full. As a general rule, try to stop eating when you are no longer hungry – in thirty minutes, you will feel full! If you stop eating at the point of uncomfortable fullness, you will feel very, very full before you know it.
Seek Professional Help
Emotional eating is a common precursor to a full-blown eating disorder. Speak to a trusted health practitioner who can connect you with someone who specialises in eating behaviours. Eating disorders tend to be harder to treat the longer that they are left untreated, so please don’t hesitate to speak out.
As any chronic dieter will confess after years of failed weight loss attempts, our eating behaviours are affected by a great deal more than what we simply know about food. The path from ‘knowing’ what is nourishing to eat and actually ‘doing’ these dietary practices is often complicated. However, the simple techniques in this article can go a long way towards improving the way we emotionally relate to food.