Managing Emotional Eating
There are many feelings surrounding food, some more complex than others. Some individuals see food as a means to survive, whilst others enjoy all aspects of food; the preparation, cooking and eating. There can be individuals who use it to manage their emotions. Ultimately, food can mean different things to everyone, and what may be “normal” to you is not always “normal” for someone else.
Many factors can influence our relationship with food, be it biological, psychological, socio-cultural, or environmental. Psychological can be linked to emotional eating; whether we are eating because something has upset us, maybe we have nothing better to do, or perhaps it’s a crutch that we lean on when we are stressed or tired – it all comes down to eating due to a certain emotion.
It’s important to note that not all emotional eating is bad or needs to be avoided. However, using food as our main go to for manging emotions can negatively impact health and wellbeing in the long term.
There can be ways to differentiate between eating because we are hungry (physical hunger) or eating because of a feeling (emotional hunger), and distinguishing these differences is essential to managing your emotional eating better. It can be challenging to establish whether you are physically or emotionally hungry, but some tells will help you pinpoint them.
Usually comes on gradually
Comes on instantly
Open to options
Often craves specific food
Needs to eat instantly
Stops when full
Is unable/not happy to stop with full stomach
It doesn’t make you feel bad about yourself
Triggers feelings of shame, guilt, weakness
Establishing the different types of hunger you may be feeling is just one aspect that can help manage your emotional eating. Another essential factor to consider is identifying what may trigger you to eat emotionally. This can be different for everyone, and there may be more than one reason. There are common triggers, which include boredom, loneliness, fatigue, stress, social factors & childhood habits, but it is not limited to just these. Therefore, it is often recommended that if you are prone to emotional eating, or unsure if you emotionally eat, that you keep a food and mood diary.
If you are feeling the urge to indulge, it is recommended that you note what you want to eat or are eating, why you are feeling this way, how you felt before you ate, what you are feeling whilst you eat and then your emotions afterwards. Having this all written in a diary, can help establish any patterns you may have that trigger your emotional eating, which is needed to manage your emotional eating more effectively in a healthier way.
Establishing your emotional triggers may take time, and this process must not be rushed. Once you are ready to manage your triggers, take the time to explore the method or methods that work best for you, as there are many ways this can be done. It’s important to note that, again, this may take time as you are essentially finding an alternative way of managing your emotions.
There are a host of ways this can be done. One example is mindful eating – where being fully present and eating without distractions can improve your eating experience while promoting positive and healthy eating habits and behaviour. This involves pausing before you eat, establishing whether you are hungry, starting with smaller mouthfuls and then repeating throughout your meal.
Other alternatives can be used alongside mindful eating or on their own, including continuing to look out for any patterns and focussing on your feelings and questioning these. Making sure you are eating consciously, deciding that you are going to eat, what you will eat and when you will eat it. This can also involve listening to your body, stopping once you are full and not pushing yourself to finish the meal.
Stay connected, this can include staying in touch with friends virtually or face to face, which may reduce stress or feelings of loneliness. It is essential to disconnect during mealtimes, so you are enjoying your food in the moment. If you have a bad day or a moment where you feel weak, try not to be hard on yourself and not let it ruin other times when eating. It is okay to start again and refresh the next opportunity you have to eat.
It is important to look after yourself in other ways, as when you are feeling happy, well-rested, and relaxed, you can often manage certain feelings better. Whereas, if you are overwhelmed or exhausted, then you may find it more difficult to address these challenges and find it harder to manage your emotional eating. Looking after yourself can incorporate anything you enjoy – having a relaxing warm bath, watching a movie if you’re feeling stressed or if anxious, listening to music you like, going for a walk, or maybe playing with a pet. If you are bored, try reaching out to your friends, reading a book or playing video games.
Some of these tools may be the right fit for you, while others won’t. It is taking the time to work with them, to establish what works best for you. Many support groups and websites can help, including dietitians, therapists, or other healthcare professionals, if you feel your emotional eating is getting too much for you, see our links in the reference section. It is important to remember that you’re not alone and opening up about your emotional eating with someone you trust can be the first step in a positive direction.
Beat (2022) Get Information and Support [online] available from <https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/get-information-and-support/>
Evers, C., Marijn Stok, F., and de Ridder, D.T.D. (2010) ‘Feeding Your Feelings: Emotion Regulation Strategies and Emotional Eating’. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin [online] 36 (6), 792–804. available from <https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0146167210371383>
Spoor, S.T.P., Bekker, M.H.J., Van Strien, T., and van Heck, G.L. (2007) ‘Relations between Negative Affect, Coping, and Emotional Eating’. Appetite 48 (3), 368–376
Street, B. (2022) How to Manage Emotional Eating | Nuffield Health [online] available from <https://www.nuffieldhealth.com/article/how-to-manage-emotional-eating>