Emotional Eating

Emotional EatingWhen we eat, it isn’t always because we’re hungry. Sometimes when we feel emotions like stress, anger, sadness or boredom, we turn to food for comfort, hoping that it will soothe some of the complex emotions we’re dealing with. Unfortunately, this often leaves us feeling worse.

Emotional eating happens when we eat because of emotions instead of hunger, and it’s a frequent cause of overeating. Everyone experiences emotional eating to some degree, but by learning how to anticipate and overcome it, you can help yourself achieve better health and lasting weight loss.

Dr. Lisa Galper, a clinical psychologist who teaches classes on behavior modification, has had her own struggles with weight loss. Emotional eating was at the core of her weight problem.

“My relationship with food was very poor, and by the time I was in my mid-20s, I was very overweight, I didn’t like myself—I had a negative body image,” Dr. Galper says. “I had to overcome emotional eating. It was my biggest hang-up.”

What Causes Emotional Eating?

Emotional eating can be caused by any emotion and may be triggered by everyday issues, like a hard day at work, or major events in your life, like unemployment or health problems. Even positive emotions like joy or excitement can lead us to overeat in a misguided attempt to maintain a good mood.

Here are examples of situations in which we might eat emotionally:

  • When we’re feeling stressed at work, we may cope by grazing throughout the day.
  • When we’re feeling fatigued after a long day, we may head to the refrigerator to unwind.
  • When we have an argument and feel angry or frustrated, we may eat mindlessly until the tension goes away.
  • When we’re anxious about an upcoming project, we may procrastinate by eating instead of working.
  • When we’re feeling bored or lonely during a night alone at home, we may seek comfort and enjoyment in eating.
  • When we want to have fun or feel excited, we may dine out or use food as a reward to give ourselves something to look forward to.

Among these emotions, stress is one of the most significant contributors to overeating. When we’re unsure of how to deal with the stress in our lives, we may turn to food for lack of other options.

“Most people experience a lot of stress in today’s society and they don’t know what to do,” Dr. Galper says.

Overeating to deal with our emotions can leave us feeling disappointed and frustrated with our actions, and this means that emotional eating often leads to more emotional eating. We cope with a difficult emotion by eating, feel guilty or ashamed for eating, and then cope with that guilt and shame by eating more.

“At the heart of creating the most emotional eating, the most tension and the most anger is using that word ‘should,’” Dr. Galper says. Beating ourselves up over what we should have done differently can start the process all over, further fueling problems with emotional eating.

How Does Emotional Eating Affect Us?

Emotional eating doesn’t stop when we’re full. Though overeating may briefly make us feel better, the emotional issue that led us to eat remains unresolved, and we feel worse for giving in to our impulses. As we continue to eat emotionally, we may not understand why we’re eating, but the continued distress we feel leads to an impulsiveness that affects our eating habits.

“Many people don’t know that when they’re feeling distress they tend to be impulsive, and their eating is reflective,” Dr. Galper says.

By adding extra calories to our diets, emotional eating can contribute to weight gain, especially as the problem continues over time. If we continue to eat emotionally while trying to lose weight, the issue can interfere with progress.

How Can Emotional Eating Be Prevented?

According to Dr. Galper, we can help ourselves avoid emotional eating by developing a lifestyle that supports weight loss and helps us stay happy and healthy. This can be accomplished by:

  • Managing stress
  • Identifying emotional triggers
  • Changing your environment and the way you relate to others

By learning to differentiate emotional hunger from physical hunger and using strategies to cope with your emotions in a constructive way, you can overcome emotional eating and prevent this common problem from affecting your progress.

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