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Caught in a cycle of emotional eating? How to understand and overcome food cravings

5 minute read

‘Emotional eating’ may temporarily boost our mood or alleviate stress, but it causes real problems in the long run. Vhi Health Coach Dr Mou Sultana explains how “eating your feelings” can become a vicious cycle and shares simple techniques to help you start breaking it.

Do you use food as a reward after a tough day? Find yourself eating when you already feel full? Does boredom or loneliness have you heading for the fridge?

These are all potential signs of ‘emotional eating’, a simple-sounding term which can pose quite complex problems. To get to grips with emotional eating and show how it might affect you, let’s start by understanding how eating serves as a sensory stimulation…

“Hunger” that goes beyond food

When we are not willing or able to focus on our internal emotional state, we tend to switch focus to external environments or sensory stimulations. This is why going for a run or having a bath can work for stress relief. Eating plays a similar role. One theory suggests that emotional eaters are compensating for a lack of emotional regulation. When a person is unable to acknowledge and address their feelings, the mouth movements tied to feeding can actually serve to regulate emotion and reduce stress.

So, we’re trying to feel “satiated” even though we’re not hungry for physical nourishment. Eating has also been shown to be a response to boredom. And, because it can produce a feeling of ‘reward’, even our positive emotions can get tied up with eating habits.

Whatever the root cause, if the behaviour persists over time, you can fall into a cycle. Eventually, you could become dependent on food for soothing or distracting yourself which increases the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity-related health issues. And, although it is not a mental illness or disorder, it can develop into a disorder like binge eating if not addressed.

Warning signs

Along with keeping track of the behaviours mentioned earlier, reflect on your relationship with food. Do you think about it often? Do you associate it with words like “tempting”, craving” or even “sinful”? Do you feel “guilty” after breaking a diet plan? You may also notice that you are only craving for certain food. This is not true hunger. Physical hunger shouldn’t leave you feeling shameful or “not full” when you finish your meal.

Our emotional make-up varies from person to person, but here’s a small sample of people who could potentially become emotional eaters:

  • People with low self-esteem or little social support.
  • People who tend to deprive themselves of food.
  • People leading hectic lifestyles with little/no self-care or stress management routine.
  • People who do not or cannot organise their days, working long or odd hours that result in poor lifestyle choices
  • People with persistent stress, which releases excess cortisol and contributes to the motivation to eat.

The STOPP technique

Here is one key technique which can act as an important intervention when you reach for food. It allows you to think differently and disentangle yourself from emotions driving you in the moment. So, when you are about to engage in emotional eating, try the following:

•    Stop: Pause for a moment and refrain from action.

•    Take a few deep breaths. Notice your breathing, in and out.

•    Observe: What thoughts are going through your mind? What sensations do you notice in your body? What are you reacting to?

•    Pull back: Try to see the bigger picture. Are you really hungry? What would a trusted friend tell you to do right now?

•    Proceed to get something other than food. A glass of water is always good! It will make you feel full, and the hydration helps you focus. Continue to practice what works best for you.

There are other things you can try too, like:

Take your time (out)

If you’re looking to strengthen your mental health and better cope with stress, start by taking regular time-outs during the day. This could be as simple as taking a few minutes to read a book. Try a variety of hobbies to find the sweet spot that helps you to de-stress.

Get moving

Exercise is a really effective self-care activity. A walk or jog can clear your mind when things get too much. Regular yoga has been shown to help diffuse anxiety and depression too.

Remove eating ‘distractions’

If you often find yourself eating in front of the TV or computer, move your meals to the kitchen and focus on your food. This ‘mindful eating’ gets you in tune with your hunger and the amount you eat, helping you gauge the extent of your issue.

Meditation

Mindfulness meditation has also been used as a treatment for emotional eating. Sitting in a quiet space and focusing on your breath is just one simple technique.

Vhi members get €30 off meditation apps

Talk to yourself (positively)

When dealing with feelings of guilt and shame, positive self-talk can be useful, particularly after an eating episode. It’s important not to be too hard on yourself, which might further fuel the cycle of negativity. With self-talk, you equip yourself with positive statements, to be used when negative thoughts creep in. Learn more about it here.

Write about it

Keeping a food diary can help identify triggers that lead to emotional eating. Try to record everything, even small snacks, in a notebook or app, along with your feelings in that moment. If you decide you need professional support, this can be a useful thing to share with your GP.

Talk it out

Talk about your negative thoughts with someone you trust – a family member, friend, GP or a therapist. You should draw confidence from the fact that you are aware of what is going on and are taking steps to improve your situation.

Supporting others

We need to break the stigma around this issue. A person’s worth is not defined by their weight or eating habits. You can’t shame someone into being healthy. Even if they stop the behaviour, it is only going to further affect their sense of self.

If you are trying to support someone who struggles with emotional eating, choose your words carefully so as not to insult them. Have a compassionate conversation about what you have noticed and help them to feel comfortable and open up. Emotional eaters are likely already feeling stressed and unhappy, so try to stay positive as you help them through it.

This content is for information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek advice from your GP or an appropriate medical professional if you have concerns about your health, or before commencing a new healthcare regime. If you believe that you are experiencing a medical emergency call 999 / 112 or seek emergency assistance immediately.

Meet our Vhi Verified Expert

Mou Sultuna

Dr Mou Sultana

Vhi Health Coach

Chartered Psychologist and Psychotherapist