Co-Written by Talia Cecchele & Andrea Clares
Emotional eating is characterised by a drive to eat in response to an emotional trigger, such as boredom, anxiety, sadness or excitement, in an attempt to alleviate, reward or cope with a feeling. This is different to the response to physical hunger. In fact, people that experience emotional eating will tend to ignore their physical needs by restricting when they are hungry and by eating until uncomfortably full in the absence of hunger. This can lead to feeling of being out of control with food, overeating energy dense and processed foods, feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety and low mood.
Everyone overeats and turns to food to for emotional comforts on occasion, but if food turns out to be the only mechanism available to cope with our emotions, this can lead to a never-ending restrict/binge cycle and a negative relationship with food and your body.
It is important to remember that emotional eating is not due to a lack of willpower or weakness. You have not failed. Emotional eating is an adaptive response and with the right knowledge and support you can learn new coping strategies. To repair your relationship with food, we must be kind, curious and remove guilt and judgement from eating.
How to identify emotional eating
Do you think you are an emotional eater? The following questions can help you identify if you’re experiencing any of the typical thoughts or behaviours of eating in this way:
1. Do you tend to eat more when you feel stressed, angry or bored?
2. Do you eat until uncomfortably full?
3. Do you feel that food controls you?
4. Do you crave specific foods?
5. Do you often feel guilty after eating?
If you answered yes to any of these questions and would like support to overcome your eating difficulties, you can enquire about a private nutrition consultation here
Steps to break the emotional eating cycle
1. Ditch restrictive diets and food labelling, such as 'good vs bad,' 'healthy vs unhealthy,' and 'clean.' Restricting certain foods can make you crave them even more, lead to binge eating and becoming trapped in a restrict-binge mindset and emotional eating cycle.
2. Know your triggers and find alternative ways to support and alleviate your emotions. Keeping a 'food and thought' diary can be helpful to identify triggers or pattern of eating. Becoming aware of things like stress, loneliness, tiredness or social influences (e.g. social media) and how these impact your food choices. Experiment with other activities to delay the urge to eat such as calling your family or a close friend, having a hot bath or going for a walk around a peaceful place.
3. Tune in with your body’s hunger using a 'hunger and fullness' scale. Before automatically heading to the fridge, pause and take a second to check in with yourself: How am I feeling? Am I hungry? What do I really need/want? If your body is really calling for a particular food, give yourself permission to eat it and enjoy it whether it is an apple, a cookie, a slice of pizza or a bowl of roasted veggies.
4. Practice mindful eating by savouring each and every mouthful. Do you really pay attention to how you eat and your eating environment? How many times do you chew your food?
5. Eating frequent meals and snacks to regulate blood sugar levels can help prevent extreme levels of hunger. Eating snacks such as, carrot sticks dip in hummus, fruit with yoghurt, toast with peanut butter or a handful of nuts can help prevent over eating.
If you are struggling with emotional eating or binge eating. Please seek support from your GP, psychologist or Registered Dietitian.
Talia is a registered dietitian working in private practice and as an eating disorder specialist dietitian in London's leading private mental health hospital. As a freelance dietitian, Talia not only offers 1:1 consultations but can present at your workplace, create recipes or articles or host a cooking demonstration. To enquire please fill out a contact form.