How to overcome emotional eating

“Gluttony is an emotional escape, a sign something is eating us” – Peter De Vries

How do you overcome emotional eating when you’ve had a stressful day at work? Life may often seem unbearable – you’re overwhelmed with stress, frustration and anxiety. You feel like checking out and retiring in front of the TV with your favourite comfort food. Whilst this may sound harmless, most people inevitably regret their lapse in judgement moments after the event or even the next day.

Having worked with clients for many years, I’ve been privileged to a number of accounts relating to stressful and emotional eating. I concede I too have succumbed to the emotional intensity of life by finding comfort in my favourite foods at times. But what is at play here? What is the real story behind emotional eating? Why does it repeatedly sabotage our best efforts to stay healthy?

The truth of the matter lies in understanding the nature of the beast, i.e. you are an emotional being. Let us define what emotional eating is and what it is not. Emotional eating is a recurring, unconscious and emotional attraction toward unhealthy foods which fulfils an emotional void. Emotional eating occurs when a person is in the throes of an emotional roller-coaster. This emotional roller-coaster may include emotions ranging from stress, sadness, frustration and anxiety to name a few.

We gravitate toward comfort foods for a number of reasons, but ultimately to escape dealing with our emotions by deferring them. In seeking comfort in food, we are taken back to our childhood where sweets were accessible as a reward for good behaviour. Think back for a moment whether your parents or loved ones used sweets or any type of food as a reward when you were young. I recall my appeal for home-made dessert, in particularly apple pie which my mother used to bake.

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As an adult my on-going attachment to apple pie is inextricably linked to my emotional connection during childhood. I encourage you to write a list of foods you’re emotionally addicted to. In the column next to the food, note whether the food is healthy or unhealthy – be as honest as you can. If you’re unsure, Google the food and do some research on the item.

If your list included items such as chocolates, biscuits and cakes or any other high sugar foods, chances are you are emotionally addicted to these foods. Ideally a healthy body and mind will not be addicted to foods or substances.

Let’s be clear of the difference between a food addiction and food craving. Food addiction means you are emotionally connected to the food and must have it in order to satisfy an emotional and physiological desire. A craving on the other hand represents a physiological need for a food in order to satisfy a chemical imbalance. There may also be an emotional connection as well. If you exercise regularly, your body may crave foods which are rich in magnesium such as leafy greens, nuts, bananas or any food that has a high magnesium and potassium compound. The body may be deficient in vitamins and minerals and therefore is alerting you to the food required to satisfy the deficiency.

Here are some simple points to help you navigate your way through emotional eating. Doreen Virtue has written a book called Constant Craving which I urge you to read if you require additional resources on cravings and food addictions. The book has some useful suggestions for overcoming emotional eating.

Firstly take note of the texture of the food you crave. Is it crunchy, soft or chewy? Food texture represents a range of emotional intensities ranging from sadness, depression to frustration and anxiety. Food texture denotes ones emotional intensity, since we feel better after consuming that particular food. The wisdom of the body is intelligent to know what is required to satisfy an emotional intensity. Therefore if you’re frustrated and angry it is less likely that you will gravitate toward soft and creamy foods such as milkshakes and creams. Crunchy and textured foods like apples, nuts and brittle chocolate are most likely choices.

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Once you’ve identified the type of food, rather than indulge yourself in the heat of the moment, remove yourself from the food by finding a quiet place where you can be alone with the emotion. Ask the following questions, What does the emotion feel like? Where do I feel the emotion in my body and what could it possibly be asking of me? Most people try to stuff away the emotion in the hope it goes away. Doing so will only compound the emotional intensity.

Being with the emotion means to feel the emotion rather than defer or ignore it. People often find this process challenging since they attach a storyline to the emotion. For example if you had an argument with a work colleague and you’re frustrated and angry, you might gravitate toward crunchy textured food to satisfy your emotional intensity. Rather than dwell on this, I invite you to disassociate from your thoughts and move into your body to feel where the emotions are located. Are the emotions situated in your stomach, heart, throat or head? Bring an open awareness to this area by observing and feeling the emotion without assigning meaning or judgment.

Emotional eating is a call to deal with parts of you that seeks to be acknowledged. Stuffing down the emotion only adds more energy to it until it overwhelms you. Next time you’re in the throes of an emotional siege, take note how you feel before you dive into that chocolate cake. I can assure you that once the waves of emotions have passed (as they will), you will no doubt regret indulging in that cake. Refuse to be a victim to emotional eating by breaking the cycle. You have the power to control what you eat without feeling guilty. Honour yourself with patience and compassion.

Do you comfort eat? What is the food you usually crave? When do you crave and want to eat it most?