Emotional Eating and Weight Loss

Psychologists say that our biggest food cravings sometimes arise when we are at our lowest emotionally. That is, we become emotional eaters and look for food as a means to provide comfort, consciously or unconsciously, when we face a problem, feel stressed or just bored. In Freudian terms, we regress to the oral stage of development where food and the mouth were our primary sources of comfort.

However, as an adult, if you are trying to lose (or put on) weight for health or aesthetic reasons, these emotions can sabotage your efforts. Emotional eating and cravings can lead you to eat too much, especially foods that are high in calories, fat-laden and often filled with too much sugar. This behaviour can have dire consequences to not only your physical health (e.g. obesity, diabetes, heart attack) but also, as you will see below, your psychological wellbeing.

The good news, though, is that this problem of being an "emotional eater" is easily addressed through conscious actions that help you regain control of your eating habits and reach your goal weight.

Let's take a look.

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The connection between your emotions, food and weight loss

"Food impulsivity" or "emotional cravings" refer to eating as a way of eliminating or lessening unpleasant emotions (stress, anxiety, loneliness, heartache, or depressed). These negative emotions can be triggered by events of great importance or by daily routines, and can lead you to eat emotionally and, in turn, impair your weight loss efforts. 

Triggers can include:

  • Unemployment
  • Financial pressure
  • Health problems
  • Relationship conflicts
  • Stress at work
  • Tiredness, exhaustion

Although some people restrict their eating in the face of intense emotions (i.e. anorexia nervosa), most people (3 of 4) are driven to eat impulsively or excessively when they experience emotional distress, An example is eating anything that lands in front of you, even if you don't necessarily enjoy it. Your emotions can become so intertwined with your eating habits that you're able to eat an entire chocolate slab or a bag of chips whenever you feel angry or stressed - without thinking about what you're doing. 

Food can also serve as a distraction. If you feel anxious about a future event or you are concerned about a potential conflict, instead of trying to resolve the situation, you might rather escape to "comfort foods." By doing this, you draw attention to the sweetness of the cake, the texture of the ice cream or the saltiness of the chips rather than facing the situation head-on.

How do you know if you are really hungry?

The need to eat to satisfy an emotional need is different from real hunger. Emotional hunger occurs at particular times (for example, when you feel stressed or anxious), whereas physical hunger can happen at any time. Emotional hunger also tends to kick in very quickly rather than slowly as physical hunger.

Another factor to watch out for is "internal justification". If you need to justify your eating habits with something other than feeling physically hungry, then it is likely that the reason you are eating is for comfort.

Here are some thoughts to watch:

  • "I can eat this because I have not eaten much today."
  • "I saw other people eating junk food, so why not me?"
  • "I know I'm not hungry, but it does not worry me. I just feel better!" 
  • "I deserve it because I've had a rough day."

When we justify our desire to eat with thoughts like these, we turn our backs to the issues that caused our emotional hunger. Unfortunately, also, we release negative "silent" thoughts that punish our behaviour.

  • "I am weak, that is why I can't stop."
  • "I am always this weight; I can't change."
  • "I'm a loser."
  • "No matter how I try, I never succeeded."

Negative thoughts like these leads to more emotional eating. So, whatever situation leads to eating too much, the result is the same: the emotions never go away and always come back. Additionally, you will feel even more guilty because you would not have achieved your weight loss goals, which triggers another desire to binge. As you can see, this can lead to a toxic cycle: your emotions push you to eat more, you feel guilty for not having achieved your goals, you feel bad, and you eat more.

Tips to maintain your weight loss efforts

Although emotions can trigger a need for emotional eating, you can take control of these impulses and cravings and renew your weight loss efforts.

Here are some tips:

  • Control stress. If work or family pressure increase cravings, try stress management techniques, such as yoga, meditation or relaxation.
  • Check whether you're hungry. As yourself, "Is my hunger physical or emotional?" If you are just eating without the physiological need (i.e.stomach rumbling) you probably aren't hungry.
  • Write a food diary: each day write down what you eat, how you eat, what you feel when you eat and how hungry you are. Over time, you might see a pattern emerge that will reveal the connection between your mood and food.
  • Fight boredom. Instead of snacking to relieve boredom, rather distract yourself. Go for a walk, watch a movie, play with your pet, read a book, or call a friend.
  • Snack healthily. If, between meals, you feel like a snack, choose snacks that are low in calories and fat, such as fruits (be careful of too much fruit and sugar/fructose) or vegetables.
  • Is it necessary to seek professional help? If you have tried to control your emotional eating, but you are just not succeeding, it may be worth seeing a professional such as a psychologist or counsellor. Therapy can help you understand the motivations behind your emotional eating cravings and teach you how you can take control of your eating behaviour.

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