It happens to all of us once in a while- you have a really bad day and all you want to do is go home and sit on the couch with a giant tub of ice cream. In your mind, there is nothing else in the world that will make you feel better. Or maybe you just got the promotion you’ve been trying to get for the past two months. What do you do? You celebrate with a large cheese pizza. Does this sound familiar?
Emotional eating is defined as eating for reasons other than hunger. Some foods have qualities that cause them to become addictive. Take chocolate cake for example. When eating a delicious food such as chocolate cake, your body releases small amounts of mood enhancing hormones. This can lead an individual to associate chocolate cake with happiness. This rings true for any kind of food, but is most likely to happen with comfort foods, such as sweets, greasy foods, or mom’s home cooking.
For some, eating is a distraction. Comfort foods (think cookies ‘n cream ice cream...or macaroni and cheese! Yum!) allow you to concentrate on their taste and distract you from whatever it is you are stressed about. Unfortunately, when the yummy food is gone, your problems are still there. Although emotional eating may make you feel better at the moment, it is a very temporary solution to whatever it is that’s eating you (no pun intended).
There are many differences between emotional hunger and real hunger. Although you may think you're really hungry, there are signs to look for to determine if your body is actually craving food or emotional comfort. Emotional hunger comes on fast and strong and feels like it needs to be satisfied right away; real hunger is more gradual. Emotional hunger tends to make a person crave specific foods, while physical hunger isn’t quite so picky- it will be satisfied by anything. If you are eating to fill an emotional void, you are more likely to keep eating even after you are full, and will likely experience feelings of guilt after you stop. Physical hunger will not leave you with these feelings.
So how can you avoid the cookie and pizza pitfall next time you have a bad day? For one, know your triggers. Try keeping a food diary for a couple days. Record what you eat, how you feel when you eat it, and whether or not you are really, truly hungry. Over time, this can help reveal negative eating patterns and allow you to identify what triggers you to eat. When you are able to identify these triggers, think of other ways to comfort yourself besides food. If you find yourself reaching for those chips, go for a walk or call a friend to chat instead. These distractions will allow your stressful feelings to pass and will keep you from eating.
Keeping your fridge stocked with healthy food, and avoiding unhealthy foods altogether, is a surefire way to avoid emotional eating. A balanced diet and exercise are natural mood enhancers. Your mood is more stable when you are in shape and well rested. Snack on healthy foods such as fresh veggies and fruit, and eat at regular intervals throughout the day. This will keep you from scarfing down anything in front of you at meal times.
Occasional emotional eating is bound to happen to anyone at some point. The important thing is to know your triggers and how to handle them- sans food. The next time you find yourself reaching for those double chocolate chunk cookies, try a different technique to relieve your stress. Your body will thank you.