Emotional Eating? How you can rewire your brain.

Time to kick the emotional eating to the side.

You know the days when your feet hit the floor, fresh out of bed, and you feel like everything is going wrong? The computer decides to update right as you are about to log onto your zoom meeting, the kids are bickering with one another, and you barely have enough gas to get out of the neighborhood.

After compiling frustration, stress building, and your patience wearing thin, you sit down to have your first meal of the day. You aren’t noticing your food’s taste or texture because you are barely chewing, and before you know it, your meal is gone in all of 5 minutes.

Although physical hunger has disappeared, your head is telling you something different. Something like, “go get the ice cream—the cool, creamy texture will feel so good going down” or “grab the bag of chips—that salty, crunchy goodness will surely make me feel better.” Before you know it, you’ve finished off the carton of ice cream or polished off the bag of chips, and you are feeling even worse. Welcome to the world of emotional eating.

What is emotional eating?

It’s only human to use food to comfort yourself when difficult or challenging emotions arise. It’s also human to use food as a way to embrace positive emotions, such as happiness, or as a way to celebrate and enjoy time with loved ones. Food can also be used as a reward for a “job well done” or “congrats on meeting the deadline” too. Anytime you are eating in the absence of actual physical hunger, the chances are that you are using food for emotional reasons.

When you use food repetitively to cope with emotions, you are programming your brain to crave food for comfort. When you feel threatened or stressed, the back part of your brain begins firing and encourages you to seek safety or support. While this can be a biological trigger for you to eat emotionally, over time, you’ve programmed your body to use food as a way to cope through learned behaviors such as reaching for the ice cream at the end of a long day or grabbing the bag of chips after a difficult discussion with your boss. 

Repetition and practice suddenly become second nature. Soon without even thinking, you are reaching for food to distract from your feelings and emotions frequently throughout the week. The good news is you can retrain your brain and reduce your natural tendency to reach for food as a way to cope with your emotions.

Are you emotional eating? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I eat in the absence of hunger on a fairly regular basis?

  • After eating, do I feel some guilt or shame?

  • After snacking, am I thinking about resetting my nutritional habits and choices the following day as a way to cleanse or work towards your weight loss goals?

  • Am I allowing myself some of my favorite foods in moderation, like 1 or 2 chocolates or cookies, or is this feeling like more of a binge where I’ve eaten the bag of chocolates or cookies?

  • Is there a pocket of time during the day where I am habitually reaching for food?

  • Is there a particular time of day that triggers me to be on the hunt for a snack or treat?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you can start to develop a game plan.

What can you do to reduce your emotional eating episodes?

  • Add in some self-care regularly. Think of the things that help to reduce your stress and make you feel pampered. For some, that may be a hot bath, and for others, that may be reading a good book. If you can find ways to improve your mood and reduce stress without engaging in the act of eating, you are less likely to reach for food as a way to soothe. This begins the process of retraining your brain and being more aware of how often you use food for comfort.

  • Make a list of “healthy distractions” and use one of these distractions for at least 10-15 minutes. Healthy distractions can be anything that doesn’t involve eating. Chances are, after a good 15 minutes of distracting yourself, you’ll be less likely to eat out of emotion. During this time, you can get food off your mind, even if only for a short period, and then reassess if eating still sounds comforting. If so, and you do choose to eat in the absence of hunger, chances are higher that you’ll be more mindful as you eat, and your portions will be in better control.

  • Go for a walk. It’s not so easy, or pleasurable, to eat and walk simultaneously, right? Walking will get you out of the kitchen and away from the snacks and is also a great way to reduce stress.

  • If you feel the need to keep your mouth and hands busy, use some “free” or lower-calorie foods and beverages. Chew gum or have some low-calorie snacks, like cut-up cucumber or baby carrots on hand. While it would be optimal only to eat when physically hungry, this may not always be realistic, so grab things that are lower in calories so you feel more in control and less likely to overeat. Hot tea or a glass of water is a good idea, too, as a way to add volume to your tummy.

Eating should be enjoyable, not emotional….

Now that you’re locked and loaded with tools to retrain your brain and steer clear of emotional eating, experiment to find what works for you. This will put you in control of how you use food rather than feeling like food is controlling you. Post your questions and share the tips that work best for you in the comments below or on my Instagram.

 

More about the author:

Stacey Frattinger is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Integrative Health Coach, Certified Holistic Nutritionist, and a Nationally Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach