Pick up any book or magazine that focuses on fitness or weight loss, and it’ll tell you at least 100 things you should do to lose weight. Here’s the problem. Most of the advice you get on weight loss from standard sources focuses on what you can do PHYSICALLY to get the weight off – exercise, cut back your portions, make smarter food choices, eat with chopsticks, use smaller bowls, move around more during the day, etc.
No doubt, doing these things CAN help you lose weight, but there’s one problem they don’t address that is a sticking point for overweight people. It’s the fact that there’s also an emotional component to eating and overeating, and if emotional eating is a problem and you don’t address it, you may never get down to your ideal body weight.
According to a recent national survey of 1,000 people, people are unaware that emotional eating is a major obstacle to weight loss. Most people believe weight loss is mainly impacted by physical factors like exercise or lack of and how and what you eat. Emotional eating issues simply aren’t on most people’s radar – and that’s unfortunate since food has a strong emotional component associated with it.
What is Emotional Eating
Emotional eating is eating for purposes other than true hunger or nourishment. Why do people eat when they aren’t really hungry? Many are conditioned from childhood to see eating as a source of comfort – hence, the term “comfort food.” When you were a child, your parents may have tried to cheer you up with your favorite foods, and chances are that food wasn’t broccoli. In general, the foods we associate with comfort – macaroni and cheese, hot brownies, and freshly baked cookies – aren’t high on the health scale. Most comfort foods tend to be high in sugar and fat.
Why are comfort foods so skewed toward the unhealthy side of the spectrum? When you eat something high in carbohydrates, it triggers chemical changes in your brain that boost levels of “feel good” brain chemicals like serotonin. So, you’re getting a short-term mood boost when you graze on high-carb foods. Sugary foods may also be linked to pleasant events in your life – the birthday cake you happily devoured on your birthday or the box of sweet chocolates a boyfriend gave you. Your brain always remembers, if only at a subconscious level, and you relieve those good feelings when you eat sugary foods.
Emotional eaters snack as a way to avoid dealing with problems, as a distractor of sorts. We all have different ways of dealing with stress and it’s not uncommon for people to turn to food to get through tough times.
Dealing with Emotional Eating
Obviously, emotional eating is something to take control of, but where do you start? Becoming aware that you eat emotionally is the first step towards dealing with the problem, but just recognizing it isn’t always enough. Even if you know you’re an emotional eater, it doesn’t solve the problem, but it is the first step. Start by writing down everything you eat for at least two weeks. For each meal or snack you eat, rate your level of hunger on a scale of one to five. Make note of how you were feeling when you ate. Were you down or undergoing an unusual amount of stress? It also helps to make note of how much you slept the night before since lack of sleep can lead to increased snacking. When you do this regularly, you’ll learn to recognize when you’re eating for emotional reasons rather than hunger.
Find Alternative Outlets for Relieving Stress
If you’re an emotional eater, you use food as a source of comfort, as a stress reliever, or as a way to avoid dealing with other issues in your life. You need an alternative way to deal with stress. High-intensity exercise and resistance training are both powerful stress relievers. However, you may also benefit from exercise that promotes relaxation and mindfulness like yoga. Deep breathing, meditation, and self-hypnosis are also effective for some people. Once your body has another outlet for relieving stress, you won’t feel so compelled to nibble away your stress.
Another trigger for eating when you’re not hungry is boredom. Keep a list of things you can do other than eat – walk the dog, take a warm bath, take a walk outdoors, work on a favorite hobby, call someone you care about or sip a cup of hot tea.
Be Aware but Not Too Hard on Yourself
If you’re an emotional eater, you might beat yourself up when you eat something you shouldn’t. Don’t. That kind of approach will only make the problem worse by making you feel powerless. Go back to keeping a food journal and assessing your level of hunger before eating something and using other tactics to divert your attention away from mindless snacking.
Finally, look a little deeper at what’s actually causing you to eat emotionally. Are you using it to deal with problems on the job or stress at home? Work on resolving the issues that are causing you to be an emotional eater. Look for other unhealthy lifestyle factors that might be contributing to the problem. Are you getting enough quality sleep at night? A 2012 study found participants that cut their sleep time by two-thirds ate almost 550 extra calories daily. That’s significant!
Also, be aware that the time of year can play a role in emotional eating. You’re most at risk in the winter when you’re exposed to less sunlight. A number of people suffer from seasonal affective disorder and feel down during the long, winter months. Emotional eating can become a means of comforting yourself when you’re stuck indoors.
The Bottom Line
Emotional eating is a common stumbling block to successful weight loss. First, become aware of whether you are an emotional eater and then take these steps to get a handle on the problem. Finally, realize you’re not alone. Eating to satiate an emotional need is a common issue and one you CAN overcome.
Medical Daily. “Emotional Eating is Key to Weight Loss, but Most People Don’t Understand It”
Eat Disord. 2009 May-Jun; 17(3): 211-224.doi: 10.1080/10640260902848543.
Life Extension Magazine. “New Strategy to Overcome “Emotional Eating”
WebMD. “Sleep Less, Eat More?”
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