Sometimes the strongest food cravings will happen when you’re at your weakest point emotionally, and many people find themselves turning to food as a way to overcome negative emotions, such as anger, stress, or sadness.
Unfortunately, this emotional rollercoaster can lead to unhealthy eating, that does little to provide your mind and body with the nutrients it needs to survive.
The good news is it’s not impossible to regain control of your eating habits.
What is emotional eating?
Generally speaking, emotional hunger comes on suddenly, whereas physical hunger occurs gradually.
If you’re unsure whether you’re eating in response to emotions, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
• Is my eating paired with an upsetting emotion?
• Am I eating in secret?
• Does my eating feel out of control?
• Do I continue eating despite feeling full?
• Do I feel guilty after I eat?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, you should discuss these matters with a qualified professional. This may be a difficult step, however ultimately they can help you manage your emotions without resorting to food.
The hunger scale
The hunger scale is a very effect tool to overcoming mindless eating, and it can put you more in touch with your hunger state.
Before you eat, decide how hungry you’re feeling:
#1 Beyond hungry – You’re so hungry you feel light-headed.
#2 Very uncomfortable – You feel irritable and unable to concentrate.
#3 Uncomfortably hungry – Your stomach is rumbling.
#4 Slightly uncomfortable – You’re just beginning to feel signs of hunger.
#5 Comfortable – You’re more or less satisfied, but could eat a little more.
#6 Perfectly comfortable – You feel satisfied.
#7 Full – You’re a little bit uncomfortable.
#8 Uncomfortably full – You feel bloated.
#9 Very uncomfortably full – Your clothes feel tighter; your stomach hurts a little.
#10 Stuffed – You can barely move, you feel like you never want to see food again.
A few guidelines:
• To avoid overeating, try to eat when you’re feeling 2, 3 or 4.
• When you begin to feel “comfortable” or “perfectly comfortable” stop eating and wait until the next scheduled meal or snack.
• If you’re trying to lose weight, stop at “comfortable,” this way you’ll be eating a little less than your body is burning.
• Don’t allow yourself to get to “beyond hungry” or “very uncomfortable,” since you’ll be more likely to overeat.
How to avoid overeating
#1 Identify your eating triggers – try writing down what you eat, how much, when, and how you feel at that time. This can be a very useful exercise in helping you understand what triggers you emotionally, and will help you develop a plan to avoid/deal with these triggers in the future.
#2 Eat a balanced diet. Remember that if you don’t eat enough to meet your energy requirements, you may be more likely to give in to emotional eating.
#3 Eat regularly – and don’t skip meals. This will help you to avoid binging on unhealthy foods due to adverse hunger.
#4 Aim to eat foods that are nutrient rich. Unhealthy binge foods rarely provide your body with any nutritional goodness. Choose whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean sources of protein.
#5 Don’t keep unhealthy food in your home – instead stock your house with healthy food and snacks; also try not to shop when you’re feeling down or hungry.
#6 Learn to eat slowly – sit at the table, place your knife and fork down between mouthfuls, and enjoy each bite.
#7 Tune into your body and become aware of how hungry you feel (using the hunger scale), and when it’s time to stop eating.
#8 Refocus your attention – read a good book or magazine, listen to music, go for a walk, take a bath, do pilates, or deep breathing exercises, call up a friend, do some housework, or wash the car. Try making a list of activities that you enjoy, and refer to this when you want to focus on something other than food.
Please remember emotional eating is something most people have done at some time in their lives. However, the problem comes when this behaviour gets out of control, rather than being in moderation.
If you do find yourself overeating, try not to dwell on the experience. Instead ask yourself “What can I learn from this?” and make a plan of action, based on what you’ve learned, so that you can better deal with it in the future.