Understanding emotional eating

Due to COVID-19 spread, many people across the globe have been practising self-isolation, which means staying mostly at home and only venturing out for essentials. Making an effort to self-isolate as much as possible is very important to tame the spread of the virus! However, being confined to one location can lead to feeling lost and bored.

Stress levels are also rising due to uncertainty, rapidly changing directions and loss of usual daily routines. While we're at it - it’s completely normal to feel overwhelmed in this situation, so please know your emotions are valid (and reach out for help if you can’t cope on your own)!

When faced with such a myriad of negative emotions, most of us turn to coping mechanisms which are not necessarily helpful. One example is emotional eating, which can be defined as reaching out for comforting foods when things get tough. Unfortunately, not only emotional eating is not really that helpful long-term, it can also have detrimental effects such as unwanted weight gain (especially at times when physical activity is limited).

We have been getting lots of requests to cover this topic - and we’re here to help! Keep reading if you’d like to learn what causes emotional eating, how to identify your personal triggers, and what strategies to use to curb unnecessary munching!

Causes of emotional eating

There are various reasons behind emotional eating, which vary from person to person. Some common reasons why people turn to food for comfort include:

  • Using food as a reward for doing something you’d rather skip (e.g. exercising, cleaning or finishing a study block)
  • Compensating for negative emotions. This is an ingrained mechanism, as the brain releases “pleasure chemicals” each time you have a delicious meal, promoting comfort and satisfaction. This was a very important motivator for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to go out and get some food, so it’s completely understandable that we reach for ice cream when feeling sad!
  • Feeling bored, which, similarly to the previous point, prompts your brain to look for “feel good” experiences in place of dullness.

One or a combination of the above factors is what usually prompts emotional eating, but how exactly it manifests can vary!

Emotional eating triggers

Identifying the underlying cause(s) of emotional eating is an important first step - however, to put a stop to it, you also need to think about your own individual triggers that make you reach out for an extra snack!

The best way to do it is to keep a diary reflecting on the following:

  • When, what and how much you ate
  • Have you felt hungry before eating
  • What emotions have you experienced before and after eating

If you remember to note this for a few days, you will likely see clear patterns!

For example, you may find that you always reach for something sweet after a tough day, or tend to snack on potato crisps when bored. Having evidence of these patterns can be a massive step forward on its own! 

Strategies for curbing emotional eating

Now that you know your individual triggers, it’s time to plan a counterattack!

The idea here is to replace emotional eating with other strategies that carry no risk for your long-term health and wellbeing, and actually make you feel better! Below you will find some examples of strategies to curb emotional eating.

Exercise

Exercise is one of the best strategies on the list!

If you’re feeling munchy and haven’t done your daily workout yet - it’s a great time to go for it!

However, no need for a full-blown workout to replace the craving! Something as simple as a 5-minute stretch, a short brisk walk around the block or a minute of jumping jacks can be just the ticket. Try a few approaches and see what works best for you!

Change up your surroundings

Whether it’s rearranging your workstation or moving to a different area of the house, changing up your surroundings can help prevent boredom and consequently ease that urge for an extra snack!

Talk to someone

Another healthy distraction that can provide positive emotions is having a chat with someone! During these difficult times, it’s more important than ever to check on your friends and loved ones. If you’re home alone, send a quick message or connect for a 10-minute video call. You will feel better and make someone else feel great too!

Occupy your brain

If a jar of chocolate hazelnut spread is calling your name, and it’s getting hard to resist, give your brain a workout! Solve a quick puzzle in the app, build a Lego house or set a timer and try to remember as many animals starting with a particular letter as you can. Completing a quick cognitive task will both distract you and leave you feeling satisfied!

Replace the treat

Try having a piece of fruit or a glass of water if the urge to have something seems irresistible. This is not an ideal strategy as it still stirs you towards eating, however can be used as an interim measure while you’re experimenting with what works for you!

Emotional vs physical hunger

Please remember that the above strategies are not for excessive dieting, and they only apply if you’re genuinely struggling with emotional eating!

Plain and simple, if you’re truly hungry, you need to eat. However, if you’re not used to responding to your natural hunger cues, it may be difficult to tell hunger and emotional eating urges apart. The table below sums it up!

A simple question to ask yourself is this: “What would I like to eat right now?”

With emotional eating, your brain is much more likely to respond with specific cravings, whereas if you’re truly hungry, you will pretty much just want anything that you’d usually eat!

When to seek help

Sometimes what starts as emotional eating can escalate into more serious disordered eating patterns. If you are experiencing any of the following:

  • Loss of control around food (when you feel like you’re physically unable to stop eating - this is a different feeling from just wanting more)
  • Feeling overwhelmed around food
  • Consuming large amounts of food to the point of feeling very full and physically unwell

Then it may be time to seek professional help. It may take a combination of approaches to stop “stress eating”, and you most certainly don’t have to do this on your own!

Conclusion

Emotional eating is a complex issue - however, understanding your enemy is half the battle already!

We hope the information and strategies provided in this blog help you identify and address your emotional eating patterns. And if you still have any questions or concerns, please reach out to us - we have a dedicated Dietetics Team onboard to help!

Stay safe,

Dietitian Liz and Team BBR
xx