Expert tips to curb emotional eating
We look at what the pros do when they find themselves stress eating.
Have you ever had such an emotionally draining day that your first thought when you get home is to work your way through copious amounts of your favourite sweet food? We’ve all been there.
Picture a rom-com or any film with that typical break-up scene. What do you see? The main character wrapped in a blanket, sobbing into a tub of ice cream? Why is it that we associate our emotions with food, and how can we make sure that we aren’t overindulging for the sake of it?
Our relationship with food starts from a young age - much like our habits . We may associate different foods with happiness, such as the association of ice cream and cake with a childhood birthday party. In some cases, parents may use food as a reward, however, more recent studies have shown that using food as a reward can be associated with future negative relationships with food.
These past experiences, on top of the cortisol that we release when stressed (a hormone that makes us crave sugary foods ), mean that over the years, we start to reward our bodies with foods that we believe make us feel better emotionally.
So how do we reverse years of emotional eating?
5 ways to stop emotional eating
1. Know the difference between emotional and physical hunger
Are you eating because you're hungry or could it be emotional eating? The first step to help identify the difference between emotional and physical hunger is to become aware of your eating patterns - that's when you eat.
Do you generally eat three big meals a day or do you eat little and often? Taking note of when you eat (and what you're eating) can help you to see if there are times of the day when you may be eating unnecessarily. You may find you tend to snack in the evening out of boredom or to help tackle a stressful day – similar to having a glass of wine in the evening.
Emotional hunger vs. physical hunger
The main differences between emotional and physical hunger are how quickly you feel hungry and how you feel after you’ve eaten .
The differences between emotional and physical hunger:
|Sudden feelings of hunger
|Feelings of hunger come on gradually
|Crave specific foods
|Willing to eat any food
|Need to eat even though you feel full
|Stop eating when feeling full
|Feelings of guilt or shame after eating
|No negative feelings after eating
2. Practise mindful eating
Mindfulness is being aware and present in everything that you do. And in that respect, mindful eating is the act of being fully present when eating . This may sound simple, but how many times have you sat in front of your laptop, TV, or phone when eating?
How to eat mindfully:
- Pay attention to every step – this includes choosing and preparing all food.
- Remove any distractions that may take away from the process of eating – however, don’t feel like you can’t sit with others, as this can improve mealtimes.
- Use your senses when eating – enjoy every taste (sometimes closing your eyes can heighten other senses such as taste and smell).
- Chew your food – slowing down and using the 20, 20, 20 method when eating can help you concentrate fully on your food. Chew your food for 20 seconds, put your utensils down for at least 20 seconds before having another mouthful, and take 20 minutes to eat your food.
3. Plan your meals
Planning your meals can be a part of mindful eating and help you save time. If time is your enemy, then meal planning and batch cooking can help you curb your emotional eating habits as you are less likely to snack and more likely to eat a decent meal.
Meal planning may seem overwhelming and scary, but after a few weeks, you’ll soon get the hang of it. Meal planning and online shopping can make it much easier if you are busy.
If you are struggling for ideas, the NHS and most supermarkets have sections on their websites full of meal plans and ideas. You could also check out the BBC Good Food page or people like @cardiff.mum and @thebatchlady on Instagram for budget meals.
4. Find healthy ways to deal with emotions
When it comes to emotional eating, most people think that willpower is the answer - but that isn't the case. It may be that you've learned to deal with your emotions with food. To break that cycle, you can try to rewire those patterns. If you're feeling stressed, you can try physically moving (going for a walk, or even jumping up and down for a minute), you could call or message a friend, or grab a pen and paper and write down whatever comes to mind. These little actions can help you to deal with your emotions, lay them out on the table, or simply get another person's perspective.
Top tips to help channel your emotions
- Stress – if you are feeling stressed, meditating, exercising, or simply deep breathing can help. You can read more tips on how to deal with stress in our blog: ten top ways to de-stress.
- Sadness – write a list of the things that have made you happy before. Did it include cooking, seeing friends, or listening to music? Make time to do the things that make you light up.
- Boredom – eating out of boredom is also common. Sugary snacks can seem like a quick fix, with an instant reward. Instead, use this time to do something that will nourish you properly. That could be spending time on your hobbies, socialising, exercising, or prepping for a healthy meal later.
Of course, if you get to a point where your eating or emotions feel out of control, then it's important to seek help. If you suspect that you or someone close to you has an eating disorder, then Beat Eating Disorders has a range of fantastic tools that you can self-refer to and get the support that you deserve.
5. Avoid labelling foods as good or bad
Do you know the phrase that you can have too much of a good thing? Overindulging in any food can have negative effects .
Over the years, we have heard foods being labelled as good or bad. But this can actually add to anxiety around food. Though foods such as ultra-processed foods have been proven to harm the body, you don’t necessarily have to cut them out completely. It’s all about moderation.
Labelling foods good and bad can sometimes tempt you further to eat the bad foods to give your body that comfort craving it seeks. However, if it’s not labelled as bad or naughty food, you may be less inclined (it’s all to do with feeding your inner chimp).
So, try asking yourself if you are hungry or need to eat rather than asking whether you should eat that specific item.
How do you stop emotional eating?
The key to curbing a habit like emotional or stress eating lies in taking yourself off autopilot. So, next time you’re heading for the treat cupboard, ask yourself: is this really what I need right now, or would a moment’s reflection serve me better?
Is there a blood test for emotional eating?
If you're interested to know how your diet is affecting your health, our Diet and Lifestyle Blood Test can help. With tests for your liver and kidney function, cholesterol, diabetes, B vitamins, and much more, this test can act as a nudge in the right direction to start making changes that can positively impact your health. Those changes could be cutting down on sugar and fatty foods to improve your cholesterol and diabetes risk; reducing alcohol consumption to improve your liver health or taking a supplement to top-up vitamin D levels in winter.
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- Science in the News. 2022. Ask the Brain: Why Do We Crave Sugar When We're Stressed? - Science in the News. [online] Available at: <https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/ask-the-brain-why-do-we-crave-sugar-when-were-stressed/> [Accessed 16 September 2022].
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- Nelson, J., 2017. Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat. Diabetes Spectrum, 30(3), pp.171-174.
- Sharma, S., Chung, H., Kim, H. and Hong, S., 2016. Paradoxical Effects of Fruit on Obesity. Nutrients, 8(10), p.633.