Do you ever find yourself in the middle of a bag of chips and wonder how you got there? Does a clash with a coworker mean a knee-jerk trip to the candy dish in reception? Are you so determined to be perfect that each fall from the pedestal sends you straight to the kitchen?
The details may differ, but the result is the same: Eating tied to our emotions creates a "feel-bad" pattern that's tough to break, puts on weight, and makes us feel worse.
Food is easy to get, it's always there, and it's a quick fix. The downside is that emotional eating triggers guilt because it usually involves too much quantity, bad food choices, and a feeling of a lack of control.
In an age when far too many adults weigh too much--putting them at risk for a slew of health problems--it's wise to disconnect your uncomfortable feelings from emotional eating. Step one is to identify the triggers that get you in trouble. That helps you manage them instead of trying to munch them away.
"Anger is one emotion that is felt so strongly in the gut it actually can be misinterpreted as hunger," says Denise Supik, a licensed clinical professional counselor at Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center in Baltimore. Your mate forgets an important date or a coworker takes credit for your work. The next thing you know, you're hungry.
How do you know it's anger and not hunger? Before you take a bite, Supik suggests you look inside yourself, pin down what you're feeling and decide not to swallow that snack. It's a skill you must develop. "Food can modulate your emotions, it can numb you, it can distract you," she says. "But you must learn to self-soothe without doing yourself harm."
"If the only thing you can come up with when you're stressed out is to eat, that's a problem," says Alisa Schwartz, Ph.D., staff clinician at Georgetown University specializing in eating disorders. Having a favorite food as a treat is fine, she believes, but if it's habitual, you need to find new ways of nurturing yourself.
"It's normal to sometimes want to soothe yourself by eating a bowl of pasta or ice cream," says Dr. Schwartz. "But you cross over the line if it's the only way you can think of for making yourself feel better."
"Emotional eating is eating to make ourselves feel better," says Connie Diekman, R.D., director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. Feelings such as boredom can lead us to seek quick gratification from high-fat, high-sugar and high-calorie foods. "When people eat for emotional reasons," she says, "they don't tend to go for fruit and veggies." Instead, they use comfort foods that provide instant nurturing.
But Diekman warns that emotions can't be resolved until we find out what's eating us. Do you need to change jobs? Do you need a new hobby? "Emotional eating is a domino effect," Diekman says. "It just happens." What you need to tease out is the cause-and-effect relationship that gets you in front of the TV armed with cookies.
People can use food as a substitute for relationships, Dr. Schwartz says. Advertising further encourages negative food behaviors, she believes. In truth, she says, it is not excess food that leads to a more satisfying and fulfilling life--it's relationships and taking care of yourself.
If overeating feels like a problem, ask these questions: Are you spending enough time with friends? Who can you share your day with? Are you doing something for yourself on a weekly basis that's just about you? "A lot of ads market food as a replacement for all else," says Dr. Schwartz. But she cautions that eating cannot fill an emotional void.
We all feel sad at times, just as we all feel other emotions. Emotions don't have to be harmful, "but the behaviors resulting from the emotions can be," says Supik. Setting yourself up for emotional overload can be the first step to overeating. For example, Supik says, if you focus on what others need to the detriment of your own well-being, you can set up for an emotional flood that includes sadness or depression.
"People pleasers may overeat because they're very critical of themselves, they want approval, and everyone else's well-being is more important than their own," Supik says. If you don't give yourself your due, overeating becomes a way of self-nurturing gone amok.
"All of us sometimes eat for emotional reasons," says Dr. Schwartz. Problems arise when it gets to be a habit or interferes with life. These coping skills from our experts can help you separate emotions from food.
Set up a food and eating journal, even for a few days. Get a small, spiral-bound notebook and write down what you eat, when you eat, and how you feel at that time. Look for ties between what you feel and what you eat. The more you know about why you're suddenly full and guilty, the more you'll be able to stop it.
Make a list of healthy activities to use when emotions get you down. Call a friend who listens well, write down your most personal thoughts, read an escape novel, take a walk. We all need a personal bag of tricks when emotions become uncomfortable.
Do something just for yourself each week. The more positive you feel about yourself and your life, the more you'll be able to tolerate difficult events. Burnout can lead to a binge.
Be aware of your own negative self-talk. Write down what you say to yourself. Condemning yourself all the time can be a recipe for overeating.
If you feel ready to grab and eat, delay for 20 minutes. Ask yourself what you're feeling and what healthy response you can make to manage it. Remember the new response won't seem easy for quite some time.
If you can't shut down your eating reflex, change the menu. Choose foods that need a lot of chewing or reach for gum. Chewing can release tension. Or seek out low-calorie foods like carrots or pretzels.
Don't stand and eat. Put food on a plate and make the act of eating more concrete. This will give you time to think rationally and bypass that dazed question, "How did I get here?"
© 2014 Main Line Health