Although stress and negative emotions cause appetite loss for some people, others feel increased cravings for calorie-dense, highly processed foods. This is known as emotional eating.
Emotional eating can be problematic. You might have physical effects, such as feeling bloated or tired, or you may put yourself at risk for disease like diabetes. Breaking free from emotional eating requires specific, mindful actions taken to disrupt old patterns of behavior.
"Food is easy to get. It's there," says Stephen Mechanick, MD, chief of psychiatry at Bryn Mawr Hospital, part of Main Line Health. "But emotional eating usually involves making bad food choices and too much quantity, which can leave you with a feeling of guilt and lack of control."
Just remember the last time you found yourself in the middle of a bag of chips after a stressful presentation or on your second bowl of ice cream after a heated argument with a friend or loved one.
A rise in emotional eating during COVID
In what's been a particularly stressful period of time, researchers have begun to look at the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on emotional eating. One study out of Norway, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that 62 percent of females and 43 percent of males reported emotional eating during the previous week. The more worried a person felt, the more likely they were to have high-sugar foods and drinks.
What causes emotional eating?
Anyone who has experienced emotional eating knows it can be brought on by a variety of things. One negative encounter can trigger an urge to eat, but typically these feelings are to blame for a visit to the snack cabinet:
While a piece of pizza or an extra scoop of ice cream every now and then after a rough day isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's when this kind of emotional eating becomes a pattern that it becomes a problem.
How do I start breaking free from emotional eating?
Curbing emotional eating is often easier said than done. It takes a conscious effort to be able to stop turning to food as a source of comfort, especially if emotional eating has been a habit for a long period of time.
"Even in nonpandemic times, it's easy to turn to certain foods for comfort—but the pleasure is short-lived," adds Jamie O'Boyle, registered dietitian at Main Line Health. Fortunately, there are some coping skills that can help you separate emotions from food. "If you're caught in a cycle of emotional eating that you'd like to change, there are things you can do."
Here are four ways to start breaking free from emotional eating:
1. Keep a food journal.
Writing down what you eat is usually recommended to keep track of what you're eating, but it can also be helpful in determining why you're eating. Write down everything you eat during the day, but also record how you feel when you're eating it. You may find ties between what you're eating and why.
"You might learn you munch on cookies to ease stress or turn to salty snacks if you feel lonely," says O'Boyle. "Knowing your triggers is the first step to changing your behavior."
2. Make a list of healthy alternative activities.
Instead of going straight to the vending machine, cope with a bad day by talking it out with a friend, writing down how you feel, reading a book or taking a walk. This can help you sort out your feelings and give you time to cool down after an emotional situation. By dealing with the emotion, instead of eating it, you are acknowledging that feeling and channeling it in a positive way.
"Once you know when you're likely to eat, you can work to replace that behavior," continues O'Boyle. For example, instead of eating to relieve stress, you can try exercise or meditate when you feel on edge.
3. Take a 20-minute break.
If you're tempted to eat, give yourself 20 minutes to think about what's bothering you. Are you really hungry, or are you just using food as a comfort for a bigger situation? Can you do something else to distract yourself for a few minutes? If you discover that you're still hungry, grab a snack, but you might find that those 20 minutes give you the time you need to figure out what's really wrong and address that, instead.
"Shifting gears for even five minutes can allow the desire to pass," assures O'Boyle.
4. Keep healthy snacks on hand.
If you know you're likely to turn to popcorn, chips or chocolate after a hard day, keep it out of the house or away from your desk. Instead, have healthier options like fruits, veggies and yogurt so you won't binge on high-calorie goodies.
Follow these tips, says Dr. Mechanick, and you should be able to break free from your emotional eating habit.
"Food is an easy distraction," he explains. "But it won't solve a problem, and it can become an unhealthy attachment if you continue to turn to it. Using coping skills can help you better understand when you're hungry and when you're really just upset."