Updated: Jun 3
Hello, beautiful... today I am sharing a little insight into what emotional eating is and how you begin to overcome stress related binges.
Do you find when things really frustrate or upset you that you tend to turn to food for comfort or a temporary escape? Do you often drown your sorrows in Ben & Jerry’s or a warm pizza, then later regret binge eating and beat yourself up over it? Has this become a regular occurrence rather than an isolated one? Stress eating is all too common, and while food can be a source of comfort for stressed-out and exhausted mums everywhere, these little binges can form into some pretty unhealthy habits--and fast!
Anxiety, worries and stress affects everyone, and in many different ways from the physical to emotional in addition to mentally. For some, repetitive stress or troubling emotions can trigger a habit of turning to food for comfort. Unfortunately, snacking and eating food when emotional can quickly become a damaging crutch.
The medical definition of emotional or stress eating is “…the practice of consuming large quantities of food (usually "comfort" or junk foods) or eating when not hungry but rather in response to feelings other than genuine hunger.” Experts estimate that 75% of overeating is caused by responding to feelings of stress by eating high-carbohydrate, high-calorie foods of low nutritional value. Like most emotional symptoms, stress eating is thought to result from a number of factors rather than a single cause.
Let’s be honest, anxiety, daily stress and negative emotions can leave any one of us feeling an emotional void. Eating can become a way many of us fill the void, whether it be a little mindless snacking in the evening to combat boredom, or devouring a double scoop of Ben & Jerry's after a break up. I think its safe to say we've all been there once or twice, but where this snacking to give us a sense of “fullness” goes wrong, is when it becomes your go-to coping mechanism for any and all stress.
How Do I Know If I Am An Emotional Eater?
In times of heightened stress, eating can feel like a good escape. This is because certain foods trigger and release a neurological response that lights up the pleasure receptors in the brain. Unfortunately, the comfort is temporary and a fix just like any other (drug or addiction). Eating to buffer emotions is a band-aid to the underlying problem, and if the coping mechanism of choice, it can become highly addictive and detrimental to one's health. Stress eating is a damaging crutch.
Eating when you are not really hungry but rather triggered by stress or negative emotions is a fast and slippery slope, and often leaves you feeling more miserable than before. To help you figure out if you are an emotional or stress eater, in addition to the emotions or stress you may be feeling, you might also notice:
that the stress or tension that is only relieved by eating
you feel numb while bingeing—like you're not really there or you're on auto-pilot
that you never feeling satisfied, no matter how much you eat, you could still eat more
that you are secretly embarrassment over how much you're eating
that you also feel guilty, disgusted, or depressed after overeating
Now on top of your heartache, worries or stress, comes the guilt, self-blame and self-judgement for eating unnecessarily. It can become a nasty spin cycle that can drag you down a pretty dark rabbit hole.
Compounding the problem, is the fact that when food becomes the primary comfort mechanism, you may find that you stop practicing healthier ways to deal with the emotions. This makes it more challenging to cope with stress, anxiety or big emotions, and control one’s body weight. Now you’ve created a secondary problem on top of what was stressing you pout to begin with. Naturally, this can all quickly lead to an increasing sense of powerless over both food and your personal feelings.
Why Am I Using Food For Comfort?
The short answer, its biology. The physical and neurological response to the food you eat begins long before food even enters your mouth. All aspects of your meal—such as sight, smell and anticipated taste—trigger neurological responses in the body that result in autonomic nervous system kicking in. You can experience reactions such as suddenly salivating, a kick of excitement, and the secretion of gastric juices. These strong autonomic physical reactions can even take place with just the mere thought of a certain type or favourite food!
Don't believe me? Try it. Think about a your absolute favourite meal or snack; pay attention to the increase in salivation as you try to recall the taste and experience of eating that food. The central nervous system prepares the stomach to receive food long before you start nibbling and this is why stress and emotional eating can become such a fierce hook; its neurologically fuelled.
Now, the long answer to why you may be using food for comfort deserves a much more in-depth reply. (You can join me in the Support Group to learn and discuss more, or go here for more reading on the subject). There may be many private and sensitive underlying issues as to why a person is seeking comforting in food instead of more constructive and healthy ways. Sometimes emotional eating can be due to not having a good enough support network, mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, or simply just falling on hard times with no other way to cope. The important thing is to recognise if this is you and how it may be making things worse.
What’s The Difference Between Emotional & Physical Hunger?
Now you may have identified that you have been using food as a crutch, or perhaps you are still unsure. One way to help you tell if you are stress eating is to differentiate between when you are really hungry and not. This can be trickier than you might think, especially if you regularly use food to cope with your worries, emotions and stressful feelings.
The first step is to understand the physical difference. Generally speaking, physical hunger can feel centralised in the guts, an icy sensation or almost painful sensation that gradually gets more and more intense the longer it is left unchecked. Genuine hunger can cause a state of weakness, nausea and headaches. In some people, they can become irritable, shaky, or disoriented if they do eat and raise their blood sugar levels with food. Other distinctive physical sensations are lightheadedness, and an empty or hollow feeling in the stomach.
The second step is to check when was the last time you ate anything. If it has been more then 2-3 hours, you may well indeed be genuinely hungry. However, if it has been less than 2 hours since a meal, you are more than likely reaching for food for reasons other than genuine hunger.
By comparison, emotional hunger is distinctively different than physical hunger, and is triggered by worry, stress or the emotions, not physical need. The urge to eat often comes on suddenly or fiercely rather than developing slowly over time like physical hunger. This is usually on the tails of when you start to experience emotional upset, anger, anxiety or depressed feelings.
With emotional hunger, you will usually only crave only certain foods, and may binge on this food not feeling satiated or the sensation of fullness you would if genuinely hungry. Its common to fiercely crave sugar and high-calorie, fatty junk foods (but not always). Often with emotional hunger, you can experience feelings of guilt or shame over bingeing, snacking or overeating. Both are very common and expected.
Taking note of the above differences can help you tune into if you’re experiencing emotional or physical hunger in the moment. Yes, both feelings can be easily confused, but paying attention to how and when your desire for food started, as well as how you felt during and after eating, can help you begin to understand which one you are experiencing.
The Bottom Line
Emotional eating and turning to food for comfort is a guaranteed dead end. The truth is that your emotional needs and the "emotional hunger" you might be experiencing, won’t ever be satisfied with food. It may feel satisfying in the moment or provide a quick distraction, but the feelings that initially triggered the binge are still there humming underneath the surface. Afterwards, it can leave you feeling even worse than you did before you binged because of the unnecessary calories you’ve just consumed.
Many people who struggle with this complex beat themself up for messing up and not having more willpower, which only drags them further down into feelings of despair and self-judgement. This pattern quickly perpetuates a negative spin cycle, and does very little to help the person find healthier ways to manage their stress or the emotions playing out.
How Do You Find Support?
If you suspect the extra snacking is turning into something more, then it is wise to seek some support. First start with a visit to your GP for a check up and include a mental health consultation. Sometimes emotional stress, anxiety, depression or low energy can be the symptom of iron and vitamin deficiencies or other underlying medical conditions. Rule out anything medical and then take a look at your lifestyle and current health habits.
Beyond medical, recovering from stress eating requires a close look at what triggers you, and when, and then looking at more healthier, non-food related ways to comfort yourself. What situations, stressors, places, or feelings make you reach for comfort of food?
Most emotional eating is tied to unpleasant feelings, but in some instances, it be triggered by positive emotions such as rewarding yourself for an achievement or job well done. Regardless of why you emotionally eat, consuming food when its been less than 2-3 hours before meals of for any other reason than genuine hunger, is something to take a closer look at.
Wishing you health + happiness,
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