Topic: Emotional Eating.
“All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” Hebrews 12:11
We’ve all been there a time or two. Stressed out and overwhelmed to the max, standing over a tub of cookie dough, shoveling spoonfuls into our mouth. Or maybe you find yourself scarfing down french fries and a milkshake, drowning the day’s sorrows in a calorie laden binge.
Whether you eat because you are stressed, overwhelmed or depressed, if you find yourself looking to food for comfort, then you are most likely an emotional eater.
So first, I want to explain what emotional eating is.
Emotional eating, or stress eating, is eating to satisfy your emotional needs or to comfort yourself. Typically, emotional eating consists of diving deep into a ton of unhealthy foods that provide little nutritional value, but can bring about a sense of comfort, ease and familiarity.
So why do we eat emotionally?
Most of us engage in emotional eating to cope with negative feelings. We attempt to drown out sorrow in a pint of ice cream, or pan of brownies...similarly to someone who turns to alcohol to ease their troubles. While it isn’t a terrible thing to do this on occasion, if turning to food is your main tool for coping with the negative aspects of life, then you are likely to find yourself on a slippery slope that leads to obesity and a whole slew of health issues.
When we don’t want to cope with uneasy feelings or emotions, we will turn to comfort food that brings a sense of security. We are turning to food to fill a void in our souls that we don’t want to deal with. We turn to “comfort food” to soothe us instead of dealing with the issues head on. Struggling your way through unpleasant feelings can be hard, but it is something that everyone should learn how to do. Philippians 4:11-13 tells us, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Do you truly believe this? God wants us to learn to be content in everything and that means being content in all the feelings and emotions that may come our way.
Emotional eating can definitely stem from not being content in our feelings, but it’s not the only thing that can lead to eating emotionally. A lot of studies out there suggest that people emotionally eat due to a lack of self control. But in my opinion, it is due to other factors. The first one being a true unawareness of what you are doing. Have you ever gotten sad and reached for a bag of chips and before you know it, it is gone? This is being unaware of the feelings that are leading you to eat.
Another reason is that some people tend to only get pleasure from food. Since sugar can release opioids in the brain (just like cocaine and narcotics), it sends your body into a calming or soothing state - just like certain drugs can. So this feeling of getting pleasure from food is real. And it can be very difficult to stop, and in order to do this, we must replace the thing we get pleasure from and find other ways to reward ourselves that feel good.
So how do we stop this? Being mindful of what and when you are eating. Track everything for a while to get a full sense of what you are putting in your body. Try to be overly aware of what you are eating and what state of mind you are in when you are eating it.
We must also learn how to cope with feelings appropriately. Being mad is ok. Being sad is ok. Being happy is ok. Feelings are ok, friends! But working your way through those feelings and sitting in those feelings is better than coping with food.
The first thing in overcoming emotional eating is recognizing if you struggle with it. Head over to worksheet 3:1 and complete.
emotional hunger vs. physical hunger
Now that you’ve recognized if you struggle with emotional eating or not, let’s talk about how to overcome it. The first step to overcoming emotional eating is to recognize it when it’s happening.
- Comes on quickly and seemingly out of nowhere
- Typically will have you craving specific foods
- Comes from your mind, not your stomach
- Isn’t satisfying even after you are full
Understanding the difference between emotional hunger and real physical hunger is key.
Emotional hunger comes on suddenly when your anxiety or stress levels begin to rise. Real hunger creeps in slowly, comes from the stomach and is satisfied once you are full.
Emotional hunger is a dire need – YOU HAVE TO HAVE IT NOW – whereas physical hunger, again, is gradual.
With emotional eating you lose track of what you’re eating and how much you are eating. With physical hunger you are aware of what you are eating.
When you stop emotional eating, you ARE NOT satisfied and you can continue to eat and eat even when you are FULL.
Once you’re done with emotional eating you feel GUILTY.
After recognizing when emotional hunger is coming on, you must then determine your triggers and what leads you to want to emotionally eat.
Triggers are what cause you to start eating for any reason other than hunger and nutritional benefit. The best way to avoid emotional eating is to recognize those triggers.
Common triggers can include:
- Being in social settings (social eating)
- Being overly tired
- Being overly hungry
- Being bored
- Drinking alcohol
- Ending every meal with a dessert (ritual)
- Being angry, sad, or overly stressed
- Feeding children and putting meals together quickly
Understanding your triggers will help you better cut off emotional eating before it starts. Some common triggers are stress, sadness, boredom, habit/ritual or a desire to avoid or stuff your emotions. Once you have addressed your trigger(s) - there can be more than one - you will be able to come up with some alternative ways to address the issue.
A great way to start identifying your triggers is to keep a food diary. Write down everything you eat and when you eat it. But not only that, write down what happened in your life prior to eating, how you FELT leading up to eating it and how you felt after eating it. This will help you identify the feelings and triggers that lead to emotional eating.
After identifying your triggers, you must learn to replace the behavior and distract yourself. Instead of turning to food for comfort or relief, try the following:
- When you are stressed or depressed: go for a run, hit the gym, or do a quick at home workout. The endorphin rush will help you de-stress and you will be doing something good for your body. In addition, you can grab a notepad and start writing. A daily brain dump can significantly reduce stress and help you refocus your mind! If you are really feeling down, call someone you trust and talk things out. If you don’t have someone like that in your life, consider finding a local counselor who could help you walk through your struggles.
- When you are bored: find something to do other than eat. Workout, read, write, research a topic of interest, call a friend you haven’t talked to in a while, clean, or craft. There are countless options for occupying yourself when you are bored. Come up with a list, and keep it posted on your pantry and fridge. This way, every time you want to reach for something to entertain you, you have a host of other options!
- Rituals and Habits: do you always grab a milkshake on the way home, or some ice cream when you sit down to watch TV every night? Change up your routine. Take a different route home, or make a protein shake at home after work and let that be your new ritual. Instead of ice cream, grab some apples and peanut butter. Same setting, different habit. Habits and rituals are hard to break, so you typically need to replace the behavior while keeping the same outcome.
Emotional eating can be challenging to overcome if you have been doing it for years. It is a powerful and effective way to find relief (temporarily) from life and all the challenges and emotions it brings. In order to stop the emotional eating cycle, you have to make the commitment to find the strength deep within to work on it.
Remember what Hebrews 12:11 says, “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” It is hard in the moment friends, but the discipline of saying no and putting down that spoon yields great return!
One of my most favorite passages is Romans 5:3-4.
“And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”
I want you to know that today, whatever you may be struggling with that causes you stress, grief, sadness, pain - anything at all - that God has you in His hand. That these tribulations will bring out so much hope. Let’s address this emotional eating and start changing the behavior - head over to worksheet 3:2 and complete.