What is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is the practice of managing one’s emotions by eating food. Here are some things that can help you figure out how to identify emotional eating, its effects, and a handful of tips on what you can do.
What causes emotional eating?
Major changes in circumstances, relationships, work dynamics, daily stress, and general feelings of a loss of control can be major factors. For example, a recent break up could drive a person to emotional eating.
A sudden change in the demeanour of a formally cordial coworker could leave you feeling alienated, or the daily ebb and flow of lives daily activities could put you in mood where food is thought of as a reward, a way to relieve stress, or way to avoid dealing with emotions surrounding a situation.
How do you detect emotional eating?
There are a few differences between the type of hunger that comes from emotional needs, and that of physical needs.
Physical hunger is gradual, and eating fulfills the need for nourishment. When you eat after having been physically hungry, you will most likely feel better or more energized.
When the hunger is emotional hunger, eating may not give you the feeling of being filled, which can lead to overeating. At the end of the meal, you might feel tired, or depressed, but there are even more long term effects that can come from emotional eating.
How can emotional eating affect you?
Along with the emotional effects already mentioned, there are a number of health risks associated with emotional eating. It’s one of the leading causes of failed diets and weight gain.
Weight gain puts a heavy strain on organs such as the heart, lungs, and liver, which can lead to high blood pressure and diabetes. Yet, not only internal organs are at risk.
A person who has gained a substantial amount of weight faces an increased risk of joint injuries of all types. A slip or fall could result in a serious injury that requires surgery, and many months of healing, but what is even more frightening is the fact that a lot weight gain could make it more difficult, or even prevent emergency medical teams from being able to respond in an efficient or timely manner.
What can you do?
One of the most commonly used methods of determining the source of hunger is the food test. Ask yourself if you want to eat this food, or if there is something else you can eat instead. You can also try habit replacement. Find something positive to do when you feel stressed out. Exercise, deep breathing, or any stress relieving hobby i.e. meditation or going for a walk can go a long way to improving your control.
Signs of Emotional Overeating
Emotional overeating is one of the leading causes of failed diets and weight gain. This can lead to feelings of failure, hopelessness, and a general depression. Unhealthy eating habits often lead to negative physical effects as well, so let’s discuss some of the behaviours that might be signs of emotional overeating.
Food Cravings Appear Out of Nowhere
Physical hunger is most often experienced as gradually intensifying waves signifying that the body requires a form of sustenance. Sometimes it is possible that there is a deficiency of one or more nutrients, but one of the most telling signs of emotional overeating is the sudden, and urgent appearance of food cravings.
During these urgent cravings, you are less likely to make healthy food choices, such as fast food, processed snack foods, prepackaged, or otherwise artificial food sources rather than eating healthier traditionally prepared meals.
Your Emotions Drive Your Eating Habits
Mood can affect the speed, and way we eat. Do you sometimes notice that a negative situation can send you running to your car to get a comfort food? In times of intense emotional upheaval, it can easily become a habit to turn to food for emotional management. That cookie or ice cream might feel good during consumption, but it isn’t truly fixing the heart of the issue.
Many people are conditioned from a young age to associate food with some sort of reward or good times. That is part of the reason for certain restaurants to have places for children to play.
You Eat While Stressed
Another big sign that that could show that you are emotionally overeating is that you are eating while stressed. Any changes in life large or small can cause a measure of stress.
Deteriorating financial health is considered to be a leading cause of stress in many countries around the world, so it is possible that financial stress could lead to comfort food seeking activity.
Relationships are also a major source of stress due to the tendency for relationships to experience inevitable changes in dynamics. This could be anything from romantic relationships to work relationships. People tend to expect routine, so when relationship changes occur, one or both people can be thrown into a state of uncertainty.
You Keep Eating Past Being Full
One of the most serious of the signs of emotional overeating, is eating past being full. At the height of my obesity, this was me on a nightly basis. I’d watch tv in the dark, by myself and just fill my face until I felt sick to my stomach.
This is when the need to fill the emotional void exceeds the body’s natural feeling of fullness. It can manifest itself in joyless eating, which is eating on autopilot. During this period you might consume empty calories so quickly that you don’t even taste the food.
You may also find yourself forcing the second half of a meal you could have saved for later, or buying additional snack foods that you will be tempted to eat prematurely. Part of the serious nature of this habit, is that it is a primary mechanism that makes weight gain and other health issues a possibility.
Dangers of Emotional Eating
There a number of unhealthy habits that can develop over time if emotional eating isn’t monitored closely. This can go unnoticed because it’s not widely thought of as dangerous compared to life threatening habits such as illegal drug use, and many say they can simply “exercise more later,” but can eating habits really be a danger to you?
You Tend to Eat Unhealthy Food
Emotional eating usually hits very suddenly out of nowhere and seeks out specific cravings to be filled. Often times these powerful cravings are for sugar and fat filled snacks because of the powerful rush that is experienced after consumption.
Seeking out comfort food or food that is connected with positive or nostalgic feelings has been common practice for all of recorded history. Many snack foods (especially candy and baked goods) are associated with memories of fun times or loved ones. Some children develop early obesity when they learn this type of self soothing. The methods that are used to produce foods of these types typically contain high levels of salt, sugars, fats and preservative agents.
It is an Unhealthy Way to Cope with Emotions
Emotional eating is often used as a way to avoid dealing with complex emotions. Not every trigger will be the same for each person, but these could include a range of emotions and feelings including anxiety, boredom, loneliness, disgust, sadness, and even joy.
The emotional danger is the continued neglect of the real reasons behind these emotions. A feeling of shame or guilt might follow binges. This is especially true when the behaviour is hidden from friends or family. If a person uses eating as a way to escape or distract them self emotionally, a vicious cycle can develop. For example, a person who seeks food to cope with stress will create a paradox where weight-related health issues arise, and the chosen coping method is food.
There are Weight-Related Health Risks
Emotional overeating can cause devastating health problems.
Beyond the difficulties surrounding obesity, these could include other health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, anxiety, malnutrition, digestive problems, menstrual problems, and depression.
If you’re overeating and appear to be experiencing any of these symptoms or health problems, emotional eating is likely to be a significant factor. Most frightening of all, some of these diseases have dangerous side effects that could interfere with medical responder’s efforts to carry out life saving procedures. Heart disease and diabetes can also weaken the organs and immune system, leaving you susceptible to infectious disease as well.
Tune in next week for Part 2 of this series on Emotional Eating where I’ll share tips on How to Find Your Emotional Eating Triggers and Tips for Putting a Stop to Emotional Eating.
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