How to take charge of emotional eating
We all have a go-to food we crave when we’re feeling low, one that we believe we can count on for an instant boost. It might be salt and vinegar chips, chunky choc chip cookies or white sourdough bread spread with butter. Whatever it is, food can be a powerful thing when we’re in need of comfort. Of course, there’s no harm in eating these things. Food is, after all, one of life’s great pleasures, and we should relish it. But if we habitually turn to food whenever we’re stressed, lonely, bored, happy or sad, we can find ourselves in a cycle of emotional eating, which ironically takes the pleasure out of eating and makes it something we associate with guilt, frustration and self-loathing.
Feeding our feelings
Put simply, emotional eating is when we eat in response to an emotional situation—be it a stressful day at work, a celebration of good news or anxiety about your unwieldy to-do list—rather than due to genuine hunger.
If you can relate, you’re in good company. “Around once a week, one in 10 Australians engages in some form of emotional eating, binge eating or out-of-control eating,” says psychiatrist Phillipa Hay. Other research shows that around 40 per cent of people habitually increase their caloric intake when faced with stress, while 20 per cent of people don’t alter their eating behaviours.
But why is it that we turn to fatty, sugary, starchy foods for comfort, when logically we know it’s not ideal? “Culturally food is often perceived as something that comforts people, and there’s a biological effect in that some foods release hormones that may temporarily reduce feelings of anxiety or stress,” explains Professor Hay.
Furthermore, research shows that stress fuels our appetite for fatty, sugary foods, and these highly palatable foods can trigger biological and behavioural changes consistent with addiction —which explains why we don’t comfort eat carrots.
Emotional eating is also driven by the desire for immediate respite from tough emotions. “Evolution says that we’re predisposed to find a quicker, easier way to get happiness—that’s why the wheel was invented and why we had the industrial revolution,” explains clinical psychologist Cliff Battley. “However, we’re still going to be in the same emotional turmoil in the future, based on choosing a short-term quick fix.”
The encouraging news? It is possible to overcome emotional eating, heal your relationship with food and work through those tough emotions.
Identify your triggers
You may already be keeping a food diary to monitor what you’re eating, but adding in information about the context of when you’re eating and how you’re feeling at the time can reveal any comfort eating patterns.
“We know that keeping a record of habitual behaviours helps people distance themselves from them and externalises them in a way, and often the person gets a sense of empowerment over changing that behaviour,” says Professor Hay. For instance, you may realise that you tend to stress eat the night before your monthly check-in with your boss. You can then put in place a smarter calm-down strategy, such as a yoga class, a massage or an early night curled up in bed with a book.
Lean in to emotional discomfort
Often our instinct is to push uncomfortable emotions like heartache, anxiety and worry away, and food can seem like the ideal distraction. “Pushing an emotion away might work in the short term, but if it’s an ongoing issue it will just build up in the background, and it’s likely to come back and tap you on the shoulder,” says psychologist Dr Jo Lukins. Instead of ignoring how you feel, Dr Lukins recommends accepting what’s going on for you, even if you’re not thrilled about it, and seeking out emotional support such as counselling if you need to. “What you can also do is understand that the feeling has never hurt you; it’s the behaviours you choose in response to a feeling that hurt you,” says Battley.
Find other feel-good strategies
“What we’re seeking through eating is a sense of being cared for and nourished, so think about other things that can help you feel that way, then substitute those at times when you’re vulnerable,” advises Dr Lukins. Your self-soother might be dancing to an uplifting song, savouring a cup of tea or doing a jigsaw puzzle. It’s also important to cultivate a sense of fulfilment. “You want to attach emotions of pride and happiness to something that will raise your dopamine and serotonin levels, without needing food to do it,” says Battley. Ideally, this would be an achievement-oriented activity. “Think of five things you could tick off over the next year that would make you feel really good about who you are as a person,” says Battley. It might be writing a novel, travel or volunteering—anything that lights you up. Prioritise these things, and you’ll have an emotional booster that builds your self-esteem, rather than (like emotional eating) undermines it.
Coming back from a slip-up
Say you’ve put all the above strategies in place but then you have a challenging day and you turn to that tub of ice cream in the freezer. How can you come back from that? Firstly, by not thinking of it as a ‘relapse’. “We’d call it a lapse, not a relapse, because that’s just part of life; sometimes you’ll go back to certain behaviours but that doesn’t mean you’ve ‘relapsed’,” explains Professor Hay. “You are probably not doing that behaviour as often as you used to, and while it may have happened, it doesn’t have to happen again.”
A lapse can actually serve as a learning opportunity. “Ask yourself, ‘if this was here to teach me something, what has it taught me?’,” suggests Battley. For instance, it may shed light on what triggers you to comfort eat, or make you realise you’ve neglected self-care of late, leaving you emotionally vulnerable. Acceptance is the first step to moving on. “The best way to think about it is, ‘given these are my circumstances, what’s the most helpful thing I can do right now?’,” suggests Dr Lukins. Some deep breathing, a walk outdoors or journalling about your ‘whys’ for getting healthy can help you hit the reset button and get back on track.
3 steps to navigating emotional eating
Step 1: Work out if you’re genuinely hungry
Dr Lukins suggests asking yourself why you’re at the fridge or pantry: is it due to hunger, or because you’re drained, overwhelmed etc? “If you’re hungry, you should go eat something that is filling and nutritious,” she says. Try some homemade popcorn, crackers with hummus or fruit and yoghurt first, and see if that takes the edge off your craving.
Step 2: Disrupt the craving
If you still can’t shake the craving, give yourself permission to have what you want. “Rather than fight it, say ‘okay, I’m going to eat that, but I’ll have it in 10 minutes’,” advises Dr Lukins. In the interim, you might walk around the block, have a shower, pay bills or hang out the laundry. “That helps interrupt the negative thought pattern that leads to the habit of eating a cake, biscuit, or whatever it is,” says Dr Lukins.
Step 3: Check in with ‘future you’
“If you’re tempted to eat for emotional reasons, ask yourself how you’ll feel in 10 minutes’ time if you chose to eat a certain food, or whether you’ll feel better if you do something to distract yourself, then come back and rethink it,” suggests Dr Lukins.