Do you find yourself eating even when you’re not especially hungry? Or eating more than you want of a food you don’t even particularly enjoy? If so, you may be using food as a coping mechanism.
When we engage in emotional eating, we use food primarily to temporarily feel better emotionally rather than to satisfy hunger. Unfortunately, this behavior doesn’t fix the problems that have upset us. In fact, sometimes the foods we eat or the portions we consume can make us feel worse. Not only is the original emotional issue still there, we may now be experiencing shame, guilt, and physical discomfort. Emotional eating is a normal human behavior, but when it is our primary way to manage distress or if what we eat or how much we eat then causes associated problems, this behavior may need some attention.
Emotional eating may be a problem for you if you:
- Rely on eating to manage uncomfortable emotions
- Lack other healthy ways to manage sadness, anger, boredom, or stress
- Feel emotionally numb after eating
- Feel guilt and shame after eating
- Eat to manage emotions even if you are already full
- Eat foods that you know cause you to feel poorly
- Would rather eat than ask for help or support from others
The vicious cycle
Occasionally using food as a reward, or to celebrate, isn’t a bad thing. But it can become problematic when eating is our primary emotional coping mechanism. If your first impulse is to open the refrigerator whenever you’re stressed, upset, angry, lonely, exhausted or bored — you may find yourself trapped in an unhealthy cycle where the real problem is never addressed and continues to negatively impact you.
Emotional issues can’t be addressed with food. In fact, emotional eating can be so effective at shutting down our emotions temporarily that we may stop searching for healthier ways to deal with our feelings and our lives. This can make it harder to manage weight, which can then cause more emotional distress and may contribute to issues with physical health, sending us back to the fridge to regulate our emotions.
No matter how powerless you feel over your relationship with food and your feelings, it is always possible to make a change. You can learn healthier ways to deal with your emotions, avoid triggers and respond differently to your cravings.
Identifying Emotional Eating
Before you can stop the cycle of emotional eating, you need to understand how to distinguish between emotional and physical hunger. Since emotional hunger can be very strong, it’s easy to mistake it for physical hunger. But there are clues you can watch for to help identify emotional eating. Common causes of emotional eating include boredom, stress, habits formed in childhood, easily accessible hyperpalatable foods, and outside influences.
Snacking and grazing regulates our emotions, often before we even become aware of them. If you rely on snacking and grazing all day long, you are likely eating in response to emotional cues rather than physiological hunger.
Check in with yourself when you want to eat. If you can label your emotion(s) at that time, you may realize you have more going on in your head and heart than you realized.
Obtaining food and eating it provide us with an opportunity to take a break and switch up tasks, appealing when we feel bored and when we feel overwhelmed. Sometimes we use obtaining and eating food to regulate our physiological arousal level, energizing or relaxing us, to feel better.
If you cannot identify a physical hunger cue (stomach emptiness, growling stomach, headache, low energy, etc.), but still feel “hungry” it’s probably emotional or in response to food around you or on TV/phone.
Interestingly, with respect to folks who undergo a surgical or medical intervention that changes their ability to emotionally eat the portions or foods that they used to, The Bariatric Counseling Center’s Dr. Sara Hamilton has noticed that emotional eating behaviors become more easily identifiable: “When food is used as a coping mechanism and then individuals physically cannot eat the same way anymore, they can go through an emotional rollercoaster because their coping mechanism has changed. People are more receptive to counseling and receiving support when they become more aware of how they are actually feeling.”
What are your emotional eating triggers?
The first step in conquering the hold emotional eating has on you is to acknowledge your personal risk for emotional eating and identify your personal triggers. Most people think they aren’t emotional eaters, because the behavior works so well that eating can make us feel better before we are even consciously distressed. When discussing the Bariatric Counseling Center program, Dr. Hamilton has said: “If you’re eating to manage your feelings, we’re going to help you figure out other ways to manage your feelings. We are also going to figure out what those feelings are about and see what we can do about that too.”
Keep an emotional eating journal
One of the most effective ways to identify the triggers behind your emotional eating is to keep track with a journal (or in your head!). When you have the desire to eat, note your physical hunger level, your emotions, and any particular triggering events of the past few hours. How are you feeling? What do you want to eat? How much? At the end of meals, you can check in again. It is normal to feel better after eating, but notice the specifics of what you were feeling, what you ate, how much, and how it affected you.
You may begin to see a pattern emerge, and you’ll begin to understand the kind of help you may need.
That’s where the Bariatric Counseling Center comes in. Dr. Hamilton said, “When people leave (our) program, they have a new set of skills they can use across many areas of their life. They are not just hearing the same old things about ‘eat less and move more.’ Clients have said that, after doing the program, even if their stressors have not changed, they are not as stressed out about them. Life is still crazy but they are better able to handle the crazy.”
Do you think our program may benefit you?
We’d be glad to schedule a consultation. Call us at (210) 634-2200. We offer the only program of its kind in San Antonio.