Emotional Eating

What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is an attempt to manage your mood with food – it is eating in response to an emotional trigger. Those who emotionally eat can find it especially hard to lose weight.

To some degree emotional eating is normal – we all do it. Food is often the focus at celebrations, birthdays and funerals; however, emotional eating becomes a problem when it is the main way you regulate your mood & feelings.

Many people believe that the reason why they cannot seem to lose weight or struggle to maintain weight loss is due to a lack of self-control or will power. However, maintaining a healthy weight is much more complex – your feelings & emotions have a huge impact on your eating habits.

We don’t always eat to satisfy hunger. We can also turn to food for comfort, control, stress relief, boredom or as a reward. If you have had a long-term weight problem and/or have habit of yo-yo dieting, then you may have developed a more complex relationship to food – one that is based more on ‘psychological hunger’ than a physiological need to eat. This is where food is used to ‘fill you up’ emotionally or perhaps ‘stuff down’ difficult feelings.

Unfortunately emotional eating doesn’t fix your emotional problems; in fact it can often make you feel worse. Not only does the original emotional problem remain, but also the feelings that triggered the eating are still there. And on top of this you can also feel guilty for over-eating – beating yourself up for eating too much & not having more will-power!

Diets are often not successful or difficult to keep up because despite offering you a short-term fix and a programme to follow, they only work if you have ‘conscious’ control over your eating habits. They don’t address the less conscious triggers that cause you to want to eat or binge. So, if food has become the main way that you cope with your emotions, then learning to understand and manage your triggers & emotions is really important to successful weight loss.

Emotional reasons why you may eat

Here are some emotional reasons why you may eat. This list is not exhaustive. You may recognise some of these or perhaps there may be less conscious reasons why you eat:

•Being stressed, anxious, depressed and/or have low self-esteem

•Maybe you are unable to recognise or express your feelings

•Feeling neglected or taken for granted

•Perhaps you think no one is bothered about you so you might as well carry on eating

•Maybe getting ‘fat’ is a deliberate way to make yourself unattractive

•You really want attention or affection but don’t know how to ask for it

•Maybe you do not have anyone close to support or comfort you

•You feel lonely & don’t want to ‘trouble anyone’

•After binging you feel worse, guilty or shameful so you actually eat more

•You are bored

•Food is your only pleasure

Emotional eating behaviour

You may not be aware of when, why & what you eat and even what foods you actually enjoy. Here are some eating behaviours you may have developed:

•Eating secretly or not eating in front of other people

•Eating standing up or ‘out of the cupboard/fridge’ without thinking about what is being eaten

•Hoarding food – particularly your favourite or comfort types; making sure you always have ‘something’ in the cupboard

•Eating in front of the TV, computer or with a book

•Eating & snacking ‘on the go’ rather than proper meals

•Eating very quickly – bolting food down without tasting it

•Being good all day & then binging in the evening

•Eating only in the evening & at night

•Skipping breakfast to save calories

•Cutting out whole food groups

•Labelling certain foods as ‘bad’

•Eating small portions then binging on leftovers or snacking soon after

•Purging (being sick) after over-eating

Understanding your relationship with food

Starting to address the emotional issues that underpin your struggle with your weight & eating habits can be challenging. But addressing these issues affects more than just your relationship with food. It allows you to start making positive, long lasting changes not only to your eating behaviour & weight but also to your emotional well-being and life as a whole.

Understanding your emotional eating typically involves looking at:

•Looking at your past & present emotional issues, life events, experiences & relationships

•Exploring your historical relationship with food

•Exploring your current relationship with food

•History of your weight problem

•Your body image

•Understanding your triggers around emotional eating & how to cope with them more positively

•Developing new emotional management & self-caring skills

•Developing a more conscious & improved relationship with food

 

If you are considering or preparing for bariatric surgery or have had surgery but are sabotaging it, then understanding your relationship with food is really important. Your eating behaviour will need to change radically after bariatric surgery, so you will no longer be able to manage your mood with food. If you do not address the emotional issues behind your eating, then the effectiveness of your surgery will be jeopardised and you may make yourself ill.

This can be difficult to work through & for some there may be more complicated issues to explore. It is important that you feel you are well supported by family, friends, colleagues or professionals who can offer you the space & understanding to explore & express what is going on for you.

 

Being kind to yourself & looking after your emotional well-being

Emotional eaters are often harsh on themselves and have stern ‘inner-critic’. This is the voice that tells you you’re not good enough, could do better, you must be perfect, you’ve let yourself down again, you’re too fat, you’re too lazy, you’ve got no will-power, you’ve got no self respect, how will anyone find you attractive, your feelings aren’t important, everyone else must be ok before you are, if I say ‘no’ they won’t like me – does some of this sound familiar?

So…it is especially important to develop ways of being kinder to yourself:

    • Appreciate that emotional eating is a complex issue that takes time to understand & resolve.
    • Appreciate that your relationship with food & current eating behaviour has taken many years to develop so be patient with & allow yourself time to develop new ones.
    • Be compassionate towards yourself – be sensitive to ALL your thoughts & emotions. It is ok to feel sad, low, angry, anxious, upset, irritated, frustrated, envious, lonely, tired, confused, helpless…
    • Be realistic with your goals & have your OWN measurement of success
    • Celebrate ALL your achievements & successes – small & big
    • Appreciate that understanding your relationship with food will take commitment and it will be challenging.
    • If a set-back happens, that is OK – learn from the experience. A set-back is something that can be learnt from. How you cope with & move on from a set-back can be a valuable learning experience & is important in making long lasting changes to your relationship with yourself & food.
    • Ask for help & encouragement – draw on support from others that you can share your feelings with & who will encourage you.
    • Develop more assertive communication – learning to say ‘no’ at unrealistic requests, value your thoughts & feelings as valid and respect your own needs & opinions.
“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and
those who matter don’t mind.” (Dr Seuss)

 

  • Look after your physical well-being.

 


Please Note: As a counsellor I work purely with the emotional aspects of eating behaviour. We can discuss your thoughts & feelings towards food, eating and any prospect of surgery or dieting. However, I am not a medical professional. I will not recommend diet plans or offer you nutritional advice and will not advise you on whether bariatric surgery is suitable for you. This should be discussed with your GP, consultant or other relevant professional.

Please Note: As a counsellor I work purely with the emotional aspects of eating behaviour. We can discuss your thoughts & feelings towards food, eating and any prospect of surgery or dieting. However, I am not a medical professional. I will not recommend diet plans or offer you nutritional advice and will not advise you on whether bariatric surgery is suitable for you. This should be discussed with your GP, consultant or other relevant professional.