Do you find yourself reaching for snacks and comfort foods when you’re feeling stressed, sad or lonely? You aren't the only one. Many people admit to emotional eating and relying on food for comfort.
Emotional eaters tend to depend on food to fill an emotional void or feelings of emptiness. The urge to overeat has also been linked to stress, anxiety and depression.
However, the truth is, food is rarely eaten just to survive and many people look forward to sitting around a table, enjoying a family meal together or tucking into a bowl of ice cream or dessert while settling down to watch a series.
This is because food is linked to specific hormones and reward centres in the brain, which are triggered with certain ingredients such as sugar. Also, stress-eating is a real thing – as raised cortisol levels lead to hormonal imbalances and subsequent cravings for more comfort foods. It’s a vicious cycle!
The problem is, emotional eating and overeating in general can be addictive and can lead to many health problems such as obesity, type-2 Diabetes, and heart problems, as well as psychological problems such as eating disorders and low self-esteem.
The role Covid-19 has played in emotional eating
Many people pin their emotional eating habits on boredom, which is specifically prevalent now during the Covid-19 lockdown. According to a UK study, feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression have increased in those who are self-isolating and spending more time at home since the beginning of the pandemic.
Stress levels have also increased as Covid-19 has left many people concerned about earning less, losing their jobs, or possibly contracting the virus. All these factors play a role in emotional eating.
If you’re eating more than you usually would or reaching for that cookie jar a little too much, the truth is, you can nip it in the bud right now and stop emotional eating. We’ve all been there! I have a sweet tooth myself and often need to think about what I put in my mouth and why. The key is to understand the feelings and reasons behind emotional eating.
My tips to control emotional eating
Listen to your hunger cues
Learn to trust your body and take charge of your impulses. There’s a huge difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger.
Physical hunger is the biological urge to replenish your nutrients, whereas emotional hunger is driven by sadness, loneliness and boredom. These are feelings that result in food cravings instead of actual hunger. This means that food is seen as a means for comfort instead of nutrition, which often results in feelings of guilt and self-hatred after eating.
Aim to eat only when you’re physically hungry, not starving. Also, hunger is often mistaken for thirst, so it’s important to drink plenty of water throughout the day.
Listen to your body’s physical signals and symptoms of hunger:
- Growling tummy
Prep meals and snacks
Meal prepping is important to help you practice portion control, beat your cravings, and avoid processed meals and snacks.
Healthy snacks will also help to energise your body between meals and curb extensive hunger. If you don’t plan, then you plan to fail!
Spend some extra time on a Sunday looking for healthy recipes for the week, shopping in advance (online is a real time-saver) and, if possible, cook and freeze in advance.
I also recommend chopping, slicing, and prepping fruit and veggies to the absolute max. That way, it’s ready for you whenever you get hungry so that you don’t reach for something like chips or sweets.
Make sure there’s stuff in the fridge that you can make quickly. If you have stuff that takes a while to make, you’re more prone to opting for a ready-made unhealthy option.
It’s also important to eat regularly throughout the day to keep your blood sugar levels in check, so that you aren’t ravenous by dinnertime. Having quick-access, easy foods available is key for me!
If you’ve got a big appetite, one of my top tips is to have a big glass of water before meals to curb your appetite a bit.
Move your body
For many people, exercise is a stress-relieving activity. When done regularly, it can help to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety and increase feelings of positivity and heightened self-esteem. Let’s all agree that there’s nothing better than that post-workout glow!
Exercise also decreases your cortisol levels, which I mentioned above. Cortisol is produced when under immense stress, which also drives cravings for sweat treats.
To combat stress and allow for the occasional sweet treat, it’s important to move a bit more. Be conscious of how many steps you take every day, grab 2 minutes of activity here and there to burn it off. Rebounding is excellent for this, as just 10 minutes on the rebounder is as beneficial as 22 minutes of walking.
Short on workout ideas? Try our Moxie programme for a selection of home workouts for beginners, intermediate and advanced, that requires minimal equipment and no rebounder.
Start a food diary
Keep a log of what you eat to potentially identify your emotional food triggers. Try to include everything you eat and record the emotions you feel at the time. You can use an app to log these details or a physical journal.
Logging your feelings is beneficial from an introspective point of view and can also be helpful information to give to a doctor or professional if you choose to seek medical or psychological help for disordered eating habits.
Don’t deprive yourself of vital nutrients
Make sure you’re also eating a healthy, varied diet. Rather than restrictive eating plans, which cut out whole food groups or tell you what you can and can’t eat, focus instead on feeding your body with all necessary nutrients! Your food should make you feel as good as it tastes.
A healthier psychological attitude towards food improves weight loss and maintenance and also improves your quality of life!
Take time to eat
I eat incredibly slowly. I believe in that because by the time you’ve finished your plate, your brain has the chance to send the signal that it’s full! Having a second helping always leaves me feeling uncomfortable.
Digestion starts in your mouth, so take your time and do your gut a favour. Salivary amylase and mastication help to break down your food.
Your gut’s enzymes and acid take a while to break down food that hasn’t been chewed properly. This can leave your digestive system overloaded and cause toxins to leech into your blood and lymph. This can result in your body becoming more acidic, which will suppress your immune system.
If you’re constantly distracted while eating, it’s almost impossible to listen to your body. Multitasking leaves you disconnected from your body’s needs. Avoid eating on the go or in a hurry, and avoid watching TV or scrolling through your phone during mealtimes. Give your mind time to catch up with your stomach.
Sit at the table with relaxing music and minimal distractions. Eat slowly, and enjoy your food while also listening to your body. Learn to appreciate and savour your food to increase your gratitude and satiety! Enjoy every bite to prevent overeating and make your eating intentional instead of emotional!
Try healthy alternatives
If you can’t fight the urge to snack during the day, reach for something a little bit healthier! Snacking in between meals is actually encouraged to maintain energy levels throughout the day. It’s also beneficial for your metabolism and can help to prevent overeating during mealtimes.
Some of my favourite healthy swaps are:
- Popcorn instead of chips
- Raw or roasted nuts instead of salted nuts
- Rice cakes with a dip or cottage cheese instead of processed bread
- Roasted chickpeas for some good protein and fibre instead of chips or salted nuts
- Caprese muffins instead of shop-bought muffins
- Sliced fruit instead of fruit juice
- Homemade seed bread instead of white, shop-bought bread
- Homemade chocolate spread (on seed bread) instead of sugary, shop-bought breads.
Ask for help
If you’re feeling sad or anxious, don’t be alone. Talk to a friend or family member to improve your mood. A quick phone call can do wonders for your mental state.
Sometimes developing alternative behaviours or coping mechanisms to prevent yourself from emotional eating is not enough. It’s okay to ask for help!
If you’re unable to cope with your emotional state or emotional eating, seek help from a mental health professional or a doctor. Therapy can help you understand your eating habits and learn alternative coping skills. It can also identify a possible eating disorder, and suitable treatment.
Emotional eating is often linked to low self-esteem, and feelings of guilt or shame that drive the cycle of binge eating. Instead of beating yourself up for emotional eating, try to learn from your experience and use it as an opportunity to prevent it from happening again.
As you learn to curb your emotional eating and practice better coping mechanisms for the other areas in your life, remember to be proud of yourself. Stopping to appreciate how far you’ve come will help to maintain your new healthy habits.
If you have gained a bit of weight during lockdown, it’s okay to let it be for a while, before gathering your thoughts and slowly changing your habits. It’s not the end of the world if you’re carrying a few extra kilos. It’s okay to not be perfect and it’s even more important to cut yourself some slack.
For emotional eaters, the strongest food cravings hit when you’re at your weakest point emotionally. However, the distraction that food provides is temporary. The emotions will return afterwards along with feelings of guilt or shame, leading to an unhealthy cycle. Break the cycle by being kinder to yourself and working on boosting your self-esteem.