Do Ben and Jerry summon you when you’re bored? Or calm you when you’re anxious? Or reward you when you’re good? If so, you may be an emotional eater.
It might seem like noshing ADD, and it sort of is: Emotional eating is the act of eating in response to an emotional trigger, an attempt to manage mood with food. And although emotional eating is often described as a coping mechanism for negative emotions, it’s actually the use of food in response to any and all emotions — stress, happiness, sadness, excitement, boredom and beyond. The big question is — why?
There are any number of reasons you might be answering the siren song of Little Debbie regularly. Here are a few to consider and what to do to break the cycle.
1. Heart Hunger
Often, emotional eating boils down to a desire to be loved or cared for, and people turn to food to fill a hole or void: It’s always there for you — tangible, available and real. Food is something to occupy you and distract your mind from negative thought patterns or befriend you when you’re lonely or comfort you when you’re stressed.
Break the Cycle
• Nourish yourself emotionally. Schedule an hour of daily, unstructured you-time, such as getting a mani/pedi, walking your dog or reading a book. By “feeding” yourself in ways other than with food, you get that self-care you are seeking in a healthier way.
• Talk it out. Address your emotional issues with a friend, confidante or counselor rather than reaching for the chips. Just like your physical health and wellness is important, so is your mental health.
• Identify your trigger foods. Certain foods elicit an emotional response, such as the feeling of comfort associated with having that food as a child, for instance. Once you identify these foods, it will be easier to deflect yourself from reaching for them as solace in times of heart hunger.
2. Lack of (Yawn) Interest
Boredom works its way into emotional eating on several levels, the first being simple boredom with your food choices. When you’re on a diet, food can become a chore: boring, measured and bland. While clean eating definitely does a body good, overdoing it can warp the sense of pleasure you used to get from eating and could lead to an emotionally driven drive-thru decision at Five Guys.
The second tentacle of boredom is the actual lack of something to do, and if you’re sitting around doing nothing, you’re more likely to reach for easy food in a mindless way rather than waiting for a mealtime to eat healthfully.
Break the Cycle
• Make a new recipe, or try a new spice. By bringing pleasure into your eating routine, you feed the emotions that long to be fulfilled.
• Find a hobby that does not involve eating. Practice it when you’re obsessing about food.
• Before eating when you’re bored, rate your level of hunger from 1 to 10. If you’re not hungry, don’t eat. If you are, have something healthy or drink a big glass of water because sometimes dehydration can be mistaken for hunger.
3. Being on Autopilot
When life gets busy, it’s easy to just tick things off your checklist robotically, food being one of them. But if food becomes nothing more than a task, you’ll tend to eat things that are handy and convenient rather than those that are nourishing, and processed items and fast foods could become your regular fare.
Break the Cycle
• Make time for meals. Sitting down with friends or family and having a healthy meal can be an enjoyable part of your day, giving you the opportunity to be mindful about your food choices and reconnect with people who can support you emotionally, taking that role away from food.
• Embrace the “foodie” mentality: Chew, taste, savor and experience food rather than eating it without thinking. By connecting to your food, you can turn off the mindlessness of emotional eating and make it into a conscious experience instead.
4. Cake = Crack????
Did you know that certain foods can actually change your brain chemistry? A study conducted at Scripps Research Institute in Florida found that rats given free access to bacon, pound cake, cheesecake and cake frosting experienced changes in brain activity that mirrored what occurs in the brains of drug addicts. (So cake = crack? That explains a lot!) Another study discovered that long-term consumption of junk food resulted in reduced activity in the section of the brain that signals “reward.” So just like with drugs, you can actually become addicted to junk food and sugar, requiring increasing amounts of it to get the same high. This obviously impacts your rational decisions around food, making you more susceptible to emotionally based choices that provide instant happiness.
Break the Cycle
• Detox slowly. Limit your consumption of sugar, junk food and artificially sweetened items day by day, bit by bit — you don’t want to feel completely deprived or you’ll run back to sugar to save you from that empty feeling inside. Small changes equal big results.
• Eat frequently. Having a stable blood sugar level helps control cravings and could help you break the junk-food habit while giving you the wherewithal to make better food decisions on a daily basis.
5. Too Much Routine
Some people have dessert with every meal, give kids pizza and ice cream as a reward, or hunker down every night to watch TV with a bag of chips. Treats and cheats can become habit if repeated often enough, and you might find that if you don’t have those chips while watching The Bachelor, you actually feel empty and unfulfilled. Yes, it’s fine to have a treat occasionally, but when those treats are related to an emotional need, it’s time to reassess.
Break the Cycle
• Take a moment to reflect on why exactly you may be grabbing the Ghirardelli every night after dinner.
Ask yourself if you really want that treat or if you’re eating it out of habit.
• Do a mental swap to tell whether you’re actually hungry. Trade pizza for carrot sticks in your mind when you feel the need to eat; if you actually want to eat the substituted item, you’re really hungry. If you don’t, it’s more likely a craving or habit.
• Change your routine. Instead of eating chips while watching TV, dust off that exercise bike and get in your cardio for the day. Better yet, skip the TV and go for a walk instead.