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Feeding Feelings: Understanding and Overcoming Emotional Eating

As I sit down to complete my project, I order another chocolate cake and a cup of latte. The packets of snacks I munched on lay strewn across the floor. Somehow, I cannot seem to work without some food at hand. I go out with my friends at night and listen to them talk about their fitness and diet. I come back anxious about my weight gain and empty more soda cans and bags of chips. I feel exhausted and even more anxious though I am eating all the time. It is not until my best friend points out that I realise that I might be emotional eating!

Many of us go through similar experiences everyday where we tend to eat away any negative feelings or stress. With little awareness surrounding eating disorders, it’s impossible to identify issues with our eating patterns, which could have fatal implications. Here’s a guide to the perils of emotional eating and how you can identify and overcome the triggers.

What is emotional eating and why does it happen?

Emotional eating occurs when we use food as a distraction to avoid or curb heightened emotions. The emotions can be happiness, joy, confusion, hesitation, anger, stress, or any certainty or uncertainty. You may be confused about going on a date and end up eating a whole jar of ice cream the night before, or you overindulge yourself into a whole comforting cake because you had a rough day. All these actions are examples of stress eating.

What prompts us to eat in all these scenarios is not hunger. We are only using food as an alternative to forget the stress and feelings. Moreover, the emotional eating cycle doesn’t end there; No matter the amount of food we eat, the original problem remains. Further we are burdened with the guilt of overeating. As a result, we find ourselves more emotionally upset than before.

What triggers emotional eating? The connection between emotions and food.

To solve the problem of stress/emotional eating, it is important to identify our trigger points. It may vary for individuals but there are a set of common factors that could be triggering your emotional eating points.

  1. Stress
  2. Sleep deprivation
  3. Boredom
  4. Social media influence (Here as well? Yes!)

Stress

Stress is one of the primary trigger points that lead to emotional eating. When you’re stressed out, you seek comfort in all possible ways, including people, the environment, and food! Scientifically, when the stress hormone cortisol rises, it increases appetite in our body, resulting in an immediate need for hunger or cravings. Craving for foods such as unhealthy sweets, fried foods (high carb foods), high sodium foods, all of which are unhealthy but give you a prompt feeling of energy and pleasure at the same time. If not treated, it can lead to chronic stress, anxiety, long-term anger, and depression.

Sleep Deprivation

Most of us haven’t considered sleep deprivation as a reason for emotional eating. The lack of sleep unbalances hormonal activity in our body, such as increasing ghrelin levels and lowering leptin levels. The higher your levels of ghrelin, the hungrier you get, and the lower your leptin levels, the more increased appetite you’ll have.

Emotional eating

Boredom

Notice when you have nothing to do, you step into the kitchen, open your fridge, and stare at all the food items for a while, picking up the perfect food according to your mood. A 2015 study demonstrates that unhealthy eating can draw attention away from the frightening, self-focused, existential experience that boredom entails.

Social Media Influence

Social media holds sway over several aspects of our lives today, including eating habits. Take a moment and think if your social media supports your fitness goals or leads you on the way to sabotaging them? Looking at the perfect models/influencers, their so-called perfect lives, the foods they eat, the dresses they wear, doesn’t all that change your mood at all? Yes, it does. And once again, food becomes the saviour of the bad mood!

How to overcome emotional eating?

Looking at the triggers, it might seem that anything around us could cause us to resort to emotional eating anytime. However, it is possible to overcome these issues through simple activities and precautions.

Shift to home-cooked meals

Home-cooked healthy foods lead to fewer mood fluctuations and while cooking, you’re naturally avoiding boredom and keeping yourself busy. When you cook your meals, you create your food; you add the elements you like, making you feel happier.

Fix your environment

Also, fill your fridge with healthy foods such as Greek yogurt, unsalted nut butter, fresh veggies, etc. The environment you live in has a significant effect on your food choices. Keeping unhealthy meals far from your reach, such as at the top of your kitchen cabinet, is a simple yet effective trick to avoid temptations.

Organize your sleep routine

Sleeping at 4 am, waking up at 8 pm, and snacking all day long until you have dinner is the routine of every 7 out of 10 people these days. But is it emotionally healthy? You need to set your day and night routine according to your work, but make sure you get a healthy 8 hours of sleep.

Know what you are eating

Food journaling is an exciting way to keep a check on all the items you’re putting into your system, along with the date, time, and feelings involved. When looking back at the food journal, you’ll be able to point out the emotional signals that made you eat unhealthily.

Here’s a step-by-step worksheet you can start with to note down what you go through while eating.

Self-love activities

Managing time for doing things that you love will nourish you inside out. Science also backs up the fact that performing activities you love will boost up your endorphins levels making you happier, such as meeting your best friends, sharing food with them, deep talks at a peaceful place with them.

Sometimes, it’s okay to stress eat!

Don’t get us wrong. We are human after all. Rather than stressing about eating, give yourself a break. When you stress eat, ask yourself – Why are you stress eating? How do you feel before and after stress eating? And most importantly, is stress gone after eating? This self-questioning will help you realize whether this emotional or stressful eating is really making a difference or just allowing you to escape time or feelings.

While emotional eating is not an eating disorder on its own, it can be a sign of disordered eating, which may lead to developing an eating disorder. Recovering from it can be difficult and discouraging. But, don’t lose hope and give up. When you fail an exam, you don’t sign out of that course; you readmit yourself to it. Similarly, forgive yourself and start again. Don’t let the guilt of that emotional episode take you down with it; instead, challenge yourself and rebuild a healthy relationship with your food!

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