What is Emotional Eating and How to Stop It?

Women eating sweets

What is Emotional Eating and How to Stop It?

The occasional food craving is a normal behavior for many people. But when these cravings become something more, they could suggest larger underlying problems. This is where the term emotional eating enters the conversation. Emotional eating is not initial harmful, due to the fact that it satisfies a person’s immediate emotional impulse. However, a regular pattern of emotional eating can create various health problems.

What is emotional eating?

This eating behavior is a way for people to suppress negative feelings like stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness or even loneliness. Major life events can trigger emotional eating such as problems with personal relationships, work, health or even financial pressures. When some people are in emotional distress, their food consumption patterns may become more impulsive and began to resemble binge eating behavior. The act of eating serves as a distraction with the focus on eating a “comfort food” providing momentary relief, versus dealing with a serious problem or painful situation.

In other words, consuming comfort food during times of stress can provide temporary gratification. But, this food consumption will not fulfill a person’s actual emotional needs or solve ongoing problems.

 

Why do people engage in emotional eating?

The reasons as to why people may engage in emotional eating are complex. Part of this behavior is likely due to our evolutionary roots. In ancient hunting and gathering societies, stress was a signal to the body to consume more calories for survival purposes. This behavior may have helped 100,000 years ago, but is now ill-suited to our sedentary lifestyle.

The physical sensation of hunger is based on how the human body reacts to stress by telling the adrenal glands to release a burst of adrenaline. This in turn increases the heart rate and supplies energy that is intended to be used for fight or flight situations. Next, the adrenal glands release cortisol, which instructs the body to replenish energy by stimulating an appetite for high-energy (calorie) foods. Cortisol can stay in the body for many hours, which will create hunger pains. Oddly, this same hormone also tells the body to store any unburned calories as fat. Again, this evolutionary and physical response to stress, as well as the associated storage of body fat, is not healthy in the modern age.

 

Ways to control emotional eating?

Here are 4 influencers that tend to encourage emotional eating behaviors.

[1] Food as a main pleasure:

People experience a real soothing effect when they eat certain foods like ice cream, potato chips or cookie dough. Consumption of certain comfort foods delivers a burst of short-term pleasure. These foods are addictive, so not eating them when the urge strikes is a challenge. A possible solution is for people to discover other ways to soothe their emotions besides eating food. They need to explore other (non-destructive) behaviors that bring them pleasure.

[2] Not aware of the behavior:

Sometimes people are not aware that they are eating. This is sometimes known as unconscious eating by therapists. In these cases, individuals seem to almost operate as if they are in a trance. In many ways, this behavior may resemble binge eating. Mindlessly eating or grazing while watching television or movies can easily encourage this behavior. A solution is for people to stop putting food into their mouth simply because it is available. The best prevention is to always be mindful of what and when they are eating.

[3] Difficulty Coping with Negative Feelings:

It is human nature to avoid thoughts and experiences that make a person feel bad. Sometimes this is tough, so the only way some people can avoid negative feelings is to engage in self-destructive eating behaviors. In the short-term, this will distract a person from feeling negative thoughts. However, this not a healthy long-term solution. Ideally, individuals should learn to let themselves experience negative or difficult feelings. A trained, certified and experienced behavioral health professional is helpful in this situation.

[4] Negative Body Image

People hating their own physical body and possessing an overall negative body image is a critical factor for triggering emotional eating. A downward spiral of negativity and shame makes it challenging for people to implement long-lasting healthy eating changes. Again, a skilled mental health specialist is helpful in this situation. People need to stop hating their own body before they can successfully stop their self-destructive emotional eating behaviors – and this is tough to do alone.

 

When should an individual seek professional help?

If individuals have tried to use self-help options but they still have no control over their emotional eating behavior, they should consider seeking help from an eating disorder specialist. An experienced mental health professional can help a person understand the origins of this behavior, whether it is an eating disorder as well as acquire coping skills.

For additional information or questions about emotional eating, please contact the staff at River Centre Clinic (RCC). Their Eating Disorders Programs provide a full range of treatment options for both adolescents and adults. The clinic’s main phone number is 1.877.212.5457.

The River Centre Clinic is located in a modern, spacious and tranquil setting in Sylvania, Ohio – a suburb of Toledo, OH.

Follow on Twitter:  @River_Centre

Emotional Eating, Eating Disorders,

 

Contributor: ABCS RCM

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