Do you ever find yourself eating and realize that you don’t even feel hungry or don’t know why you started eating in the first place? If so, don’t feel guilty, you are not alone. Recent studies suggest that over 75% of overeating is caused by our emotions. Instead of eating due to physical cues from our bodies, such as a growling stomach, emotional eating is when our feelings trigger us to indulge and typically cause us to eat unhealthy foods. Studies show that we turn to comfort foods that are sweet, high-fat foods in response to emotional stress. Many of us are programmed to turn to food for comfort at an early age. As an infant we are held in the security of a loved one’s arms while eating, this begins the emotional phase of eating. As a young child, our family doctor gives a lollipop as a reward at the end of a visit, and some teacher’s celebrate classroom success with pizza or ice cream parties. It’s no wonder we learn to eat to satisfy emotions and not our body’s physical need for nourishment.
Emotional eating is one of the largest weight loss obstacles. Depression, boredom, loneliness, chronic anger, anxiety, frustration, stress, problems with interpersonal relationships, and low self-esteem can result in overeating and weight gain. When we ignore our body’s physical cues and eat anytime we feel bored, emotional, or stressed, our body receives unwanted extra calories which are then stored as excess fat leading to increased weight gain and health risks. Even when you feel full, if you are eating to fulfill an emotional need, you are more likely to continue eating. If you eat because you are physically hungry, you are more likely to stop when you are full.
Rather than reaching for those comfort foods, we must develop new skills for dealing with boredom, stress, and self-esteem issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has some suggestions to help you battle emotional eating:
1. Create a list of your eating habits. Keeping a food diary for a few days, in which you write down everything you eat and the time of day you ate it, will help you uncover your habits. Use this diary to help: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/pdf/food_diary_cdc.pdf It’s good to note how you were feeling when you decided to eat, especially if you were eating when not hungry. Were you tired? Stressed out?
2. Highlight the habits on your list that may be leading you to overeat. Look at the unhealthy eating habits you’ve highlighted. Be sure you’ve identified all the triggers that cause you to engage in those habits. Identify a few you’d like to work on improving first.
3. Replace unhealthy habits with new, healthy ones. For example, in reflecting on your eating habits, you may realize that you eat too fast when you eat alone. So, make a commitment to share a lunch each week with a colleague, or have a neighbor over for dinner one night a week. If you find yourself eating when you are experiencing an emotion besides hunger, such as boredom or anxiety, try to find a non-eating activity to do instead. Take a walk, enjoy a book or spend time on a hobby.
4. Reinforce your new, healthy habits and be patient with yourself. Habits take time to develop. It doesn’t happen overnight. When you do find yourself engaging in an unhealthy habit, stop as quickly as possible and ask yourself: Why do I do this? When did I start doing this?
Lastly, don’t deny yourself all treats. This can lead to cravings and binge eating. Instead, allow yourself to have your favorite foods occasionally and in smaller portions. Limit the amount of chips or candy by putting a few in a small bowl instead of mindlessly eating them out of the bag.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). Healthy Weight-it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/losing_weight/eating_habits.html
Oliver, G., Wardle, J., & Gibson, E.L. (2000). Stress and food choice: A laboratory study. Psychosomatic Medicine, 62, 853-865.
Writer: Kathy Green, Extension Educator, Family & Consumer Sciences, Ohio State University Extension, Butler County, Miami Valley EERA, email@example.com
Reviewer: Michelle Treber, Extension Educator, Family & Consumer Sciences, Ohio State University Extension, Pickaway County, Heart of Ohio EERA, firstname.lastname@example.org