Almost all of us will eat in response to an emotional trigger. This means that when we are happy, sad, celebrating, depressed, angry, frustrated or scared the first thing that most people reach for is either food or drink. Does this sound familiar?
If it doesn’t you may be in the majority of people who do not recognize the emotional aspects which play into our eating habits. But you aren’t alone. It is not unusual to be unaware of the factors that impact emotional eating. In fact, most of our decisions have an emotional component well before we’ve had the chance to make a rational decision. Most advertising gurus take full advantage of emotional buying decisions to increase their income.
Through years of conditioning and exposure to family and friends and advertising we are subconsciously conditioned to believe that food will just make us feel good. Food does fill a real biological need providing us with energy to burn. However, as we move into the range of emotional eating individuals are using food to fill another void in their lives. (1)
Emotional eating is actually one of the beginning stages of a full-blown eating disorder. Many people will never progress to having an eating disorder but there is a fine line between emotional eating and illness. How can you tell which category you fall into – are you a compulsive eater or emotional eater?
Individuals who suffer from full-blown eating disorders will show specific characteristics of those disorders. They usually binge on large amounts of food very rapidly. They also express that they feel out of control about food or they feel they are obsessed with food. Other behaviors that distinguish the two disorders include hiding food around the house or eating in hiding away from the rest of the family. For instance, the primary shopper may purchase foods that remain hidden from the rest of the family and either eaten before they get home from the store or after everyone else is gone to bed.
Most individuals who exhibit an eating disorder or who have a problem with the emotional eating will also have experienced a dramatic events in their lives, such as physical or sexual abuse. The percentage of people with an eating disorder who have experienced this type of abuse is higher than those with a simple emotional eating problem.
Individuals who suffer from binge eating or compulsive eating will face several challenges, not the least of which is the lack of education in both the public and medical arenas. These conditions are not nearly as well popularized as anorexia or bulimia. In fact, individuals may not even know they have a medical disorder. People who experienced this type of eating disorder should never attempt to “go on a diet” but should instead seek the advice of a trained licensed therapist. (2)
Even though there is a direct correlation between the number of calories eaten and the amount of weight which is lost, individuals who suffer from compulsive eating disorders require support and understanding about their disorder before any type of weight loss can be successful. And, while people who have significant emotional eating habits aren’t as any medical or psychological risk, they suffer just as much.
People who want to take control of their emotional eating habits must start with self-awareness of the problem and lead into self-management. Self-awareness is one of the most difficult steps taken in any self-destructive behavior since it involves acceptance that there is a weakness which has led to the problem with obesity, and you weren’t just “born” that way
Individuals can begin to evaluate their own emotional eating habits by keeping it short four to five day diary. Write down each time any bite of food goes into your mouth. You don’t have to write down what you eat or the number of calories you eat but rather the time of the day and how you are feeling each time you reach for another bite of food. You first must acknowledge that there will be a feeling for you to discover and then identify that emotion. This process will become easier each day you attempt it and will ultimately lead to self discovery.
At the end of the fifth day look through the diary and note how many times you ate because you were, or thought you were, hungry. Compare that number against the times of the day and other emotions that seemed to be involved in the automatic reach for food. By being completely honest with yourself you will learn to change your own habits and increase your success with weight loss.
Managing your eating is the next step. Like all things in life, the longer you do something the easier it gets. This means that you must have some grace and understanding with yourself, since this emotional eating problem probably did not happen overnight. When you practice something it really does make it easier. This is the point which you may choose to do on your own – but will have much more success if you enlist the help of a partner, a program or even a calendar.
Continue to write down the times which you eat and the emotional reasons you are putting food into your mouth. Because you are forced to write before you eat, and read the reasons before you eat, you will be more encouraged to put the food down when you’re angry, depressed or on an emotional high. The process of emotional eating will actually decrease in you be surprised to once again feel hungry!
(1) Temple University: Managing the Emotions Behind Eating
(2) National Institute of Mental Health: What are Eating Disorders