I was feeling out of sorts yesterday so I took a drive to the drugstore. One hour and a butterscotch tasty cake and some chex mix later, I was feeling better. At least until carb overload set in.
I’m an emotional eater. I have been for a number of years. It has been a coping mechanism through years of depression and anxiety. But I also have eaten as a response to happiness or boredom or in an effort to “treat myself” at the end of a tough day.
As someone that has a giant sweet tooth, often there is a lot of comfort in a bowl of ice cream. And I love to bake almost as much as I like to eat baked goods.
Snacks dig into the food budget and when my metabolism slowed down also resulted in me gaining weight. And overindulging doesn’t do anything to improve my overall mental and physical health. It can be a form of self sabotage.
The relationship between food and mood
Why do we choose to emotional eat? The simple answer is because it gets results. Eating favorite foods, whether that is an entire meal or snacking, can be an extremely pleasurable experience. And let’s be honest, for most people that pleasure comes from eating things that aren’t great for them, not celery sticks.
Beyond experiencing those delicious tastes with our taste buds, there also is a physical reaction in the body when fats are processed. Researchers have found that fats and carbohydrates can boost serotonin and dopamine, those elusive “feel-good” chemicals that we are always hearing about. But it is temporary spike, often leading to that food-coma slump soon after. Eating a lot of sugar can have a similar effect, first the blood glucose level spikes and then it crashes after the body creates more insulin to compensate. And we often are feeling hungry again soon after.
So the positive results of emotional eating are short lived, but often we get addicted to that temporary spike, leading us to turn back to those carbs, fats, and sugars time and time again.
The reason that nutritionists want us making healthier choices with what we eat (beyond our overall physical health) is that eating the right foods at the right times actually can improve our mental health in sustainable ways.
Beating Emotional Eating
For a lot of people, myself included, eating is a form of comfort. There is nothing wrong with taking pleasure in eating. But when you are eating as a coping mechanism you generally overeat foods that aren’t good for you.
I am writing this post from the position of someone that still struggles occasionally with emotional eating, not someone that has kicked the habit completely. But here are some behavior modifications that have personally helped me:
Get the stuff out of the house.
I generally don’t keep any snack foods in the house. Having easy access to them means I will down them in record time. Setting a grocery budget that doesn’t leave room for extras also has proved to be a way to prevent those items making their way into the cart at the grocery store.
Buy smaller portions.
It isn’t necessary to cut out the things you enjoy completely, but be mindful when you get a craving. Buying a scoop of ice cream while out for the evening is better then buying a container of ice cream at the grocery store for me. Why? Because if I buy a regular sized bag of Oreos or chips, I will eat it all (let’s be honest, probably in one day).
Call yourself on BS.
One lie I have told myself in the past: it is cheaper to buy a larger package because it lasts longer. Nope, that’s BS and I just end up eating more. Or the whole, “well, I’ll just have one cookie.” That probably will only work when I’m over at someone else’s house and don’t want to look like a pig. What lies are you telling yourself to justify emotional eating?
Identify your triggers.
For example, I definitely have the tendency to emotional eat when I am alone, because I would feel embarrassed to do it in front of other people. So sometimes getting out of the house and out in public will curb those cravings. When I used to work a really stressful job, emotional eating was a way to treat myself after a crappy day.
Find healthier coping methods.
Emotional eating is a quick fix, but it is a fix or you wouldn’t be doing it in the first place. When I’m feeling antsy or anxious I need to find a way to get active, not eat when I’m not even hungry. We just got a stationary exercise bike this week, which gives me an opportunity to break a sweat without even leaving the house. Reading, talking things out with my husband, or doing another self-care activity (here are some of my favorites) are always more effective solutions to a bad mood then what is found in a container of ice cream.
Feel your feelings.
This sounds ridiculous, but often emotional eating is an avoidance technique, a way to postpone dealing with tough emotions. Obviously it is not healthy to wallow, but stuffing your feelings in and trying to ignore them can be unhealthy as well. Process them in a conversation with a friend, a therapy session, or through journaling or art. Allow yourself to be okay with not being okay for a little while.
Get an appointment with a nutritionist
One way to curb emotional eating is to get a better grip on what you are eating on a daily basis and how you are eating it. A nutritionist appointment can be an excellent way to achieve this.
Here are some of the things I recommend you discuss:
How to find healthy alternatives to those foods you crave.
What do you crave? Make a list and ask for some alternatives for when you are having a craving for salty, sweet, or carb heavy foods.
Identifying nutrients you may be missing out on.
Go over what you eat in a typical day. You likely are missing out on key nutrients in your diet even if you are taking a multivitamin, especially ones that could be key to boosting your mood naturally. You also could be eating things that are exacerbating a health problem.
How to time your meals better.
Are you eating breakfast? Are you experiencing an energy crash in the mid-afternoon? When you are eating can be an important part of your nutritional plan as well.
Is emotional eating a struggle for you? What better coping mechanisms have you developed?