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Eating may feel good in the moment, but the feelings that triggered the eating are still there. You beat yourself for messing up and not having more willpower. Compounding the problem, you stop learning healthier ways to deal with your emotions, you have a harder and harder time controlling your weight, and you feel increasingly powerless over both food and your feelings.
But no matter how powerless you feel over food and your feelings, it is possible to make a positive change. You can learn healthier ways to deal with your emotions, avoid triggers, conquer cravings, and finally put a stop to emotional eating. Before you can break free from the cycle of emotional eating, you first need to learn how to distinguish between emotional and physical hunger. This can be trickier than it sounds, especially if you regularly use food to deal with your feelings. But there are clues you can look for to help you tell physical and emotional hunger apart.
Emotional hunger comes on suddenly. It hits you in an instant and feels overwhelming and urgent. Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes on more gradually. Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods. But emotional hunger craves junk food or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush.
You feel like you need cheesecake or pizza, and nothing else will do. Emotional hunger often le to mindless eating. You feel satisfied when your stomach is full. Emotional hunger often le to regret, guilt, or shame. The first step in putting a stop to emotional eating is identifying your personal triggers. What situations, places, or feelings make you reach for the comfort of food?
Most emotional eating is linked to unpleasant feelings, but it can also be triggered by positive emotions, such as rewarding yourself for achieving a goal or celebrating a holiday or happy event. Ever notice how stress makes you hungry? When stress is chronic, as it so often is in our chaotic, fast-paced world, your body produces high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and fried foods—foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure. The more uncontrolled stress in your life , the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief. Stuffing emotions. Boredom or feelings of emptiness. Do you ever eat simply to give yourself something to do, to relieve boredom, or as a way to fill a void in your life? You feel unfulfilled and empty, and food is a way to occupy your mouth and your time. In the moment, it fills you up and distracts you from underlying feelings of purposelessness and dissatisfaction with your life.
Childhood habits. Think back to your childhood memories of food. Did your parents reward good behavior with ice cream, take you out for pizza when you got a good report card, or serve you sweets when you were feeling sad? These habits can often carry over into adulthood. Or your eating may be driven by nostalgia—for cherished memories of grilling burgers in the backyard with your dad or baking and eating cookies with your mom. Social influences. Getting together with other people for a meal is a great way to relieve stress, but it can also lead to overeating.
You may also overeat in social situations out of nervousness. You probably recognized yourself in at least a few of the descriptions. One of the best ways to identify the patterns behind your emotional eating is to keep track with a food and mood diary. Every time you overeat or feel compelled to reach for your version of comfort food Kryptonite, take a moment to figure out what triggered the urge. Write it all down in your food and mood diary: what you ate or wanted to eat , what happened to upset you, how you felt before you ate, what you felt as you were eating, and how you felt afterward.
Maybe you always end up gorging yourself after spending time with a critical friend. Once you identify your emotional eating triggers, the next step is identifying healthier ways to feed your feelings. Diets so often fail because they offer logical nutritional advice which only works if you have conscious control over your eating habits. In order to stop emotional eating, you have to find other ways to fulfill yourself emotionally. You need alternatives to food that you can turn to for emotional fulfillment.
Most emotional eaters feel powerless over their food cravings. You feel an almost unbearable tension that demands to be fed, right now! But the truth is that you have more power over your cravings than you think. Emotional eating tends to be automatic and virtually mindless. Can you put off eating for five minutes? Or just start with one minute. Just tell yourself to wait. How are you feeling? This can help you set yourself up for a different response next time.
Allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable emotions can be scary. To do this you need to become mindful and learn how to stay connected to your moment-to-moment emotional experience. This can enable you to rein in stress and repair emotional problems that often trigger emotional eating. When you eat to feed your feelings, you tend to do so quickly, mindlessly consuming food on autopilot. Slowing down and savoring your food is an important aspect of mindful eating, the opposite of mindless, emotional eating. Try taking a few deep breaths before starting your food, putting your utensils down between bites, and really focusing on the experience of eating.
Pay attention to the textures, shapes, colors and smells of your food. How does each mouthful taste? How does it make your body feel? You can even indulge in your favorite foods and feel full on much less. Eating more mindfully can help focus your mind on your food and the pleasure of a meal and curb overeating. See Mindful Eating. Exercise, sleep, and other healthy lifestyle habits will help you get through difficult times without emotional eating.
Authors: Melinda Smith, M. A Guide to Healthy Eating — Strategies, tips, and recipes to help you make better food choices. Harvard Health blog. Emotional Eating — Aimed at teens, the difference between physical and emotional hunger, and how to break the cycle of emotional eating. Mayo Clinic. Harvard Health Publishing. Mindful Eating Meditations —Free online mindfulness meditations.
Get more help. Harvard Medical School Special Health Report 10 Tips for Mindful Eating — How mindfulness can help you fully enjoy a meal and the experience of eating—with moderation and restraint. Harvard Health blog Emotional Eating — Aimed at teens, the difference between physical and emotional hunger, and how to break the cycle of emotional eating.
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