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Get in control of emotional eating.

Comfort eating and emotional eating are two terms that can be used interchangeably.

Do you recognise any of these?

  • When you are bored you nip into the kitchen to snack

  • You get frustrated that you have woken up in the middle of the night so you go and make toast

  • You continue eating a meal despite being full because you are feeling anxious about the evening ahead

  • You are feeling angry and you have not noticed that you have subconsciously got through a bag of sweets

  • You had a weigh-in and you are unhappy with the numbers on the scale. You think "F*** this and reach for a "sinful" food.

  • You are upset with your family member so you go into the kitchen to cry and distract yourself by cooking and eating chips?

  • Whenever you are stressed you reach for a certain food that wouldn't usually fancy. Statistically these foods are usually high fat, high sugar. This is certainly true for me. If I reach for a party size bag of crisps and start stuffing them into thick white bread sandwiches it is usually not hunger I am feeding.

  • You are struggling with your mental health or pain so you don't have the energy to cook but then binge eat convenience food.

Any of these examples or similar things you may do are not innately "bad". Yet the behaviour then can lead us to feel ashamed, embarrassed or to have a negative body image.

The behaviour of comfort eating and reaching for food isn’t going to address the emotion that has prompted us to eat. Emotional eating is when we try to meet our needs and avoid unpleasant emotions through consumption of food. Yet it can lead to a viscous cycle in which we feel bad, so we eat and eating triggers embarrassment or shame so we eat more.

Comfort eating cake
The black dog of depression can lead us to crave sugar and fats

How do you know when you're doing it? 

Emotional eating may be accompanied by emotions but you may not initially be aware of the emotions and see eating as a habit. You may notice a pattern to your eating or food choices. It may be when you are in a certain situation such as to cover anxiety of socialising you hang around the buffet at a party. It may be always during after certain events such as reaching for the biscuits whenever you are alone or after you have had an argument.

Emotional eating tends to come on suddenly and it will not be satisfied by a full stomach.

What are the best ways to stop emotional eating? stop?

Step 1: Recognise your pattern.

Once you know your trigger it gives you power to address it.

So it can help to keep a log of food that you have copnsumed and how full you felt.

Step 2: Name the emotion.

Prior to eating say out loud "STOP: I am feeling... replace the word hungry with an emotion. Here are examples of words you can use:

happy, joy, excitement, sadness anger, disgust, contempt, fear, shame, guilt, envy, jealousy confusion, boredom.

Step 3. Try out alternatives to fulfilling that need.

Now that you have named the emotion ask yourself what will satisfy and fulfil that feeling.

If it is anger it may be that you have to either get the adrenaline out of your system by lifting a heavy weight or jumping on the spot, or it may be that you need to address the trigger of what is making you angry by having a conversation whilst remaining "adult". (You can still feel angry without acting in anger).

If it is loneliness, comfort yourself my allowing yourself to feel sad about the situation then committing to change it by breaking the cycle of feeling lonely by making plans to see people or try a hobby with people face to face or through reducing comparisons by reducing social media consumption.

Step 4: Work on it throughout the day

This is important it is not just when you are in the situation of comfort eating. You are going to have more change of success if you create small moment of "me time" to address the things you need.

Intentionally practice self compassion and soothing techniques to help you process the emotions that you are trying to mask with food.

Read more in "self compassion exercises".

Step 5: Allow yourself relapse.

You are human. At times of stress you will go back to an old habit.  By giving yourself this permission, the kindness it brings will allow you to get back on track with addressing it. 

If it was easy you would have done it already,

Seeking help can help you break these habits.

It’s never too early to ask for help.

Key indicators that you may benefit from help are of you have tried to solve it yourself unsuccessfully or if shame is stopping you from accessing support.

National Charity BEAT has online forums that may be supportive.

I strongly recommend the compassionate guide to over eating.

I can provide coaching on line or face to face to help break this behaviour.

Sarah is an Occupational Therapist and personal trainer who is passionate about helping people flourish @MoodLifterPT She is always happy to be contacted if you want to find out more.

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