The Ups and Downs of Emotional Eating

In the simplest terms, emotional eating is eating to feed your emotional needs rather than your physical ones. It was initially defined as eating in response to negative emotions, but a number of current studies have shown that a positive mood can also prompt increased food consumption. Experts estimate that 75% of overeating is caused by emotions and emotional eating is therefore considered a maladaptive coping strategy. It can also elevate the risk of developing eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.

What are some of the signs?

You’re obsessed with eating

You find yourself constantly thinking about it even when after you’re full. From thinking about your next meal to searching for places to eat when you’re out, your mind is preoccupied with food. You love it. You crave for it. You count down to the next meal and are fascinated with what comprises it.

You feel immense guilt, regret or shame for eating

You indulge in a bit of chocolate cake or even a good bowl of pasta and with each spoonful you think, “I shouldn’t be eating this!” After polishing it off, you hate yourself, berate yourself for eating that amazing meal. When we do this we’re completely robbing ourselves of the eating experience, which leaves us craving more and more of “forbidden” foods to feel satisfied.

You eat when you’re not hungry

There are no physical signs of hunger yet you reach for cookies or chips because you desire emotional gratification. Food, especially junk food, is the easiest way for us to feel comforted, feel less stressed, seek solace or alleviate boredom, even in the absence of actual hunger.

You have random and intense cravings that cannot quite be satisfied with a regular meal

These cravings usually a great need for salty or sugary snacks that healthy vegetables or a bowl of fruits cannot assuage. Worse still, denying yourself of the craving simply serves to intensify it.

Your eating is uncontrollable

You eat long after you’re full or too much than you should. You are never satiated. You may even go out of your way to acquire food or satisfy a craving, and your need to eat simply cannot be allayed until you are uncomfortably stuffed.

Why is it bad for you?

As aforementioned, emotional eating is a maladaptive coping strategy used to avoid coping with the actual problem. But you never quite uncover the reason you reach for a bag of chips when you were sad in the first place. What triggered it? Where did it come from? The issue therefore remains ignored and burying your head in a tub of ice cream will not solve it. The next time the problem arises, bringing with it related stress and negative feelings, you end up eating to relieve those emotions, and the issue still goes unsolved.

Eating offers a temporary reprieve of stressors that trigger negative emotions, making you feel positive and energised, leading to you gradually associating positive mood with eating food. Eventually, you start eating even in order to celebrate an occasion, or just whenever you feel happy.

Soon, eating becomes your emotional crutch, much like a drug addiction. Your highs are derived from satisfying your hunger and your mood turns extremely sour and angsty when denied food. However, your sense of happiness is false because genuine happiness is derived from within yourself without the need for external stimuli.

Moreover, the physical impact on your body can be detrimental. You are eating more than necessary for your body, leading to weight gain, which may have an impact on our self-esteem and body image. On the flip side, guilt over eating so much may cause over-exercising and excessive concern with your body. Other effects include indigestion and fatigue. Research has also found that those who struggle with emotional eating are at greater risk for abdominal obesity, which is in turn linked to a greater risk for metabolic and cardiovascular disease.

How to avoid it?

Identify Your Triggers

Get down to the details: What makes you seek out food? These can be emotions, places, situations or even people. A key cause is often feelings. Sometimes we might eat to “stuff down” or numb negative and uncomfortable emotions like stress, anxiety, fear, sadness and anger. Other times, we might reach for food out of sheer boredom, for want to pass time or to fill the emptiness in your life.

Eating might be habitual – our parents and grandparents may have chosen to reward good behaviour with treats and snacks. This could perpetuate into adulthood, where we reward ourselves for a job well done or doing something good. Or maybe we eat to reminisce the times of our childhood, like baking brownies with your grandma and savouring them after.

The most understated trigger is social influences, the biggest being meeting others for a meal. Almost all of our social activities involve eating or occur in the presence of food, and this generally tends to lead one to indulge in more food than necessary. And we all have that aunty who insists on stuffing us with more food regardless of our protests.

Once you identify these triggers, list them out and perhaps you can start to understand why you eat under those circumstances.

Brainstorm Other Ways to Feed Yourself

Emotional eating perpetuates as we have no conscious control over our eating habits. In the face of our emotions running amok, all we can think about is assuaging them with food for the immediate payoff in terms of the relief it provides.

To disrupt this process, we need to find alternative ways to fulfil ourselves emotionally. Don’t reach for a chocolate bar if you’re depressed, call up a friend or look through photos that makes you happy. Boredom can be overcome with a good movie or book. The next time you’re happy, reach out for a hug from your mother instead of biscuits. Be creative and think about involving your friends in the process; you could take a leaf out of the book of friends who have healthy relationships with food.

Practice Mindfulness

Practicing mindful eating habits could be a way to cultivate awareness of the way we eat i.e. how we react to the above triggers. Emotional eating tends to be automatic and almost instinctive. The next time a craving hits you, pause, reflect on it and allow yourself the opportunity to engage in an opposite action. For example, don’t deny yourself food; simply try putting off eating for just five minutes to start.

Another useful tip is to engage fully in eating without doing anything else. That’s right, no reading a book or surfing the internet while polishing off your dinner. Instead, sit in a comfortable environment without distractions and take small bites to give yourself time to appreciate the flavours and textures with each mouthful.

Acceptance of Your Feelings

The core problem is that your powerlessness over your emotions translates into powerlessness over food. The inability to cope with your emotions leads you to avoid them completely with food. Learn how to accept difficult feelings and understand that even the most uncomfortable emotions will eventually subside. As suggested, try to put off eating for five minutes to realise that you are able to sit through these uncomfortable emotions.

Have More Fun with a Healthy Lifestyle!

Implement a regular exercise routine that incorporates not only weight training but other fun activities that you can do with friends (e.g. rock climbing or trekking). Mix them up a bit and consider changing your routine occasionally to keep things fresh. As for your diet, you don’t have to eat twigs to keep it healthy. It’s not a diet buster if you use mayonnaise on your sandwich, oil in your salad, or treat yourself to dessert occasionally, so long as it’s in moderation.

Eventually, your priorities change and you will come to see food in a different light. The longer you follow behaviours part of a healthy lifestyle, the easier they become, and the more you start to enjoy them!

It’s a Long Process

Detaching emotions from the process of eating is no easy feat. By identifying your triggers and understanding how eating is counterintuitive to fulfilling your emotional needs, you may be able to develop a healthier relationship with food.


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