Something bad happens - someone says something negative to you, or you had a really bad day at work. This makes you feel really stressed and want to comfort eat. You feel better for an hour or so, but then you start to feel really guilty. So guilty that you start to feel stressed again and this leads you to comfort eat more. And so on and so on. Can you relate to this? If the answer is yes, then chances are you are an emotional eater. You are not alone. Don't think that you have to suffer and endure this cycle for the rest of your life, there are ways you can begin to deal with it.
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I started off with the title of this post as “How to overcome emotional eating”, but that would have been misleading, because I think emotional eating is something that will always be with most of us – we just have to learn to control it. I have this opinion with most things that the diet industry try to tell us – they lead us to believe that all our problems can be solved, but in reality it is about learning to deal with them, and to limit them.
One of the major reasons for why I was overweight was because I allowed myself to eat my emotions. If I was sad, I would reach for the junk food and eat until I felt sick and started getting chest pains. At that point, every time, I would tell myself I would never do this again, but the next emotional eating episode would roll around the next day, or the day after. If I was happy, or had achieved something, I would celebrate with food.
The worst example of this is during one of the many attempts at losing weight whilst using fad diets, I would do really well, and stick to the plan for the week and lose around 7lbs and then feel like I deserved to have some junk food. I had worked my butt off for a week, surely a whole giant pizza to myself, a few ciders and a pint of ice cream after was the best way to celebrate that? Wrong. My emotional eating was not only triggered by major events in the past (although some of it was), sometimes it could just be something as simple as “I had a stressful day at uni/work or I had an argument with someone.
When I was sad and angry, eating my feelings was the worst thing I could have done. It was not addressing what the problem was, and it was just going to give me a whole other load of problems, like guilt, illness and hatred towards myself. I used food to escape what was actually going on in my life, the same way that people do with alcohol or drug addictions. When I would think that I was upset, I might as well do something that is going to make me feel good now, despite the consequences.
I suffered with anxiety for many years and I would binge on junk when I was feeling especially anxious. The stupid thing is, it was the bingeing and the being so overweight that contributed to me so anxious in the first place. Eating junk would give me temporary comfort and then lead to hours of feeling uncomfortable and even worse than I did before.
The truth is, I can still be an emotional eater and I think the ability to be one might always be with me, but I have learned to deal with it a lot better. There are not binges like there were. I still celebrate with food, but I don’t reward myself with it – I think there is a big difference. Food is addictive, I truly believe that, and even one cookie or one slice of pizza can lead to so much more if I am eating when I am in a bad mood, so I always try to find alternatives to eating, which I will talk more about.
Here are some of the steps I took to dealing with emotional eating and they might help you too.
- The first step you have to take in dealing with emotional eating is to understand why you are overeating, or binge eating. The way I did this was to keep an emotional food diary. Every time I was eating something when I knew I was not physically hungry, I wrote down what I was doing before I ate and how I was feeling before and after I ate and what I ate. You can tell the difference between real hunger and emotional hunger, because emotional hunger will normally come on suddenly, where as physical hunger builds up gradually. I have made this picture for an emotional eating diary for you. Give it a go and see what kind of difference it makes. Just click on the picture and then right click to save it and you can print it out.
If I addressed the emotions I was feeling before I was binge eating, then I knew what I had to deal with. The diary does not instantly fix the issue, but it is a good place the start.
- Deal with the problems that are causing you to binge eat. After I addressed the problems that were causing me to overeat, I could attempt to deal with them. Unfortunately for me, it was a lot of things going on around me that I had little or no control over, so I just had to limit the binges with the things I will talk about below. But, there were still some triggers that I could deal with, like boredom, having people in my life that brought me down or being negative about myself. For the boredom, I tried to always keep myself busy, especially with exercise. If I felt myself reaching for some cake just because I had nothing to do, then I would find myself something to do. With the people in my life who brought me down – I stopped seeing them.
I know cutting people out of your life seems extreme, but if they make you feel bad all the time and your time spent with them is full of negativity, then it is time to let go if that is something you can do (I realise it is not always that easy).
Stopping being negative about myself was a tough one. I would always focus on my flaws and talk negatively about myself all the time. The more you keep on telling yourself how overweight/ugly you are, the more you will truly believe it. I hated myself and the only thing that made me feel better was eating. I started focusing on all of my great qualities and every time I got something wrong, or failed at something, I reminded myself of one thing I was good at. Don't knock it until you have tried it. It certainly can't hurt, even if you don't think it will work.
- Try to eat something healthier. If you can’t stop emotional eating completely, then try to make sure you eat the right things. When I am sad or angry – I crave junk. As soon as I feel that way, I prepare myself a healthy meal or snack, or a healthy alternative to junk food like a healthier pizza or burger, or homemade frozen yoghurt. A good idea is to limit trigger foods. If you keep junk in the house, then when you are feeling down, it is easy for you to reach for it. If you only keep healthy food in your kitchen, then that is what you are going to be eating.
- Don’t skip meals. This is a general tip for good health anyway, but if you are eating regular meals, then if and when these emotional episodes happen, your body should already be satisfied and you wouldn’t feel like eating everything in sight.
- Find something else, other than food, that makes you happy. This is something that really helped me. When I would feel an emotional eating episode coming on, I would do something else apart from eat. I would do one of the other things that makes me happy, like playing my guitar, or writing, or the best thing to do is just work it out. Running is the best therapy for me and I can really get rid of a lot of stress that way. Perhaps for you it is dancing. Find what else makes you happy and do that!
- Ditch the guilt and don’t beat yourself up about it. This is probably one of the most important ones. There are still going to be times when you over eat on junk food when you are feeling down. Don’t beat yourself up about it and use it as an excuse to give up all together. Learn from it, focus on what caused it, and move on and start again.
- One day at a time. Take it one emotional episode at a time and one day at a time. You should also seek help from a health professional if it is something that is taking over your life. The internet should never be a replacement for a qualified professional.
- Find a balance. I would always try and be so “good” and restrict myself far too much with food and do loads of exercise. When I had an emotional episode, it was easier for me to binge because I felt that I had been deprived before. Don’t ban foods from your diet, just eat them in moderation and they won’t seem so “bad” and tempting when you are feeling emotional.
It is important to address that emotional eating does not always mean overeating – it just did for me. There are people who stop eating, or just feel like they can’t eat when they are going through a tough time. It is REALLY important to look after your body, especially during difficult times.