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How to control emotional eating

By: Anna Nauka

Updated: 28 September 2015

In this article, MyMind therapist Anna Nauka talks about emotional eating and offers advice on how to control these patterns.

Emotional eating is defined as a tendency to eat in response to the negative emotions such as anger, loneliness, boredom or depression. Emotional overeating is considered to be an inappropriate response to stress. Because of the specific physiological response connected with negative emotions and stress – bodily state while experiencing these emotions is very similar to satiety. That is why loss of appetite is treated as more natural and more appropriate response to negative emotions. 

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As research has shown we can experience emotional eating at any age and against the popular opinion it does not have to be connected with being overweight or suffering from eating disorders

We can recognise two reasons for emotional eating. Firstly people eat to reduce the negative feelings, and replace them with comfort and positive emotions. Eating and food brings a pleasure connected with taste, smell of food but also simple joy of having something that is “banned” or “forbidden”. The second reason is using food to distract ourselves from negative self-awareness or mask experiencing negative emotions. We shift our attention from uncomfortable feeling and the threatening situation to food and eating.

Both of these explanations assume that emotional eating occurs after we experience negative emotions that we cannot efficiently regulate and cope with. That leads to the inefficient strategy of overeating. It is very important to understand, that according to these theories emotional eating is not connected to the negative experience and emotion but rather to the lack of more positive and efficient coping strategies.

In the longer term, using eating as an emotion regulating strategy can lead not only to health and weight difficulties (digestion problem, feeling bloated, noxious or even vomiting) but also can be linked to less social support, more symptoms of depression, lower self-esteem, less life satisfaction, and lower overall well-being.

What is the solution? The most important is awareness of your own eating habits, your body and particularly your emotions and the way you deal with them. Mindful eating is a good strategy to practice.

Eating mindfully can allow us to recognise our triggers and habits. Usually we don’t know how much, when and what we eat during the day. It makes identifying emotional eating almost impossible. Research shown that very often emotional eating involves high-calorie and high-carbohydrate food and it is typically done in private. Acknowledging what type of food you eat and what are circumstances of your meals and snacks can be a stepping stone to change the negative strategy.

Understanding our body and physical sensations can help to distinguish emotional hunger from physical hunger. Emotional hunger can be experienced more as a “craving” or “desire” of certain food. Often appear suddenly and it doesn’t necessarily have to be connected with the sensation in the stomach. It cannot be simply satisfied with a full stomach. Physical hunger appear gradually in between the meals and disappear as soon as your stomach is full. You feel comfortable and healthy after fulfilling physical hunger.

And last but not the least-mindfulness can be a great strategy to regulate emotions itself. Mindfulness and mindful eating gives us time to experience and understand our negative emotions. Paying attention to our thoughts, emotions and behaviours gives us space to find an alternative strategy to cope with our difficult feelings and gain a perspective towards the stressful events.

Emotional eating is one of the problems we experience as a modern society connected with dieting and stress regulation. It develops as an inadequate response to a negative emotions and in a longer term can lead to both mental health and physical health difficulties. Mindful eating is one of the positive alternatives, that we can use to overcome emotional eating.

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