FemaleF.I.R.S.T, Inc.

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Breaking Free: How to Stop Emotional Eating

A stressful day at work has you eating a pint of rocky road ice cream for dinner. Or a breakup sees you going through a drive-thru and ordering a double cheeseburger and an extra-large fry. Welcome to roller-coaster ride of emotional eating! One minute you’re fine, and the next minute brings an emotional event that sends you into a spiral of sweets and shame.  

    What, exactly, is emotional eating? It’s when you use food to fill an emotional need instead of physical hunger. During emotional eating episodes, food acts as a source of comfort, stress relief, or as a reward mechanism. Unlike physical hunger, emotional hunger is sudden, and craves specific comfort foods (physical hunger just craves food in general). Emotional hunger leads to mindless eating, and isn’t satisfied once you’re physically full – because emotional hunger cravings stem from the head, rather than from the stomach. If left unchecked, emotional eating can lead to an unhealthy cycle where the eater feels guilty and shameful for the lapse in willpower, but never learns a healthier way of coping with his or her emotions. This leads to repeat episodes, causing the eater to have a hard time controlling his or her weight, and making him or her feel powerless over their food and feelings.

    How to stop this troublesome cycle? The first thing is to identify your triggers. What causes you to emotionally eat? Do periods of stress have you reaching for the Ben and Jerry’s more often? Do you find yourself rummaging in the pantry when you’re bored? Once you know what causes your emotional eating, you can find other ways to cope. If you are stressed out, go for a walk or meditate. If you’re bored, read a book or take up a hobby. If you’re lonely or depressed, call a friend who always knows how to make you feel better. This starts a shift in thinking of food as fuel rather than as a coping mechanism. When you learn how to cope with your emotions in a healthier way, you can then make smarter choices when it comes time to eat. And perhaps the hardest habit to break – stop using food as a reward! Think of other ways to reward yourself when you accomplish a fitness, professional, or personal goal. Did you finally complete your goal of running a half marathon? Treat yourself to a massage. Got promoted at work? Get a manicure. You’ll still get that rush of dopamine (the pleasurable feeling you get when the reward system of your brain is activated – and, yes, food also triggers this), but without all of the unnecessary calories – especially important when it comes to completing fitness goals (you don’t want to undo all of that hard work!).

    Even though it feels good in the moment, emotional eating can lead to disastrous effects on our physical and mental health. But we don’t have to be prisoners. With a little reflection on what triggers our emotional eating episodes and finding healthier ways to cope, we can break free and put food back in its proper place – as fuel, not as friend.