• Michael McEntee

Identifying Your Emotional Eating Triggers



The first step in putting a stop to emotional eating is identifying your personal triggers. What situations, places, or feelings make you reach for the comfort of food? Most emotional eating is linked to unpleasant feelings, but it can also be triggered by positive emotions, such as rewarding yourself for achieving a goal or celebrating a holiday or happy event.


Common causes of emotional eating


Stress. Ever notice how stress makes you hungry? It’s not just in your mind. When stress is chronic, as it so often is in our chaotic, fast-paced world, your body produces high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and fried foods—foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure. The more uncontrolled stress in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief.


Burying your emotions. Eating can be a way to temporarily silence or bury uncomfortable emotions, including anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, resentment, and shame. While you’re numbing yourself with food, you can avoid the difficult emotions you’d rather not feel.


Boredom or feelings of emptiness. Do you ever eat simply to give yourself something to do, to relieve boredom, or as a way to fill a void in your life? You feel unfulfilled and empty, and food is a way to occupy your mouth and your time. In the moment, it fills you up and distracts you from underlying feelings of purposelessness and dissatisfaction with your life.


Childhood habits. Think back to your childhood memories of food. Did your parents reward good behaviour with ice cream, take you out for a fast food kids meal when you did something good, or serve you sweets when you were feeling sad? These habits can often carry over into adulthood. Or your eating may be driven by nostalgia—for cherished memories of grilling burgers in the backyard with your dad or baking and eating cookies with your mom.


Social influences. Getting together (pre-Covid lockdown) with other people for a meal can be a great way to relieve stress, but it can also lead to overeating. It’s easy to overindulge simply because the food is there or because everyone else is eating. You may also overeat in social situations out of nervousness. Or perhaps your family or circle of friends encourages you to overeat, "Food is Love!" and it’s easier to go along with the group.


Why not try to keep an emotional eating diary?


You probably recognised yourself in at least a few of the previous descriptions. But even so, you’ll want to get even more specific. One of the best ways to identify the patterns behind your emotional eating is to keep track with a food and mood diary. Every time you overeat or feel compelled to reach for your version of comfort food, take a moment to figure out what triggered the urge. If you backtrack, you’ll usually find an upsetting event that kicked off the emotional eating cycle. Write it all down in your food and mood diary: what you ate (or wanted to eat), what happened to upset you, how you felt before you ate, what you felt as you were eating, and how you felt afterwards.


Over time, you’ll see a pattern emerge. Maybe you always end up gorging yourself after spending time with a critical friend/partner. Or perhaps you stress eat whenever you’re home-schooling, or meeting a work deadline, or both. Once you recognise the trigger, you can then begin to identify realistic alternatives to food that you can turn to for emotional fulfilment.


Alternatives to emotional eating


  • If you’re depressed or lonely, call someone who always makes you feel better, play with your dog or cat, or look at a favourite photo or cherished memento.

  • If you’re anxious, expend your nervous energy by dancing to your favorite song, squeezing a stress ball, or taking a brisk walk.

  • If you’re exhausted, treat yourself with a hot cup of tea, take a bath, light some scented candles, or wrap yourself in a warm blanket.

  • If you’re bored, read a good book, watch a comedy show, explore the outdoors, or turn to an activity you enjoy (woodworking, knitting, playing the guitar, scrapbooking, etc.).

  • 'Take 5' before you give in to a craving and check in with yourself. If you can take a moment to pause and reflect when you’re hit with a craving, you give yourself the opportunity to make a different decision. Even if you end up eating, you’ll have a better understanding of why you did it.

  • Find other ways to feed your feelings. In order to stop emotional eating, you have to find other ways to fulfil yourself emotionally. It’s not enough to understand the cycle of emotional eating. Learn to accept your feelings—even the bad ones.

  • Indulge without overeating by savouring your food. When you eat to feed your feelings, you tend to do so quickly, mindlessly consuming food on autopilot. You eat so fast you miss out on the different tastes and textures of your food—as well as your body’s cues that you’re full and no longer hungry. But by slowing down and savoring every bite, you’ll not only enjoy your food more but you’ll also be less likely to overeat.

  • Practice mindful eating. Eating while you’re also doing other things—such as watching TV, driving, or playing with your phone—can prevent you from fully enjoying your food. Since your mind is elsewhere, you may not feel satisfied or continue eating even though you’re no longer hungry. Eating more mindfully can help focus your mind on your food and the pleasure of a meal and curb overeating.

  • Support yourself with healthy lifestyle habits. When you’re physically strong, relaxed, and well rested, you’re better able to handle the curveballs that life inevitably throws your way. But when you’re already exhausted and overwhelmed, any little hiccup has the potential to send you off the rails and straight toward the refrigerator. Exercise, sleep, and other healthy lifestyle habits will help you get through difficult times without emotional eating.

  • Aim for 8 hours of sleep every night. When you don’t get the sleep you need, your body craves sugary foods that will give you a quick energy boost. Getting plenty of rest will help with appetite control and reduce food cravings.

  • Make time for relaxation.Give yourself permission to take at least 30 minutes every day to relax, decompress, and unwind. This is your time to take a break from your responsibilities and recharge your batteries.

  • In better times, we'll be able to physically connect with others. Don’t underestimate the importance of close relationships and social activities. Spending time with positive people who enhance your life will help protect you from the negative effects of stress. You can still do this virtually through modern technology. All you need is a SMART phone or laptop and you can access an array of meet-up apps such as Zoom, FaceTime, iMessenger, etc.

Extracts taken from Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal Ph.D., and Robert Segal, M.A. from https://www.helpguide.org


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