“Eating your feelings” is a term used to describe emotional eating, which is unfortunately all too common and affects both women and men, although it tends to be more prevalent amongst women.

Emotional eating is a way of self-medicating when you are facing issues that you feel you are unable to deal with, or cannot talk about. There is often a “hole” that people describe as needing to “fill”, even though they are often unable to identify what that hole actually is. The act of eating during these times makes you feel better in the moment, soothing the rush of emotions, but usually leads to feelings of guilt and shame in the aftermath. Particularly as the foods in question are usually unhealthy.

It can often be a primary “coping mechanism” in times of stress, which is dangerous as it promotes other behaviours, such as eating in secret, hiding what you are eating, bingeing, overeating processed foods, a distorted body image and may ultimately lead to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia – for which professional help should be sought.

Using food as an emotional reward (or punishment) often stems from childhood where you may have grown up celebrating every achievement with food, or were given treats to be quiet or to encourage you to behave in company, etc… Celebrating your fitness successes with food can be detrimental to progress, for example, going to the café immediately after your exercise class and eating a muffin, or slice of cake “because I earned it”. And yet this scenario is a very common occurrence.

So how can you start to address emotional eating?

First of all it is important to be open and honest – both with yourself and others. Hiding what you are doing, or pretending that it isn’t happening, will keep the cycle going. Understanding what your issues are is a big step forward in confronting your behaviours. It is important to realise that every decision you make is a choice. Accept that sometimes you may make a choice that isn’t perfect, but instead of beating yourself up about it remember that when you face making the same decision again, you have another opportunity to take a different path. So when that opportunity arises, try and remember how you feel AFTER you have eaten the foods and use this as a motivation to change your habit.

Realise, too, that one slip up does not mean that you have “ruined everything”, giving you “permission” to continue the behaviour for the next few days. So often that one “slip up” can lead to a continual recurrence of the behaviour, because the thought process going on in your head is “oh well, I have ruined it now, might as well carry on. I’ll start again on….” (Monday is usually the preferred day!). One slip up does not have to lead to another (and another…)

Recognise that if you are not satisfied after eating, it may be because you are unable to “fill that void”. However, there may also be other physiological, hormonal reasons that you feel unsatisfied, especially when you should be experiencing the sensation of fullness. Your hormones leptin (satiety) and ghrelin (hunger) may be out of balance – and this can be due to the type of foods that you are eating. A high carb diet, particularly one that contains processed foods, lots of fruit and carbohydrates can affect the body’s ability to detect whether it is hungry or full. And because emotional eating is often linked to over-consumption of processed foods, both issues may be affecting you.

Typical behaviours associated with emotional eating:

  • Buying foods, bingeing and then throwing the rest away in disgust/guilt
  • Putting ketchup, or other undesirable substance, on it to deter you from eating it
  • Continually rewarding yourself with food
  • Eating when stressed out
  • Continuing to eat even though you are full
  • Eating when you are not hungry
  • Eating when bored
  • Feeling that food controls you
  • Thinking about food often/all the time
  • Not being able to stop at “just one piece”
  • Feeling soothed whilst eating
  • Feeling overwhelmed with guilt after eating
  • Constantly sabotaging yourself
  • Negative self-talk

And then there is the “Fear Of Missing Out”; there’s a new chocolate bar you simply must try that “everyone else” is raving about; someone in the office brought cake/treats in and “everyone else” is having some; or you are out to dinner and “everyone else” is having dessert…you get the picture. Why is “everyone else” always having a good time – and why doesn’t “everyone else” have the same problems as you? Well, surprise – everyone else does have problems. No, they may not be the same as yours, but you can bet your life that many of your friends are feeling the same way and end up being peer-pressured into that ‘exercise and cake” scenario or some similar behaviour. Somehow there is always safety in numbers and it can promote these kinds of negative behaviours.

So how do you break free?

Identifying your triggers is key to the process of recovery:

  • What situations create a problem for you?
  • Which places affect you most?
  • Who are the people who hinder your progress?
  • Are you bored?
  • Do you constantly feel you will be missing out?
  • What upsets you and starts the spiral downwards?

Once you have identified your triggers it is time to turn the tables on them. Some triggers can be removed completely, for example; avoiding places that you know are an issue for you; removing toxic people from your life. And then you need to start creating new habits to replace the old one of reaching for food, for example; watching a movie, taking a hot bath with candles, doing a workout, reading etc… Remove yourself from the food and find a healthy, and perhaps relaxing, replacement that will counteract the stress. Of course, you may find yourself in a situation where you can’t do any of the above and so it is very useful to learn some mindfulness techniques so that you can implement these instead. Positive affirmations are also really helpful, especially when they become a regular part of your day, as they help re-program your thinking and self-talk. New habits are created by the practice of repetition, which leads to re-wiring in your brain.

Try these positive affirmations:

“I am worthy of everything good in life”

“I deserve to be happy”

“I am in control of when and what I eat”

“I have the power to create positive changes in my life”

“My ability to conquer my challenges is limitless”

“I am my own person; I don’t need to follow the crowd”

“I am standing in the power of me”

“Today is a brand new opportunity”

Reaching out for help is crucial in managing emotional eating. When you are “eating your feelings” it means that you are literally swallowing them and not allowing them to surface and come out. Getting a support system is really important as this provides someone to talk to that you can trust, someone who will be there when you are in a crisis and wanting to reach for the nearest food and can “talk you down”, someone who is non-judgmental, so that when you do have a blip, they will understand and help you to get back up and start again.

Do YOU recognise any of the above behaviours in your relationship with food?

For help with creating a positive mind-set and forming new habits, click here to schedule an appointment