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When you experience strong feelings such as stress or anxiety, do you find yourself binge eating, grazing constantly during the day or restricting what you eat? If so, then you could be an ‘emotional’ eater.
Turning to food asa source of comfort, or eating to feel better when we’re bored, worried or frustrated, is a common behaviour. We may treat ourselves to something indulgent as a reward at the end of a long day, or to celebrate getting through a challenge.
Other people might go in the opposite direction – eating less in an attempt to feel in control when things seem uncertain or unpredictable.
There can be many underlying reasons for these behaviours. Eating when we’re stressed, for example, can help to calm and reduce negative emotions, or distract us from the causes of our stress. The hormones that are released when we experience stress can also play a role, giving us more of an appetite for food that’s higher in fat and sugar, and therefore can give us an energy boost.
Seeing food as a reward, meanwhile, could be a result of something we’ve learned as a child – being given sweets for good behaviour, for instance.
The comfort or good feelings we experience asa result of our emotional eating can reinforce the behaviour, and it can easily become a habit. This can ultimately lead to negative thoughts and feelings, such as guilt, low self-esteem, anxiety and shame, and even increase our stress levels, if we try to hide the behaviour from others for example.
If you recognise some of these eating patterns, and would like to address them, here are a few tips you could try.
Practice mindful eating. Become aware of what you’re putting in your body, and why. If you tend to eat distractedly while doing something else, like writing emails or watching TV, stop and focus on what you’re doing. Ask yourself – am I actually hungry, or is this a craving? Do I really want this, or am I just bored, angry or worried? What is it that made me want to eat?
Notice the link between mood and food. Write down what you eat in a food diary, detailing how much you eat and when, and how you were feeling at the time. This might reveal patterns that help you to understand your behaviour.
Address your stress. If you eat – or restrict what you eat – in response to feeling stressed, working on managing this could help you to change your behaviour. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a highly effective treatment for stress. You could also take a look at some of our blogs on the topic.
Try to form a new habit. Make a conscious choice to do something different when one of your triggers for emotional eating appears, and see how it feels. Next time you’ve had a hard day at work, for example, instead of using food as your reward you could think of something else indulgent or enjoyable to treat yourself with.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. Changing habits is tough – so be kind to yourself if you have an episode of emotional eating. Acknowledge that it happened, thank yourself for the effort you’ve put in so far to making a change, and start again tomorrow. Is there anything you can learn from what happened, to help you prevent it in the future?
Sometimes emotional eating can become more of a problem. If it starts to rule your life, or is making you unhappy, it could be a good idea to seek professional help. Your GP is the best person to discuss this with. Alternatively, you could see if free online CBT with ieso is available in your area.
Emotional eating is not an eating disorder.If you suspect you have an eating disorder, it’s important that you receive specialist support and treatment. Making an appointment with your GP is the best first step. There are also some organisations you can turn to for support, advice and information – including the eating disorder charity BEAT.
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