Do you find yourself reaching for a tub of ice cream or a slab of Cadbury’s double choc top when things get tough?
Do you respond to ANY emotional situation by overeating?
Are you using food to distract yourself from dealing with your feelings?
Or as one of my clients says; Are you EATING your feelings?
Well – don’t fret you are not alone!
Several theories exist around emotional overeating but interestingly much of this research focuses on obese population groups only. Supporting one of the hypotheses that in order to deal with anxiety, depression, anger or even boredom obesity results from overeating. This in turn may beg the question whether normal sized people who don’t battle with their weight use other methods besides food when dealing with emotionally charged situations.
Emotional eating is conceptualised as “eating in response to negative affect”. In a 2010 study involving 666 adolescent students, it was reported that a significant association between perceived stress, worries, tension and anxiety to emotional eating was observed and particularly so in female adolescents. (1)
So is emotional overeating just another bad habit?
A habit is described as a behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously.
According to Mark Manson, in his eBook on habits “Habits form when you engage in a behavior repeatedly in the presence of consistent stimuli. Habits are “automatic” responses to familiar environmental cues.” (2)
Habits can become mindless, automatic and extremely unhealthy – many of my clients describe the automatic sensation of mindlessly reaching for sugary treats during stressful situations without even realising, enjoying or tasting the foods that they are using to settle their emotional turmoil.
Finding solutions other than food and perhaps getting the help one needs may in fact free you from this mindless habit.
Overcoming emotional eating that is causing you grief can be addressed from many angles. As a nutritionist I like to focus on replacing one mindless habit with a new healthy mindful one.
According to Lally P et al, it’s not an easy task breaking unhealthy habits. In fact, the “automaticity of habit means that breaking existing habits requires different and altogether more effortful strategies” than making new ones. (3,4)
Replacing a bad habit with new good health promoting habits:
Choose a simple action to replace the bad habit when you feel it happening. For example, every time you feel an intense emotion like anger, anxiety or fear – choose a new healthier action:
- Go outdoors, walk around the block, go to the gym
- Eat an apple, have a cup of herbal tea
- Call a friend, hug your dog, hug a family member
- Draw, write, swim, meditate, garden
It is important to be consistent – choose a new activity and set yourself a goal for at least 10 weeks. Research has found that automaticity plateaued on average around 66 days after the first daily performance. Therefore, it may be helpful to expect habit formation (based on daily repetition) to take around 10 weeks. (3)
Document your progress–make it visible!
Most importantly stop stocking your pantry with foods you don’t want to be tempted with! Make it difficult for yourself, if you know it’s not in the pantry and you have to actively get into your car and drive to the store – you are purposefully giving yourself an opportunity to make changes. You are effectively creating a space between thought and reaction.
Recognise, Be Aware and Notice – what is REALLY going on for you as you reach for the tub of ice cream.
So next time you are reaching for the slab of chocolate – it’s important to take a moment and notice mindfully without judgement the reason behind your eating.
If it’s for pure enjoyment and its done mindfully – enjoy it.
If you are scoffing down your third piece of cake in the pantry without even tasting it properly – take a deep breath and bring your awareness to what is really happening.
If you suspect your emotional overeating is coming from a deeper emotional hunger – please contact your local GP and get a referral to a counsellor, psychologist or therapist who will be able to help you overcome your overeating by getting to the real source of the issue. Remember you are not alone!
- Nguyen-Rodriguez ST, Unger JB & Spruijt-metz D; Psychological determinants of Emotional Eating in Adolescence, NIH, Eat Disord 2009;17(3):211-224
- Manson M, All about Habits –a guide to changing your life one step at a time, eBook
- Gardner B, Lally P & Wardle J, Making Health Habitual, the psychology of “habit formation” and general practice, Br J Gen Prac, 2012, 62(605) 664-666
- Lally P, Gardner B. Promoting habit formation. Health Psychol Rev. In press: DOI: 10.1080/17437199.2011.603640.
- Lally P, van Jaarsveld CHM, Potts HWW, Wardle J. How are habits formed: modelling habit formation in the real world. Euro J Soc Psychol. 2010;40:998–1009.