Emotional Eating vs. Mindful Eating for your New Years Resolution Plans

What is emotional eating? It’s turning to food for reasons other than to satisfy hunger, such as comfort, stress relief or even as a reward. Emotional eaters use food to fill emotional needs rather than filling their stomachs. Sometimes those who suffer from emotional eating feel powerless over their food cravings and it becomes all they can think about. If you’ve ever felt full and ate dessert anyway or craved chocolate or candy when you’re feeling a little down, then you’ve engaged in emotional eating.

Some ways to tell if you are emotional eating include asking questions like do you eat more when you feel stressed out? Do you eat when you’re not hungry? Do you reward yourself with food? Do you eat to feel better? Do you eat until you’re so full that you’re miserable? All of these questions are great to assess whether or not you are emotionally eating.

Some differences between emotional eating and physical eating are that emotional hunger hits you out of the blue, very quickly. It can feel irresistible whereas physical hunger is usually a little more gradual. When you’re physically hungry, basically anything will sound good but emotional hunger causes you to crave sugary, fatty and comfort foods that provide instant gratification. Generally, you will be aware of what you are eating and how much you’ve eaten when engaging in physical hunger while emotional eating can be mindless. For example, when you sit down to have a few chips and before you know it, you’ve eaten the entire bag. Emotional hunger is generally never satisfied, you continue to want more and more until you’re uncomfortable. Try to pay attention to the noises your stomach make as well. For example, your stomach will growl when you’re physically hungry, but emotional hunger is in your head. Lastly, many times emotional hunger causes feelings of shame, guilt and regret where physical hunger doesn’t induce these feelings because you’re simply giving your body what it requires.

So now that we’ve identified what emotional eating is, let’s talk a little bit about how to identify your emotional eating triggers. Are there places, situations or feelings that make you crave certain foods? Are you feeling stressed frequently? Cortisol, the stress hormone, can actually cause cravings for foods that give you pleasure so try to control your stress. Are you trying to silence your emotions? Sometimes we unknowingly eat to numb emotions we prefer not to feel. Are you feeling bored or empty? Many eat out of boredom and eating can distract you from feeling dissatisfied in life. What about childhood habits and social influences? Sometimes childhood eating habits can carry over into your adult life, you may just use it to reminisce about the old days, or maybe getting together with others causes you to overeat because everybody else is eating. It is important to look at your triggers and learn how to identify them in order to combat emotional eating.

What can you do for emotional eating? A good practice is to find other ways to cope with your feelings. If you’re feeling sad, call someone who helps you feel better or do something that makes you happy. If you’re feeling nervous, squeeze a stress ball or take a walk. If you’re feeling tired, take a hot bath or drink a cup of hot tea and if you’re feeling bored, read a book or try something you enjoy. It’s also good to engage in mindful eating. Mindful eating is a practice to help develop your awareness of your eating habits and gives you time to think before giving in to your triggers and change your emotional eating patterns. Here are a few key steps to mindful eating:

  • Take 5 minutes before you give in to your craving. You can even start with only 1 minute, but really give yourself a minute to see how you’re feeling emotionally.

  • Accept your feelings. Stop avoiding and suppressing the uncomfortable emotions and just experience them and let them go.

  • While at the store, fill your shopping cart mainly with produce and foods that are not highly processed.

  • Don’t skip meals and come to the table when you’re insatiably hungry. When you’re hungry like this, you will just eat the first thing you see rather than something healthy.

  • Limit the size of your plate or make your portions a bit smaller. You can also take smaller bites, count how many bites you take with each mouthful, and eat very slowly.

  • Try to focus on appreciating your food. Try to think about all the ways everything came together to make this dish happen and express your gratitude for all of those who worked so hard to make it happen.

  • Pay attention to the senses. Try to think about the texture, the smell, the colors and the sounds of the food you’re cooking or eating.

Adapted from the February 2016 Harvard Women’s Health Watch monthly newsletter published by Harvard Health Publications.